By order of the warden

By order of the warden, all jailors must marshal their inmates to march to the beat of a diffident drum, tamping down all impulses of the id and reporting all uncontrollable urges to the superintendent. Those prisoners who are eager to please their super-ego, please join us on the other side of the bars from dawn to dusk. We welcome you into the ranks of the semi-institutionalized, semi-employed.

After you have become members of our Outstanding Institute for Correctional Action, we will teach you to deaden your dread until it no longer surfaces from your dreams to wake you in the middle of the night. We can’t afford to have our half-imprisoned, half-imprisoning convicts screaming themselves awake; it will give our full-time prisoners too many nefarious ideas. We require our employees to sleep soundly. We need you to leave your cells in the morning and oversee the imprisonment of your fellow prisoners with an untroubled conscience, so you can return to your cells at night and sleep undisturbed. Waking up, whether you wake up screaming or laughing, will result in immediate retraction of your daytime privileges.

If you have not already done so, from this point forward you will dismiss from your mind all images of frozen seas, barren fields, and paralyzed fawns. The rule here is simple: make your inner life a parenthetical, let that little line stand between who you are now and who you were meant to be. Bound and bracket off your longing to let Life touch you, to contact what is real in you, and wake you up. Learn to perfect your defenses of isolation, projection, and straightforward resistance, remaining inside the buildings of our renowned complex and refusing like all good militaristic Americans to let the sun thaw the ice congealing around your warring hearts.

Every day that my hard-heartedness doesn’t bring me to tears is a day lost to the part of myself that counts its losses, divides everything into win/loss columns, solemnly swears it will be only good, never bad; that it will stand up tall, never look downcast; that it will be right, never wrong. I follow that part into the corrupt heart of duality. I let it lead me onto the lost highway, where all the hardheaded men bull their way to nowhere. I am full of my own bull. I am beaten at my own game, as if my only ambition is to become a cretin, a giant of egoic delusion. I am waiting for the day when someone says about me: ‘Now there’s a man with a good head on his shoulders.’

I always find it fitting to be walled in, head and shoulders below the rest. I am always wishing for the courage to go all-in. I always find myself returning to the fact that I am wishing my life away. Wishing Life, with its promise of Death, would just go away. Wishing I had a way to go back to that pre-serpent age when I had no knowledge of good and evil, and so made no distinction between life and death.

A Figurative Battlefield

I can’t let Life inside if I can’t find Life inside. But I don’t see anything when I look inside except darkness and emptiness. Not even an empty tomb, which might suggest resurrection, but just an empty black hole that goes on forever, in which life neither begins nor ends, making resurrection irrelevant. I don’t hear anything inside that hole except a soul oppressed into silence. Can you hear silence, if you attend to the rest notes between the sounds? But what am I talking about. It is not right for me to speak of silence. My mind might literally be silent, but it is a figurative battlefield, and I can’t figure out who the good guys are. I don’t know which side I’m on, so I become a traitor to both, a kind of double crossing puppet, pulled by the strings of an actor whose part is to suffer the morbid effects of the primordial split; to never forget that sting while traveling over the same forsaken territory, unraveling into the wound that keeps me feeling orphaned by Life, keeps me from singing my true song, the song of the undivided and undefended heart, David’s song of praise and thankfulness. I cannot see the hills that praise Thee when I cannot raise myself from the pit, even if it is only to reach my hand up and ask for Your pity.

I cannot see the hills. I am standing motionless in a treeless open field encircled by thick woods occupied by gunmen from both armies. There are soldiers at the ready in all four directions. Because the gunshot blast could come from anywhere, nowhere is safe.

No wonder, then, that I feel the pressing need to build some kind of fortified structure, to defend my exposed, solitary, defenseless self against the incoming blows. But although the soldiers on both sides smell blood, and want nothing more than to destroy the faithless man who stands alone, having reneged on his loyalty to both of their ranks, it is as if, due to now practically extinct remnants of their inborn sense of honor, they cannot kill an unarmed man. But the moment I buckle under the weight of my leg-shaking fear and start to build a defensive structure to shield myself from attack, they feel I have given them implicit permission to let blast.

