Once you tell a ghost story, you become a person who sees ghosts. I knew this last winter, when I described my encounter with an apparition named Elizabeth in the “Science & Spirit” issue of Parabola. I’m going to post the story in a subsequent blog, so I’ll try not to spoil how truly creepy the experience was, but I will say this. Elizabeth was (and is) a mysterious guardian angel who appeared to warn me that if I didn’t want this seemingly boring and disappointing life in this humble body…well, I could easily lose it, let’s leave it at that.
So, now I’m the kind of person who sees a ghost—no, even more “out there,” who sees an angel. I’m someone who has unusual experiences, whose credibility might even be suspect. Still, in the years and decades since, I’ve come to see how most of us are trained from an early age not to want our bodies–to want to be other people living other lives. And this wishing to leave our lives for a shinier, smoother life is not just a random wish or thought, a pang of envy, a product of our competitive, consumerist celebrity culture. Many of us our conditioned to leave our bodies—to leave the felt sense of being here to move up into thought moment after moment. In a way, thinking about life instead of just living it is more natural to many of us than breathing.
When you are a person prone to dramatic experiences, you can tend over time to go the other way, to focus on what is small and ordinary. I love to take long slow walks, for example. I like to do yard work and cook—and the people who spend the most time with me can avow that I do most of these ordinary manual things slowly and without much skill. I also like to do yoga, at yoga studios or ashrams or just down the road in the chocolate-colored room of my local branch of the New York Sports Club. Like walking and yard work, only more so, yoga classes remind me that I am breathing. Very slowly, over a long period of time, I have discovered I have a habit holding my breath, not just in frightening situations, in times of great uncertainty or high risk. But in any given moment, while typing this, for example. Asking around, I find that other people do the same thing or other versions, like breathing in a very shallow way.
In the movies and on TV people hold their breath while the killer is creeping around the room. They need to escape detection. They can’t make a sound. They freeze. But I and the people I asked about this are not in any immediate danger—except the danger of not living our real lives… except the danger of passing all our time here lost in thought, rarely daring to let go and just have a messy, ill-defined feeling for life. In addition to walking and yard work and yoga, I like to meditate. I especially like to be still with others whenever possible, because it allows me to have safe quiet moments of dropping into the mysterious depths of this body, this life.
Make no mistake, dropping into mystery can happen right in the thick of life. In these moments (often dramatic), we instantly understand the difference between head knowledge, flashes of seeming brilliance, clever connections firing up—and the deeper glow of understanding. There can be a glow, a comprehension that seems to well up from the depths of the body, like a time-release capsule that bursts open when we most need it, when it bumps up against life. This deeper glow isn’t a flash. It feels like remembering. It feels like the slow dawning of a deep down memory. In such a moment, we may suddenly realize how big and mysterious life is. We realize there are things that call to be known. And we are mysterious also–we are more than have taken ourselves to be.
Earlier this year, in a profile in The New York Times, the wonderful writer George Saunders described being on an airplane that hit a flock of geese, causing terrible metal-in-distress sounds, black smoke, screaming passengers: “And I remember thinking, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just that syllable, over and over….” He always thought that if he was faced with death, he would be present in the moment. “But I couldn’t even remember my own name,” he said. “I was so completely not present. I was just the word no.”
In my experience “no,no,no” can be packed with presence. Confronted with the apparition of Elizabeth and her terrifying warning up surged a “No!” from the depths of me. I discovered I discovered an instinctive energy and fight—I, who thought I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. But I understand his point. For days after Saunders brush with death, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.”
The trick is seeing that taking one conscious breath can be as amazing as seeing an angel.