“There is no self-image that doesn’t have a wall and no self-image that doesn’t entail suffering. Not only do you have your own walls, but there are also walls you project onto other people, the images you have of them that prevent you from seeing their true nature.”
I’ve just returned from Ohio – Kettering, actually – a brick-homed suburb about five miles south of Dayton that is comprised mostly of white middle-classers who carefully tend their green, weedless lawns with the deep care and devotion normally reserved for children and dogs.
My sister and brother-in-law live in Kettering because my mother – who passed away 15 months ago – lived in a nearby two-story condo. She moved there in 1979 after my dad divorced her and she wanted to live close to the second-story apartment on Bigger Road that I lived in with my fiancé, Carol.
One night my mom showed up at our doorstep with a broken arm and we drove her to the emergency room. You can see her cast in some of the faded photographs from our wedding where Carol and I directly addressed the congregation and made a bunch of cringe-worthy promises that 23-year-olds should never say out loud.
After we bought a two-story duplex in a working class neighborhood near downtown Dayton and I entered grad school, Carol had an affair and we divorced. She got our dog, Kenya and I got the cats, Tuffy and Sara, the exercise bike and the Winslow Homer print that hangs in my dining room. She got my Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits album and cut all the photos of us in half (I later taped them back together) and assaulted a lamp and broke its glass globe on the sidewalk behind our house because she felt I was taking too long to move out.
Even now it all makes me sad. Carol died twenty years ago and I miss her. We had stayed friends, despite the painful divorce, and I promised her she would survive polymyositis, the painful muscle disease that hit her freshman year at Ohio University. Even the lung transplants were not enough. I envisioned us growing old, both of us grey-haired with gleaming, happy eyes and still dear friends. I looked forward to hugging her as old friends do who meet again after a long absence. That was the lie I told her and myself to assuage the crippling guilt that still chews on me at times. I threw her away and used her affair as an excuse to do so. I still think about her often.
In between Kettering and Dayton is another community called Oakwood, a short bike-ride from the home Carol and I used to share with Kenya, Tuffy and Sara. You may have recently heard of Oakwood, an old but super-rich area of dignified and, in some cases (like Orville Wright’s Hawthorn Hill), palatial homes; carefully arranged like pieces of fine art along gorgeous, tree-lined streets. Oakwood is the home of a 20-year-old swimmer named Brock Turner who attended Stanford, got drunk and digitally raped a helpless, passed-out 23-year-old woman behind a dumpster.
He received a six-month sentence for his crime while I was in Ohio and every day the Dayton Daily News – one of the newspapers I used to write for when I was in college – splashed headlines about Turner across its pages regarding the local boy gone bad.
I was once again struck with the power of perspective when evaluating what is true. Oakwood friends and family members of Turner have one (largely sympathetic and forgiving) view. Friends and family members of the victim, like the rest of humanity it would seem, have another (understandably hostile and unforgiving) view. And the judge, who handed Turner his sentence (unfortunately for him), had his own opinion. According to CNN, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky claimed that “Turner's age and lack of criminal history made him feel that imposing a six-month jail sentence with probation was appropriate.” His opinion, his perspective, his truth.
The fact that Persky was a former Stanford athlete appointed to the court by then Governor Gray Davis, a former Stanford athlete, suggests he might identify with the plight of a young Stanford athlete like Turner (my perspective). Persky said, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him."
Perhaps. What is certainly true is that Persky’s decision had a severe impact on the judge, himself. According to CNN, “More than one million people want Judge Aaron Persky to lose his job for what's been widely viewed as a lenient sentence in the Brock Turner rape case.”
We all see truth from our perspective and cannot understand how others can see it differently. The Turner case was quickly pushed to the side once Omar Mateen, a conflicted, confused, angry, homophobic, bisexual Muslim decided to slaughter as many people as he could in a gay Orlando nightclub. The victims, nearly half from Puerto Rico, were mostly young and from the pictures (my view), quite beautiful; in their prime, ready to begin their precious, adventurous lives and completely undeserving of their cruel, violent fate.
