I have this thing. Since I was in college, I’ve called it “The Feeling” It is a discomfort. An unsettled anxiety that comes from looking at certain things. Many things actually. Many small things. Together, and piled upon one another in a disorganized way. Like, I don’t know, a lot of marbles, or a lot of insects, or thousands of pine cones in a pile. They have to usually be three dimensional, and there have to be creases and crevices. Black spaces. The most obvious image is the classic microscope capture of millions of bacteria. The city from above, teeming with life. The Death Star. Anything abundant and disorganized can give me this feeling. The Feeling. I want to look away, but it doesn’t matter because the image is burned into my brain and I am ill-at-ease until it is gone.
I’ve always taken this for granted, like a sort of visual nails on chalkboard. Until recently. When I learned something new about it. It was dinner time on a weeknight. Evening routine. Kids destroying the house. Fighting and whining. Mess in the kitchen. Making dinner in a hurry so they can get to bath so they can get to bed and I can finish up the work I brought home so I can get to bed so I can get to work. I was stressed. Not terribly, just averagely. Low-grade. I took the pasta from the pot, drained the little shells in the colander, sloshed them around under cold water and looked at them.
And they gave me “The Feeling” The way they lay there, wet and glistening and piled upon one another, and so disorganized. So unkept. It made my stomach hurt. I ignored it like I always do. Pushed on. Covered them in the sauce I had been making since the night before. The kids loved it, and my anxiety melted as the dinner settled in our family bellies.
But that night, as I was drifting off to sleep, something dawned for the first time. These visual images freak me out when I’m already stressed. In fact the more stressed I am, the more things I see that create this feeling. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? This anxiety-dependent discomfort with disorder. I’ve known for a while now that I tend towards obsession. Compulsion. I think about the same words over and over. I often find myself compelled to take actions that have no justifiable logic or reason, and I feel restless or discontented until I can complete them.
For a long time I thought I was supposed to somehow keep myself from being obsessive or compulsive. That it was not a healthy way to be and that I needed to grow out of it. But I had no real strategy to rid myself of it. So I would sit around, smoke pot and hate on myself for being weird. This was, to put it mildly, a counterproductive strategy.
So these days I treat my obsession like a turbine treats the wind. It is a source of energy. I am learning to harness it. To direct it. To make it mine. When I sit down to work, I say to myself “Now you will take your obsession and use it to complete this task” When I go to the gym I say “Now you will allow your obsession to direct your workout” It has been kind and wonderful to make friends with my mind again. And my mind has responded by opening up a little and showing me new facets of itself.
Like for example: “Hey, just FYI, when I am stressed, the things I see will make me feel afraid and repulsed. So hold on tight.”
This is what it means. To be me. And by me, I mean me as a metaphor for you.
It’s like I’m a lion tamer.
Because my mind is a powerful and unruly beast. And not even the majestic, regal photograph of one that you might see silhouetted against the Serengeti sunset in a National Geographic special. But like it would be up close. All bad breath and black gums and nappy fur. Stuck and matted with sticks and leaves. It smells and there’s poop and flies and chunks of crust in the corners of its cold coal eyes.
That’s what my mind is like. A lion up close. Breathing on you. Stinking.
When I meditate, it’s like stepping into the cage. I stare it down. It paces, slow, and growls low and threatens to pounce. I breathe. And stand. And do nothing Because I’m the lion tamer. And it’s the lion. And just like it, I don’t know of anything there is to lose. So breath after breath we are. Caged in together. No escape. Because even if there were an escape, there wouldn’t be. You know what I mean? Here is here. And it has never, as far as I know, found a successful way to be anywhere else.
So when there’s nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to be except here in this moment, then that’s when there’s nothing to lose. Therefore when I meditate there is nothing to lose. And I can stare down the lion. No. Stare down isn’t right. It’s too hard. I gaze down the lion. Can you say that? Gaze Down? I’ve decided you can. I gaze down the lion. And see everything there is to see about it. How when it blinks it looks slightly cross-eyed. How when it licks its lips, there is a black vein down the middle of the bottom of its tongue. How after he yawns, he shakes his gourd shaped head as if clearing it of debris.
And he is, no doubt seeing me. How my nose sits wide on the facade of my face. How my feet splay outward like two ground antennae when I stand still . How my eyes are somehow both bright and sleepy. Soft, and sharp. As if they could mean great love or great harm.
And the more we get found in what we are seeing, the less we get lost in what we are thinking. And what we are thinking is to fear each other. But what we are seeing just…just IS each other.
And eventually the lion grows bored. Because, let’s face it, there’s nothing really happening here. So he lays down. Soft on haunches. Chin on paws.
And I come closer. Place my hand on his side and feel the rush of hot life and blood beneath the fur. And it feels good. Like me.
But wait. I don’t like lion taming. It’s cruel to the animal. As a metaphor, it’s super sketch. Circus lions are underfed. Malnourished. Abused. Lion tamers wear funny pants and whip animals, and sleep with the contortionists behind the magicians back. Yuk to the whole thing.
Let’s say, then, that my mind is a sea of monarch butterflies. That flutter, all hella haphazard and disordered. As delicate as rice paper. And impatient. No matter how I chase them. I cannot catch them. Because while I’m clomping through the brush, swinging a net and crushing the seedlings, they are dancing from flower to flower, unperturbed by my pursuit. Flittering in the sun like the skittish memory of a dream in the light of day…
But when I meditate, I become the earth. The sun, the winter. The magnetic fields that bring the dissonant butterflies into one huge, harmonic swarm. And guides them together. Toward the west. Through the rains and suns, over mountains and seas, days and nights, back to the very same tree where their ancestors have come for a thousand winters.
To meditate is to become the god that corrals the butterflies.
And when I don’t meditate, the inside my head is a teeming swarm of insects. A tired, lonely, hungry, and angry lion.
Life is brief and the people we love, including ourselves, are gone for a thousand times longer than we are here. And this moment is only here for a moment. So look into its eyes, hug it closely. Stroke its hair. And let it know that you love it.
It doesn’t need to hear it.
But you do.
-June 2, 2012