Motivated by the almost complete hopelessness of the situation, and my fear of imminent death, I might very well build a nearly impenetrable fortress, the only opening a narrow slit that lets me look out, but which I can quickly shut when I see an attacker bearing down. I’ve forgotten one important detail, however. The battle takes place solely in my own mind. Both armies are within me. While I imagine that I am defending against the battalions, insulating myself in my fortress, I am actually building my own prison and then opening the gate to let my enemies inside. When I was in the open field, imagining that I was leaving myself completely vulnerable to attack, there was nothing to fear. The woods surrounding me were as empty as the field in which I stood alone. The gunmen were a projection of my mind. Now, enclosing myself within the citadel, which is within my mind, imagining I am finally safe from attack, there is nothing but fear. The woods are still empty, but the field now holds a cell, in which the soldiers swarm.

A Frustrated and Fastened Existence

My aphantasia or mind-blindness is frustrating. I want to go back, find an event in my past, and look at it closely and clearly to uncover and make sense of the specific way I reacted to that specific event, which conditioned me to continue reacting in that way to similar events. But I can’t do it. I can’t tangibly return to a past event in memory. There is nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to taste, nothing to smell, nothing to touch. I am stuck with the present, and all the gurus with their beatific smiles stressing that the present is all there is, all the spiritually evolved people encouraging me to access the power of Now, do nothing to get me unstuck, or help me let go of my resistance to and frustration with this stuckness, which is what is here now. I want to go back into the past to try and understand why I have no patience for the present or hope for the future. But I can’t even conjure up a past feeling.

Since the past is out of the question, let me question the events of this day to see whether I can discover anything of value. I wake up already in a dark mood, exhausted though I slept nine hours. I make some coffee. The coffee wakes me up slightly, but the energy gained from the stimulant is used, by some unproductive but frequent mechanism of the self, merely to stimulate and increase my frustration. It is the kind of frustration that seems not to have any immediate cause. Which only means that the cause lies outside my conscious awareness.

I feel the frustration in my stomach as a hard knot of tension, what you might feel before running a race, or in the middle of a core workout. But I haven’t done any physical activity today except walking upstairs to put on the water for coffee. I am simply tense. I feel like I do not want to be disturbed by anyone today, but I am already disturbed, and there is no one else here. I feel a domineering inner disturbance. It is as if a rope, frayed from overuse, is tied around my midsection, and it pulls me along. I go wherever the rope, the noose, wills me to go. It is frustrating to feel I am not in control of where I am going. I cannot take one true step. But when the frayed rope snaps, or I let go, what will happen to me? It is like being on a ledge high on a canyon rim, the drop-off sudden and steep. Holding on to the rope I live a frustrated, fastened, anything-but-free existence. But if I let go, the only prospect I can see is an immediate fall to my death on the jagged rocks below.

I want to move easily, like a man who knows where he is going. Or maybe he doesn’t know where he’s going, but in that case he doesn’t mind not knowing. His every step somehow communicates a natural and relaxed attention, both to his outer environs and to his inner state. He trusts that he will know where to place his feet as he goes along. Wherever he ends up, and whatever he encounters along the way, will enlarge his experience of life, deepen his gratitude for it, and this awareness of the manifold ways in which life is a gift will grow within this man unself-consciously, until his thankfulness becomes as much as part of him as his hands and feet. He does not need to believe that life is a gift; he feels it and knows it. Even the deaths of the people he loves, even the prospect of his own death, do not subtract from this unshakable felt knowledge. If anything, they add to it. Death becomes for him a reason for more abundant life. Every passing moment is even more precious than the last, because every moment that passes brings him closer to his last.

But for the man who is not free, the tense man, the man whose every action is a reaction to some inner disturbance, life no longer seems a gift, and each passing moment, rather than expanding his capacity for heartfelt gratitude, only racks up his tension and increases his heart-constricting dread. Part of him sees and resonates and wants to reach out to the free man, ask him how he has been transformed, while another part of him envies and hates the free man, for he only serves with his easy grace to remind the roped man of his bondage. Life for the self-oppressed man is a constant struggle, the bulk of which takes place invisibly, in the confused turmoil of his inner world. Simple and spontaneous connection with anyone or anything looks to him like a monumental task, wrapped tightly as he is beneath the thick cords, the layered bandages, that cover his forgotten, but not thereby healed, wounds.