And every day, more opinions, more perspectives disguised as God’s truth. Some view it as another example of Islamic terrorism and an excuse to “ban all Muslims” from our nation. Others view the tragedy as obvious evidence for banning assault rifles, which triggers the usual NRA backlash that insists we cannot prevent mass killings through gun control.
Meanwhile, others view it as proof we are still uncomfortable with homosexuality, with some media outlets engaging in “straightwashing,” essentially “erasing gay identity.” Some news outlet apparently engaged in this practice by failing to describe the crime scene as a gay nightclub. Others view it as proof we are still clueless at dealing with mental illness; that there is something unique about the Petri dish of American culture that we regularly create these crazed sociopaths who find it so easy to kill strangers en masse.
Opinions and perspectives. Each of us – seven billion strong – stands alone inside our tiny minds. We each decide what is true and what is not. And then argue about it. Get angry about it. And in some cases, think violent thoughts and hate others over it. And blame them. Wish them dead and in some cases, act on it. This is the history of humanity. Nothing to do with truth and everything to do with power, control, insecurity and fear.
Knowing (thinking we know) the truth helps us feel secure. People who are different from us are frightening. How can they think like that? What is wrong with them? Clearly they are wrong because I am right and we can’t both be right, can we? Identify with a religion and you might find yourself thinking bad thoughts about others who do not share your faith. Identify with a sexual orientation, a political group, belief or point of view, a skin color or ethnicity, a particular lifestyle, sports team or school, and we might find ourselves feeling uncomfortable with someone who is different from us in one of these significant areas.
We take it personally when someone shows up with opposing views. Even a bumper sticker is enough to get some of our hearts beating and our judgments going. If you are a human being, this is your problem, whether you like it or not. Watch out for your mind. It’s a trouble-maker. It finds threats everywhere. It judges and blames and stirs itself up.
So what is the solution? In Emptiness Dancing, Adyashanti suggests we practice openness. He states, “When you are open, you do not filter your experience, nor do you barricade yourself. You do not try to defend yourself but you open to the mystery by questioning what you believe.”
He continues: “When you give yourself this amazing gift of not trying to find yourself within some particular concept or feeling, then the openness expands until your identity becomes more and more the openness itself, rather than some point of reference in the mind called a belief or a particular feeling in the body. The point is not to get rid of thoughts or feelings, but just not to feel located inside of them.”
We don’t have to be disturbed. We have a choice. Adyashanti writes, “We only get disturbed when we close ourselves by identifying with a particular point of view, a concept of who I am or who I believe or feel myself to be; we go into opposition against what’s happening.”
We get into trouble when we identify with our minds and its contents. When we see ourselves as this separate and disconnected fragment, we view others in the same light. However, when we identify with an open mind and heart, we come to an understanding, as Adyashanti explains, and we “Realize that there isn’t somebody in there to protect.”
The individual ego, with its ideas and opinions, is an illusion. It is not real. Adyashanti elaborates: “There is no need for an emotional barrier or the feelings of separation and isolation that come from that barrier. The only reason you ever thought that you needed protection was because of a very innocent misunderstanding. This happened because when you were given a concept of yourself in very early childhood, you also received a kit with which to build walls that would protect this concept. You learned to add to the kit as circumstances arose. If a good dose of anger seemed useful, you would add that to the kit, or perhaps you added resentment, shame, blame or victimization. Whether you cling to a self-image as a good person or an inadequate person, the kit of identity is used to protect that image.”
When we identify with our true nature which is limitlessly open, we can relax and realize we don’t need to feel threatened or defensive. We can regain our original innocence and act with wisdom. When we are open, we allow reality to be as it is, not as we wish it was.
Each moment, we can accept and allow what is, even what feels “wrong.” As we experience this moment – and all our moments – by being mindfully present, we can notice our breathing and connect with our senses. We can get present, observe and refuse to judge. Right now, seek to experience that which is not mentally created, maintained or interpreted. Instead, directly experience the life force in your body and notice it is just as alive in others and in the birds, grass, wind, clouds, sky and trees. Everything is alive and has this presence. You only get to “see” this when you stop thinking about it; when you open to it. Celebrate your vast, amazing self that is beyond all thought or explanation. Now.