I was passing an empty parking lot on West 35th Street near 10th Avenue, when three men rushed out at me from the shadows of a gutted tenement across the street. I heard before I saw them, pounding toward me, whipping past me, stopping and wheeling around, taking up stations around me, as purposeful and practiced as football players, or predators.
For a few moments, we stood and stared at each other. Incredibly, I was gripped by an impulse to smile and make eye contact, to diffuse the situation by establishing that we were all fellow human beings. I remembered romanticizing outlaws in the movies, imagining them to be free in a way that I was not but these men were not free.
Their eyes were open but blank, like darkened windows, and they were pumped up, panting, panicking. Two looked like lanky teenagers, wraith-like in dark hooded sweatshirts. The third was older and much bigger. A faded green sweatshirt pulled taut across his chest, wrists dangling out of the sleeves, as if he was wearing someone else’s clothes, and maybe he was because the next day there were reports in the papers of escaped convicts in the area. His broad face was grim. My mind fought to distance myself from the encounter. I thought about how I would describe what was happening over dinner……
The big guy, the leader, darted behind me and jerked his arm around my throat. I felt his chest heaved and heard the rasping of his breath. Staring up at the side of his face, I saw a long shiny scar. It was strange to be pulled so close, but even stranger was the pang of compassion I felt for him, for wounding that had made the scar, for the suffering he must feel to be doing this.
It was the strangest thing. I am far from saintly—moments before, I had been walking through Hell’s Kitchen mired in thoughts and emotions strictly limited to my own happiness and welfare, to me and me alone. Yet, the compassion that arose in me for this man who was attacking me was a kind of feeling I associated with saints.
Recent brain studies show that the readiness of the body to move precedes our awareness of being willing and intending to move—our sense of free will or conscious intention is mostly illusion. Everything that happens is dependent on causes and conditions below our ordinary limited level of consciousness. But the compassion I felt didn’t feel like an unconsciously conditioned response, like the impulse to smile at my muggers—it was another consciousness was breaking through “my” consciousness.
After the great tsunami of 2004, stories were written about how no animals were found among the dead, as if they sensed what was coming and headed for higher ground. In a few more moments, I would have a near death experience. I would experience a world of consciousness that was completely free of my physical brain. But before that happened, before my conscious brain could comprehend what was happening, the animal of my body was heading for higher ground, opening to receive help from above. Even before I glimpsed the light, my heart was opening to a kind of feeling that cannot be created or destroyed by anyone, only received.
TO BE CONTINUED…..