Nothing has compelled me in the lasting way this has: the idea of how a life can change, comprehensively. How what it feels like to be a person, to live a human life, can go from how it’s always been to something so different it feels like being another species.
Yet you’re living among the kind you were before. Being in relationship with people, loving them, working with them, observing them. Learning, constantly: what it’s like now, now that you’re utterly changed; discovering (from this distance) how you managed to be the other way for so long — and therefore realizing how your loved ones, and strangers, manage the same thing, and can’t see there’s an alternative. Just as you could not have imagined such a thing.
Mostly, you learn what it feels like to be aware, and to do things, to feel deeply, and even to love, without it being about you. Your old familiar self, that is: your ideas of things, opinions, what you were attached to. You learn what it feels like to walk in the woods or go grocery shopping or talk to somebody or do your work, where you feel . . . see-through. No barrier, no protective surface, nothing to defend or assert. The wind moves through you. Including the wind of other people’s desires, judgments, behavior.
What causes the old familiar identity to tilt and go into the sea, the way the Titanic did, with all its terrible tonnage?
Your heart gets bigger and bigger. Everybody is inside it. Not just everybody, but everything. And forces: like light and rain and heat and music. Like hatred and terror. It all moves through you and yet doesn’t touch you, doesn’t alter you.
Life is glorious. So is death. Well, I cannot really report on death yet, though I can say I’m not reluctant to die. What I mean is, as much as I find momentary life delicious, and will be glad to have as much of it as I turn out to get, that doesn’t mean I dread dying. Or the prospect of ending up in a nursing home, or of tumbling into dementia.
To be born again, first you have to die. What has died, when this happens? The sense of what you are. The collected life experience, the personality, the ideas about things. Emotions. The contents of your head, in a big-picture kind of way, but also in the momentary way, in the form of a passing thought, come from nowhere and gone back into it. Values. All that felt like what you really were — what I really was — comes to feel insubstantial.
There’s something else going on. Something else that you are, that feels more real by far. And something in you has always suspected this to be the case, has maybe even tasted the reality of its presence, though it’s not your mind that sensed it.
What causes the old familiar identity to tilt and go into the sea, the way the Titanic did, with all its terrible tonnage, the surface left smooth and clean, no trace? Hard to say. But something did it, something seen or maybe unseen, like an iceberg in the dark, so much not to be fathomed.
In my case, I could say it had something to do with crippling fear, specifically of breast cancer. But I don’t really know that. The mind wants to understand cause. It enjoys looking around for a catalyst, thinking it can account for this that occasionally happens in a plain-old human life.
People who hope it happens for them want very much to meet up with an iceberg, and like to think there’s such a thing as a path en route out of themselves.
The thing is, the self on the path is the very one that tilts and sinks.