To reach out seems futile, for how can anyone else understand the maze he is stuck in, and lead him out? Despite this feeling of distressed futility, he longs for someone to see his plight in its entirety, to understand his suffering so deeply that, in the process of being completely understood, he is also freed forever from the idea that he was ever anything but free. But until that fairytale person arrives, he contents himself to waste his hours failing to understand his discontent. Though he claims to know without a doubt that he also cannot free himself, he continues to strive to do just that. His strained effort only tightens the chains, and to be in chains, even if they are not precisely literal, is to be on fire with tension, to feel every nerve in one’s body fighting in vain to loosen the iron bonds.

Childhood Longings

I remember—in my limited, image-less, non-specific way—being a young boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, feeling a strange kind of longing as I looked out at a homeless man on the streets of Washington D.C, from the backseat of my family’s pine-tree green Honda Odyssey. Let’s say we were driving over Key Bridge a few days before Christmas, on our drive back from the Kennedy Center, where the extended family on my mother’s side—cousins, aunts, grandparents, and later uncles—would get all dressed up in suits and dresses (for the grown-ups) or uncomfortable Christmas sweaters and slacks (for the kids) and watch a play every year. Usually the plays were entertaining, even for us kids with itchy feet, but my favorite part of the ordeal was usually the king-size package of Dots candy I would always get at intermission. Pure sugar, enough to keep me wide-eyed for the first ten minutes of post-intermission before I crashed. My same-aged cousin Jack preferred the peanut M & M’s. One year the nutty crunch of these M & M’s, and Jack’s involuntary nonverbal expressions of his unabashed delight in them, got under the pallid skin of a couple of hot-and-bothered well-to-do’s in the row behind us, who shhshed and hissed their displeasure.

After the show was over, it would be time to spend at least an hour trying to get the perfect family picture on the velvety red steps outside the theatre. No face could be partially hidden by another face, no one’s eyes could be blinking, and everyone had to be grinning widely with teeth bared. When all of this criteria had been met, there was another half hour to hour of prolonged goodbye’s to people we would, save some unforeseen tragedy, almost certainly see in the next two days.

Finally, we would drive home. By now it would be close to midnight. Late December, usually some kind of snow or slush on the roads, the Potomac River partially frozen. And on the bridge under the streetlights a homeless man huddled in a threadbare coat, unsheltered in the cold night, eight hours or more until the wan winter sun rose meekly above the horizon. And I, a young too-well-dressed boy in the green suburbia minivan, looking forward to my warm bed that night, and even more to the upcoming two weeks off from my usual shy schoolboy agonies, two weeks to play in the snow with my brother and sister and cousins, knowing the warm shower and heated house would be right there whenever I needed them, felt this strange longing. What could I, apparently wanting for nothing, possibly want?

It was me, John Fogerty; I was the fortunate son. My family was well-off, deprived of no material thing. My parents could and did send me to the best schools available, where the teachers were contractually bound to care for each and every student, and the environment was conducive not only to intellectual growth but to the growth of students as whole persons, mind and heart and body, spirit and soul. I came from a large, tight-knit extended family. The virtues of love, faith, and hope were instilled in me at a young age, and the people around me seemed to embody those virtues to varying degrees. And yet, looking out through the letters of my name spelled in messy cursive on the frosty window at the cold bent figure on the bridge, I felt from deep within my body’s slight form a stripped-naked and skinned poverty no material wealth could repair or warm winter coat conceal, and a formless but full-bodied longing for I knew not what.

I did not know about alcoholism and drug addiction, about unemployment and desperation and crime. I did not know about the physical suffering this man must have undergone on a daily basis, in all seasons. Constantly facing the heat in the D.C. summer, unable to find refuge in the air-conditioned indoors. Blinded by the driving snow in winter, his coat absurdly thin and worn, unable to protect him in the slightest. His hunger and thirst, fevers and pneumonias.

I did not know about the mental torture he must have faced, the inner voices that told him he was a failure, a bum, a good-for-nothing ghostly presence that would soon be gone, with no one to remember him in a eulogy with fine words, delivered to a mourning audience who would miss him for the rest of their lives, with no one to remember him or miss him at all.

I did not know about the emotional slings and arrows this man—forced like all men who are utterly alone to remember always how he would not be remembered—must have endured, both from being sole audience, sole victim of his internal executioners twenty-four hours a day, and from being subject to the external voices that sometimes intruded into and compounded this hell on earth, who insulted him in similar ways, who with cold, contemptuous voices told him to get a job, get a life, get off the sidewalk, leave. Who told him he was not welcome here. How easy it would be for that man, after being told hundreds of times that he was not welcome here, to extrapolate and conclude that he would not be welcome anywhere, that Life itself had long ago decided to imprison him forever outside the gates of belonging. How hard it would be for this man to hold out any hope of ever finding his home.

