I love walking in the city, flowing along in a great river of humanity. But under ordinary circumstances I flow along in my own bubble of thought. Most of us live in some version of this contradiction most of the time. We yearn to be part of a larger life, yet we want to be safe and protected. We want to be in the glittering metropolis but also the mountaintop, to be in a place where anything can happen at any time, yet in our own “Fortress of Solitude,” as Superman called his polar retreat. We yearn to be in the world, but not of it.
Superman, Spiderman, Batman, the quintessential New York-based comic book heroes, swoop in to perform astonishing deeds at crucial moments, but they also retreat into protective identities, becoming Clark Kent, a mild-manner reporter at the Daily Planet, the philanthropist Bruce Wayne, or Peter Parker, a high school student living in Queens, who anguishes about teenage themes, rejection and loneliness and belonging. These heroes dazzle with their superhuman strength or resourcefulness and agility. Yet none of them want to risk being unmasked. It’s so interesting. They don’t want to risk the very human pain of vulnerability.
We all fear being vulnerable, exposed as less than solid or coherent, changing with changing conditions. At one point in the unfolding saga of Superman, he tells Lois Lane that Clark Kent is just two words, a simple fixed identity. In reality, he is “The Blur,” the term used by a bystander who witnessed him in action. If we could see ourselves from out in space, we would all be blurs, streams of experience.
Batman became a masked crusader after the murder of his parents. He vowed to avenge their death by dispensing justice. He trained for years, creating his identity as a positive form of revenge. Peter Parker became Spider Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider. We are all like this. We make do. We compensate. We learn. And sometimes, our wounds become our great strengths.
Maybe superheroes express a universal yearning to soar above it all–to help this suffering world but then return to a comfortable perch. Many of us turn to spiritual practice in the first place, hoping for a way to smooth out our bumpy lives, or at lease find a bit of respite. For a long time, I thought of meditation as a portable fortress of solitude. But most of us also yearn to draw closer to life., including our own experience. It turns out that the real gift of meditation may be to allow us to be with exactly what we are and what is arising. We learn to take off the cape and the mask, trusting that along with the vulnerability that appears we discover an awareness that is very still yet also very open and suffused with a power greater than our personality.
Allow yourself to notice–or remember–times when you let go of control, trusting that you could meet life with presence, moment by moment.