Like many of you, I was tuned in to the Oscars Sunday night. I love the pageantry of it, and especially the loophole I’ve created around allowing myself to eat junk food on this annual event. My husband was traveling over the weekend, so my small fry and I convened on the sofa to watch the pretty dresses, down a bucket of popcorn, some “fizzy water,” and a small bag of M&Ms (okay, two).
After about thirty minutes of viewing, I looked over to see this:
So much for the excitement of it all. But while she was asleep, and having no one to chat with, I logged on to Twitter to see what people were saying in real time. As you might imagine, the comments were pretty snarky. And after a while of reading them, I decided that if I had actually been Tweeting, I would have been kinder. A little bit later, one of the Tweets said something like: “people who brag about not having a TV need to get over themselves. We all know you watch shows on iTunes.” Not only was this funny because it rings true, it made me think about my own self-righteousness in thinking that I wouldn’t join in on the snark. Didn’t I, too, think Angelina looked like she needed to eat a hamburger… or ten? That Billy (whom I love), was a bit tired in this same old routine? I could add a lot more, but that’s just the point. It got me to thinking about how even when we think we are choosing the more noble option (not making fun of others, driving hybrid cars, eating locally grown kindly raised sustainable organic M&Ms), we are still affiliating with a group for the purpose of being better than some other group. I needed to get over myself.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because as I have mentioned, I’m trying to slow down and appreciate the moments of my life. And in doing so, I am exposing a lot of the lies I tell myself that are impeding me from really experiencing these moments. I may not have mentioned this, but I read a lot of books by people who tell me that I need to stop thinking so much and just be. Actually, they mostly tell me that my thoughts are gibberish and that if I just watched them float by like clouds moving across the sky, I’d see the patterns, the loops, the stories that I’m constantly telling myself about myself. Now, while I’ve come to believe that this is pretty much true, let me reassure you that I have not put one iota of it into practice. Have you ever tried to sit still for more than five minutes and clear your mind of thoughts? Agonizing. And not that I don’t think I would do a better job of connecting with that deepest part of me if I quieted my mind for a little while, it’s just that sometimes it’s in the thinking through of something when I’m able to expose the error in my thinking. Turns out, my glimpse of wisdom this day would not come from sitting quietly in the corner chanting om (thank god), but from gossipy Tweets exchanged during the Oscars.
And here is what my crazy mind concluded: we spend a herculean amount of effort in trying to be separate from each other, to be unique, yet in those attempts we paradoxically affiliate with another group. And often, we swing back and forth from group to group to suit our own needs. In this instance, I decided that I wasn’t part of the snarky gossip group; I was part of the holier-than-thou kind commenters group (better known as keeping the unkind comments to myself group). Because I’m in confessing mode, I, too, have been guilty of claiming that I don’t watch much TV, perhaps to make you think I’m instead sitting around reading back issues of The New Yorker or The Atlantic, catching up on my chess habit or learning to play the hammer dulcimer. I will omit the fact that for the better part of my life, each night of the week was reserved for particular shows and that even now in my so-called not too much phase, I have several programs that I watch with regularity (see for reference: award shows featuring pretty dresses, Parenthood, Glee, old reruns of thirtysomething – I’ll stop there before I totally out myself). I don’t point out all of this to show that I am a big hypocrite, even though I think I may have successfully done that, but to instead show that in all of my (and yours, I would venture to guess) well-intentioned attempts at choosing what I believe to be the more noble option, I am simply swearing my allegiance to another group, the group that identifies itself with not being those things. I can’t think of any group (even the counter-culture types) that is truly unique. And if we aren’t all of these things we identify with, if we aren’t the story we create about ourselves, then what are we?
Do you remember that TED talk from a few years ago from Jill Bolte Taylor? If not, here’s the gist: Taylor, a brain scientist, experiences a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Having up to this point only book knowledge of brain science, the stroke enables her to experience first-hand, from the “inside out,” the functions of the different parts of her brain. You may already know that it’s the left hemisphere of our brain that is our language center, the part that governs speech and comes up with a story to explain our outer experiences. It also categorizes information, analyzes and critiques and compares us to everyone else. Freud might say that the left brain houses our ego. So what is fascinating about her experience is that without her left brain functioning properly, she experiences more of the capabilities of her right brain, which perceives through the senses, thinks visually, interprets nonverbal communication and looks at the big picture. It “experiences the now without critical judgment.” Bolte Taylor claims that in experiencing reality through her right brain without the left brain to interpret, she felt at one with everything around her, connected to everyone and everything. And after sharing her fascinating story, her conclusion is simple: she believes that despite needing both very necessary parts of our brain, we always have a choice to respond to the stories of separateness our left hemisphere tells us, or to the feelings of oneness and connectedness that our right hemisphere perceives.
A hopeful pragmatist, I have always preferred insight to come not from mystics or saintly folk, but from ordinary people, much like Jill Bolte Taylor. Anne Lamott (another one of my favorite “regular” people) says: “often the people with the deepest insight [look] as ordinary as any old alcoholic or serial killer. They might look like Siddhartha or Anandamayi Ma, but odds [are] they [resemble] your bipolar cousin Ruth, or Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.” So this day, (who’d have thunk?) my insight came from thinking about how I was different from (okay, better than) the gossipy Oscar commenters and their subjects of criticism. But instead, I determined the opposite – that I am very much the same, slogging through this life, trying to be unique and special. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? What’s special is that we are the same. Whatever animates your skin-encased bag of bones and guts is the same thing that animates mine, my little one’s, (and I believe Sally’s), and everything here that is alive. And even though we watch shows like the Oscars to gawk at Hollywood’s otherness, they’re just a bunch of goofs like we are, struggling to stand out, to matter, to belong (see Angie’s leg for reference). But what’s hopeful is that almost all of the movies being lauded on Sunday weren’t about our differences, but about our sameness, about the universal truths of our lives – the joys, the sorrows, the agony and the ecstasy of just being here.
I truly doubt I’m ever going to be a meditator. I know myself enough at this point to hedge my bets. But I do want what Jill Bolte Taylor experienced while having her stroke (without the stroke, of course), or what those patient meditators find on the mat. I want to chip away at the story I’ve created about myself and get to the universal part of myself. I want to see my own experience through compassionate eyes and therefore, to see yours, too. And it’s here, I believe, where the moments that I’m seeking exist. Because those stories I create in my head tell tales about my past or where I think I’m going in the future, but never about where I am right now, sitting in front of this screen, typing these words.
What are we? I don’t know, but I like to question. Roman philosopher Seneca says: “truth will never be tedious to him that travels through the nature of things; it is falsehood that gluts us.” It’s these falsehoods that I’d like to dismantle until I’m left with the raw material of myself, which looks (I imagine) a lot like yours.
The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.
-Rachel Naomi Remen