A few weeks ago I spent a fortune repairing my car—the head gaskets were leaking. As you might imagine, I was more than a little irritated that a paycheck’s worth of money vanished in one credit card swipe, but something beautiful happened on the way home: When I looked out the back windshield, it was covered with hearts! The sweet mechanic had drawn them all over my car, which pretty much erased any memory of the bill; it also made me think about marrying him for a split second, but that second faded very fast.
Anyway, that night I went to sleep with the prayer that it wouldn’t rain so as not to ruin my windshield art, but the gods had other plans. I awoke to a thick grey sky and lots of raindrops, and by mid-morning the hearts were no more. This depressed me a little and it set the stage for a very sad day: A few hours later I learned that a friend—well, an acquaintance, but a meaningful one—took his own life. We had crossed paths many times over the years as we shared the same spiritual teacher and friends.
This young, 37-year-old guy was so beautiful—just filled with light. He was a gifted percussionist and kirtan leader, and an all-around bright soul. His suicide shocked me because he always appeared so happy and openhearted, but something else was obviously happening beneath the surface.
His death made me wonder: Do we ever really know what’s going on with other people? In our Facebook world it’s all too easy to be fooled by appearances. Instead of looking deeply, we often take people at face value and then paint a picture of them in our mind with the thick acrylic of our wrong perceptions. But people, like life, are fluid and changeable, and putting each other into little cubbyholes does nothing but give us a false sense of control.
Truly, what do we know? Maybe the rude woman who cuts us off in traffic is on her way to see a dying friend in the hospital. Maybe the holy guy in the white robe can’t stop fantasizing about the brothel across town. And maybe the woman who appears so happy in the arms of her lover really wants to give her heart to someone else. It’s easy to see what we want about people, and not necessarily what’s there.
A few months ago I sent an email to a friend whom I hadn’t spoken with in some time. She wrote back: “Life is really hard right now, but I don’t want to put a damper on things because I know you’re doing really well.”
What?? I had no clue what she was talking about, so I probed a little further. “Well,” she said, “I saw on Facebook that you’re doing all of these things with your music and writing and stuff, so you must be happy.”
Suddenly it hit me: Social media makes it so easy for us to make assumptions about each other. Sure, I publish articles and compose music, but that doesn’t mean I’m floating in a cloud of rainbow bliss. So what if my face is on the cover of a CD? I’m still a human being subject to all range of feelings and emotions... and lord knows the reason I sing is to unburden my heart, not to get on the shelf of some new age bookstore.
It turns out that the things so many of us use to measure happiness actually aren’t good indicators of happiness at all. That’s because happiness has very little to do with external circumstances, as every single spiritual teaching tells us. But oh, how easily we are fooled! Even though we may know that nothing is what it appears to be, sometimes we don’t really know it. “Wait, what do you mean you’re getting divorced? You seemed so happy.” Seem being the operative word.
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to believe that other people have “perfect” lives? Just a few days ago I was talking to a woman whom I met while waiting for a ride at the airport. She was telling me about her sweet life in Vermont where she lives with her darling husband and kids, eats organic food from her cafe, and makes art. It seemed idyllic. But as we got to talking she said, “I don’t know, it just seems like everyone else has their shit together and my life is such a mess.” I laughed because that’s how I feel so much of the time. Ah, the grand illusion!
Fortunately, I’m starting to realize that no one has it all together. No one. I’m not even sure what it means to “have it all together” anyway, but I’m pretty certain it’s impossible. Why? Because the “me” that wants to keep everything together doesn’t actually exist—at least not the way we imagine. As we inquire into our “self” through practices like meditation, little by little it becomes clear that our solid identity is just a contraction. Like an orange, when we separate the pieces there’s nothing there.
One of my professors in graduate school, Reggie Ray, used to say that meditation is like an MRI of the ego. I absolutely love that. MRIs are super sensitive—I learned that the hard way when I had to have my breasts scanned, as mentioned in an earlier blog. The sonogram didn’t see anything and neither did the mammogram, but, ah, the MRI—it showed everything. Yep. Meditation is the same. If we simply turn our gaze inwards for a few moments, all of this stuff comes onto the screen of awareness—stuff we don’t usually see. Whatever we try to hide, deny, suppress, and ignore just rises to the surface and says, “My love, you can either pretend I don’t exist or acknowledge my presence and face the music.”
What music, you ask? Oh, the beautiful music of our habitual patterns: the way we cling with all of our might to the small self; the way we push love away or lie to ourselves and others as a form of self-protection; the way we stay in situations that feel untrue because we’re scared to let go. It’s endless... and it’s all there.
For much of my life I tried so hard to be a “good” girl. I don’t even know what that means anymore, but basically I just wanted to do the “right” thing. But when I cannonballed into the ocean of spiritual life, everything turned upside down. Suddenly I felt so awful, like this huge burden was weighing on me—the burden of me, myself, and I. Since I had no idea how to bear witness to my ego with compassion back then, I suffered a lot.
One time while visiting my boyfriend after a retreat, I burst into tears at the kitchen table. “I’m a terrible person!” I cried.
“Carrie, what are you talking about?” he soothed me. “You’re a beautiful person.” But I didn’t feel beautiful, not even a little bit.
“No!” I wailed. “I’m selfish and jealous and angry, and I just think about myself all the time.” The poor guy wondered where his girlfriend went—the woman who used to read books about mindfulness, compassion, and hugging trees. In her place was a crazy person who could not stop sobbing about being a self-centered mess.
It was during this time that the intimate connection between spiritual practice and psychological work became clear to me. As I scanned my inner landscape, so many old wounds called out for attention. There were layers of shame, fear, resentment, anger, and doubt that felt overwhelming and ancient; they gushed from my depths like magma and melted my good girl persona in the blink of an eye. I saw my superficial self—the one I tried so hard to uphold for the world—and it felt like such a sham. There was no denying it: All of the things that frightened me about other people, all of the things I couldn’t stand, existed in me, too. Absolutely everything was there: dark and light, holy and horrible, kind and cruel; it hurt, and sometimes it still does.
This “unloading of the unconscious,” as Father Thomas Keating refers to it, is par for the course in spiritual life. After all, how can we go from darkness to light without first becoming aware of the darkness? How can we free ourselves from suffering if we don’t realize that we’re suffering in the first place? We need to look with kindness at the tangled knot we call “me” and embrace all of the threads, even if they’re kinked and frayed.
Ultimately this is my work: Surrendering to what I am instead of struggling to be what I’m not. It’s hard sometimes, but that’s where chanting comes in. When my mind is on fire, I just sit down and sing... and burn... and sing... and burn. Somewhere along the way my heart begins to open and all of my stories disappear into that vast expanse. I’m convinced this happens because, when I chant, every part of me has a seat at the table of love. If there’s pain, I don’t push it away; rather, I move towards it. I feel it. And then, on a good day, I throw it to the universe and let it go.
In the Buddhist tradition the scriptures speak about basic goodness, also known as bodhicitta. This profound teaching says that everyone—everyone—possesses the seeds of Buddhahood, even if those seeds are invisible to the eye. Isn’t that beautiful? Though it’s not always easy to see, somewhere in my depths I know it’s real—my basic goodness, and everyone else’s. Yeah, somewhere in my depths I know that we all desperately want to drop our self-obsession and wake up. It's intrinsic, don't you think?