I did not know about the spiritual agonies this man must have suffered, the unfathomable loneliness, the bitter hatred toward Life and all the people that seemed to move along smoothly and easily through it, the envy of the fortunate sons safe in their beds and the successful CEOs ensconced in their mansions, the shame that had burrowed its way into the very fibers of his being, the terrible fear of death that alternated with a terrible desire for it, the pain of an unlived life, the daily traumas of a soul born for heaven yet trapped in hell.

No, I did not know about any of this suffering. I was ignorant, a child already with pain of my own, and did I look at this homeless man on the bridge and see a kind of liberation from my own seemingly causeless pain, rather than certain bondage in his pain which had thousands of causes and no bottom or end but death? But how exactly was I suffering? From what particulars did I desire freedom? What could I possibly desire freedom from, as an young boy with loving parents, a warm extended family, supportive teachers and coaches, a roof over my head, clothes for all weather, friends to play with, food to help my body grow stronger, books to allow my mind to dive into its natural curiosity, and all of the above to help me discover and live out of the depths of my heart? Wouldn’t my spirit flourish? Wouldn’t my soul be nourished and at ease?

Alas, all the external wealth and support in the world cannot bring the soul through the dark night and into the sunlight. Though the surface of my life left little to be desired, yet I was filled with and burdened by desires and longings, and seeing this homeless man somehow brought all of this to the surface. I was longing for the inner wealth, the steadfast support, the perfect freedom, that resided somewhere deep within me, with which I had lost contact at a young age, leaving me without confidence or hope for the future, out of contact not only with people and objects in the outer world but most especially with my own heart, feeling an inner impoverishment that resonated with the homeless man’s outer impoverishment, feeling as deprived emotionally as I was privileged materially, unlike the homeless man in the prosperity of my upbringing but like him in my feeling of being down and out.

Down and out. Pressed down and left out. Pressed down as if under glass, divided by a fragile mirror that allowed me to look up and out at Life above the glass, to look but never touch. A mirror that also reflected back to me my own self, and because of this two-way mirror I became absorbed by the disparities between what was beneath the glass and what was above it, focusing on all the real and imaginary deficiencies that kept me gasping for breath as if under ice, perceiving everything below the glass as frozen in a dull and grey and painfully insufficient and lifeless image, and everything above the glass as a fluid Reality that was full of color and warmth and movement and vitality and fullness, left to conclude with a depressing finality that I would be forever estranged from that Reality, that I would be left to wrestle in unwelcome though unconsciously chosen isolation with my own inadequate and self-sabotaging devices, which only multiplied and exaggerated my sense of lack.

One of these devices, these defenses against the felt knowledge of my estrangement, which if recognized fully might pierce through the glass with its direct and unsparing insight, and re-connect me with the Reality that severed the boundary between inner and outer, above and below—one of these defenses was withdrawal. I withdrew in one sense in order to re-connect with the feeling of being myself. It was almost as if I could not feel or be that self in the presence of others, though I could not articulate who that self was.

There was a kind of freedom in withdrawal. Being around other people I was reminded painfully of the glass pressing down on me and increasing my feeling of separateness. Once alone I could imagine (to the extent that I could with my blind mind), a world where I never abandoned my truth and could easily be myself, where I did not fear rejection, where I never blushed when a teacher called on me and I had to speak in the presence of the rest of the class, where I never had to answer how my day went because everyone already understood how it went. There would be no need to hide who I was or what I felt. Written on my face would be the joys of a contented being, a soul at ease with itself. To speak of this contentment would be unnecessary, redundant.

But, in a cruel but predictable twist, the withdrawal that seemed like freedom was its opposite. It was the default response to my unsettling sense that I never responded to the events of Life authentically, blocked as I was by embarrassment and shame, by fear of judgment, fear of my actual self being seen by others and then scorned by them and rejected (or worse, ignored), which fears I reacted to by once more escaping into the well-grooved pathway of withdrawal. The comfort and familiarity of this default response made it feel like home, but it was a home that was cold and dark and silent. No one was home because the only one who could have been there was gone, lost in imagining what truly being at home would feel like, and the perfection he imagined there only made his time here, outside this suspect sanctuary, all the more distressing, lonely, and bleak.