The Night of the Hessian Soldiers

There is a wee bit more to be said about my investigation into ghosts.  After my article on modern day ghost hunters was published, I was invited to participate in an experiment in a famous haunted location—an experiment that was later re-enacted in the television show “Unsolved Mysteries.”  In the interests of scientific purity, I was told nothing about where I was going or what exactly I was going to be doing, only that a group of us would be leaving after dark and spending the night.

I remember standing outside my apartment in the East Village in downtown Manhattan, alive with uncertainty and anticipation.  I wondered if this was being an investigative reporter–except that I didn’t know what I was doing.  As I watched the punk kids and the artists and all the other members of the nightly East Village carnival pass, I registered that I didn’t know what I what I was meant to do here on earth, when it got right down to it.  But I wondered if it might have something to do with bearing witness to the life I was given to live, with really digging into it and learning what there was to learn.

In the van, I learned that I was to be a control in an experiment that involved leading of psychics through an old inn that was legendary for haunting activity.   This was ironic, since I was the only person in the van who had been spoken to by an apparition, and I told the paranormal researcher this. But I had written a long piece of journalism that came to a skeptical conclusion and I didn’t have psychic powers—at least not that I knew about.  One of the psychics was the woman who saw the ghost on Washington Square.  She had been tested and scored very high for psychic sensitivity after the fact.

We were driven to the General Wayne Inn in Merion, Pennsylvania. Established in 1704, it was legendary for being haunted by numerous ghosts, including a handful of Hessian soldiers. George Washington slept there, as did Benjamin Franklin.  Edgar Allen Poe was a frequent visitor of the inn and carved his initials in one of the window sills in 1843.  A dozen years after my overnight stay, a subsequent owner of the inn was found murdered in his office.  It turned out to be his business partner.

My job was to sit for hours in the dark basement of the inn.  One by one, the psychics were led through the building like blood hounds.  The basement was last stop. Several psychics gasped and otherwise indicated that they sensed that this was a haunted place.  One, the most celebrated of the group, said later that she glimpsed soldiers in green coats crouching in the wine cellar and that she felt their terrible fear.   When I heard that, I felt sad for them, trapped in their own suffering.  But strangely, the whole time I sat there I didn’t feel any fear, just wonderment.

A new kind of questioning and knowing began to take shape that would take years and years to break the surface of consciousness.  I marveled at finding myself there, and unable to sense the presence of the unknown forces around me. It was as if I was alive, yet not fully alive, there but not all there.  It dawned on me that maybe that there was another kind of investigative reporting to be done—not seeking the extraordinary outside in far flung places, but seeking to be fully present.  I didn’t necessarily want to see or sense the ghosts of Hessian soldiers, but I wanted to know I was alive.

There began a very slow-dawning awareness that we can lose our bodies and minds in very ordinary circumstances—that this may not be the exception but the rule of ordinary life.  We can be taken over by desire or anger or just drift away in dreams.  People can want to leave our own lives and invade the lives of others, to be carried along like a virus.

I once heard the Indians thought that all the invading European settlers were possessed by the wendigo,  a malevolent, flesh-eating spirit that drove them to consume the lives of others.   I began to see that it is very easy to be both victim and victimizer. Especially now, in our heavily mediated age, when we are in danger of being both bored and amused to death—when we are in danger of passing years, even a life time, without really inhabiting our lives at all.

I began to see that maybe I would be the kind of writer who was meant to dig down into the simple experience of being alive—that maybe there was adventure to be found in paying attention and having good intentions and being alive moment by moment.  I began to discover that attention itself could be magic, and that it could cure Jane Eyre Syndrome.  Very slowly, with much backsliding, I established the habit of spending a little bit of each day paying attention with my whole body and mind.  I learned to welcome in all the orphans of my consciousness, and I began to feel at home in the world.

“The cosmos is our home, and we can touch it by being aware of our body,” taught Thich Nhat Hanh.  “Our home is available right here and now.”

