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