Saturday, July 19, 2008

Library as metaphor

Once upon a time, way back in the 70's, a friend of mine who was trying to survive the harrowing demands of an open marriage said to me, "Now I know what Hell is: it's living inside my own head."

Somehow I've carried that image around with me for years; it lives in the same drawer with that line from Buckaroo Bonsai -- "No matter where you go, there you are" -- and the image of Satan from Milton's Paradise Lost, carrying his own hell around with him.

So when a friend said to me recently that she's always hated it here on our little island, and that her divorce will free her -- once her last child graduates from high school -- to move somewhere more congenial, my first thought was, "but wherever you go, your private hell will still be with you."

So, having finished Essential Spirituality, this morning I began reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, "Wherever you go, there you are." And as I sat in meditation after reading the intro and first chapter, the image that came to me was this one, shot on one of the private floors of the Seattle Public Library. I was astonished, when I accidentally wandered onto this floor, by how disorienting it can be when walls, floor and ceiling are all painted the same color -- especially when that color is a high-gloss fire-engine red that belongs on a set of toenails in peep-toe shoes!

Now, looking at the image, I see that this is what the hell inside a head must look like: you know there's a life beyond this, but you can't see any way to get to it, or any way to get out of where you are. All the doors are closed and locked and the stairs lead nowhere; there's no way out.

I could imagine getting increasingly frantic, like the turtle we once caught and brought back to our dorm room: he spent the entire night walking the perimeter of the room and banging against the walls, looking for a way out. And I know that for some people, the act of sitting still, even for a moment, can propel them into this place. Which is why they don't sit: it's not a way to peace; it's only a quick way to submerge yourself again in hell.

What I know now, having been there, is that there is a way out. But it's hard to find if you're just a drop-in. If you visit regularly, take time to know this place, the walls will become more familiar, and the way out more obvious. If you're willing to sit with it a bit, you'll see it's not a permanent destination, just a part of the journey. Eventually, with time and experience, paying attention and being willing to record familiar landmarks, you'll come to know that this is only one floor of many, and that in many of the others those cells of yours will be filled with light.

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