“You can’t seem to stop your mind from racing around everywhere seeking something. That’s why the Patriach said, “Hopeless fellows–using their heads to look for their heads!” You must right now turn your light around and shine it on yourselves, not go seeking somewhere else. Then you will understand that in body and mind you are no different than the patriarchs and Buddhas, and that there is nothing to do.
–Zen master Lin-Chi

6 thoughts on “The Night of the Hessian Soldiers

  1. Another ghost post – I enjoyed reading this Tracy. My initial reaction was: are we not alive enough? Are we not sensitive enough to sense ourselves and others being and feeling in this present reality? I know that for many it is “out there” – the pain and suffering, and that many beings – both visible and invisible – feel they are felt by others only when their pain can be recognized or sensed by another. It is as if their distancing from their own recognition of their pain is made real only when witnessed or experienced by another. I have to say that I have never been curious about sensing these types of presences. I prefer to sense the life-giving sap of the tress, to hail the birds flying overhead and marvel at the beauty and love that are the foundation of this place.
    I enjoyed reading about your reaction to the experiment also. I wonder what is the point of trying to prove what is essentially “unprovable,” which reminds me of Kierkegaard’s quote “life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.” Many of us are uncomfortable with mystery. That is the nature of diversity here, of senses and of consciousness. But I think that viewing our essntial self throught the lens of different lives (our own and others’) serves to deepen our empathy both for ourselves and for others. I think this is the real mystery. We are already home, it is in our hearts and is with us always. Love.

    1. Thank you for this comment, Barb. We do–or I have, when I was younger–place inordinant faith in whether other acknowledge us or not. I very much agree and share your sense that there are mysteries close at hand–there is no need to seek something extra-ordinary. And the investigation did seem very strange to me in every way–as though hearding these psychics through and have them agree could explain the mystery.

  2. Hi Tracy

    I began to see that maybe I would be the kind of writer who was meant to dig down into the simple experience of being alive—that maybe there was adventure to be found in paying attention and having good intentions and being alive moment by moment. I began to discover that attention itself could be magic, and that it could cure Jane Eyre Syndrome. Very slowly, with much backsliding, I established the habit of spending a little bit of each day paying attention with my whole body and mind. I learned to welcome in all the orphans of my consciousness, and I began to feel at home in the world.

    I’ve come to believe that the concept of attention can be taken wrongly and actually can serve only to further identification (attachment)to self justification if not careful.

    As usual I have to thank both Gurdjieff’s ideas as well as Simone’s for remembering the awakening value of “attention:”

    From Ouspensky’s “Fourth Way:”

    Q. What is the distinction in the meaning of attention and consciousness?
    A. Attention can be regarded as the elementary beginning of consciousness–the first degree. It is not full awareness for it is only directed one way. As I said, consciousness needs double attention.
    Q. What is the object of attaining this higher consciousness–to live more fully?
    A. One thing depends on another. If we want to have will, if we want to be free instead of being marionettes, if we want to awake, we must develop consciousness. If we realize that we are asleep and that all people are asleep, and what it means, then all the absurdities of life are explained. It is quite clear that people cannot do anything differently from what they do now if they are asleep…………..

    Now I remember that there is a necessary distinction between the tool of attention and divided attention having consciousness as its goal. Simone vivifies divided in her own laconic way. Her developed power of attention was legendary. Yet she was aware of and I believe actualized the conscious human perspective of divided attention that includes above and below even though not in the Work. That is why I say that the Work was within her.

    “The combination of these two facts – the longing in the depth of the heart for absolute good, and the power, though only latent, of directing attention and love to a reality beyond the world and of receiving good from it – constitutes a link which attaches every man without exception to that other reality. Whoever recognizes that reality recognizes that link. Because of it, he holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which he is bound to show respect. This is the only possible motive for universal respect towards all human beings.” Simone Weil “Draft for A Statement of Human Obligations” SIMONE WEIL, AN ANTHOLOGY ed. Sian Miles

  3. Nick, I will have to read Simone Weil, I love what you wrote. Waking up is like dying into life. Goethe said “stirb und werde” or “die and become.” Dying to the marionette part and awakening to the becoming part of the mystery. Makes me think of the reather sarcastic term “living the dream” which would be “much more approriate as “living the mystery” here. I think the longing for the absolute good is longing for that part of ourselves that may or may not really belong to us, which is the link to the fundamental dignity that we all share (is it the ground of being?). That piece of the divine, the highest consciousness that each of us has and can see in the other and in our selves if we can learn how to look for it, to pay attention, and how to cherish it. I think what is beyond is deep inside of us – can we discover it on our own path and hope to share it with others?

  4. Barb, have you ever wondered why Jesus said “forgive them for they know not what they do?” It is a reminder to himself that marionettes are in front of him reacting as is normal for Plato’s Cave; not human beings with conscious experiential recognition of what Simone describes

  5. That is a good point you raise Nick. It does require forgiveness as a regular exercise because there are so many levels of understanding. Oddly I find, that separation from knowing that you are no longer a marionette, but that so many others are and don’t realize it, and don’t know there is anything different – is a result of undivided consciousness, beyond duality and entrenched as it were, in paradox. Reminds me of Jed McKenna’s book Spiritual Enlightenment: the Damndest Thing.

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