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The “Isn’t” In The Midst of Existence

September 20, 2011

I’ve started to examine my workaholism because I really want to slow down and simplify my existence. My day, mind and life are compulsively crammed and cluttered. Why?

I’ve begun to realize that for me this stems back to a series of empty Sundays in the mid 1970’s.  At a time when all my friends had left town, and all my lovers had left me (or so it seemed), I would sometimes find myself alone on bright, sunny Sunday afternoons with nothing to do. I was free falling though my mid twenties, selling long-lasting light bulbs to businesses, a job about as meaningful as it sounds. It was one my father had been doing with great success, and he correctly saw it as a way for me to end my long stint as a cabdriver. I was making money at this new job, but the several zeroes at the end of the figure I was earning said more to me than the number in front.

The city was at my feet up there, 17 floors above West 72nd Street, but on Sunday afternoons that street was full of couples and families. So I would take my bicycle down to the river and head south, to the old demolished piers that were part of the city’s dead past — huge abandoned concrete and metal skeletons that are now mere memories beside Donald Trump’s fat shoreline phalluses. There was me and the metal and the sun, and land as vacant as my insides, save for one buff man with a huge handlebar mustache who would hang out there by a small shack by the railroad track until another man would wander by, at which point they’d both disappear into the shack a while. I would engage in my own cheap thrills, doing a doobie and exploring the piers and other abandoned structures by foot and by bike.    

And there I was, for what seemed like a month of Sundays, hovering above my life as if suspended between trapezes, the hollow rush of air in my ears, part of the empty sky, unnoticed, with no net below, assuming a fall — with no one around —  would not make a sound. I was full of nothing.

And then back, way before this, at age 15, my mother gone, and certain somehow that I deserved this, and no girl would even look at me – a different sense of nothing.

And since then as well, waking throughout the 1990’s in the middle of the night and my life, free floating anxiously, unable to connect the first hours of sleep with the last, or the first decades of my life with those to come.

At my core was a deep loneliness, and, in the midst of this, a bottomless empty pit.

And I now believe these acutely agitating experiences, like the sound of the word “existence”,  with its cold edge, goaded me into filling up these empty spaces with anything I could find: Newspapers and magazines. 3X5 cards full of To Do lists. Letting things go undone so that I’ll never be done and thereby be caught empty-Sunday’d again.

It worked too well.

I’ve been taking on projects and constructing structures to cover, fill, bridge and avoid this void for most of my adult life now.

And hey — some of these structures have been quite useful. I’ve taken on an identity that gives me something to call myself that’s respectable while actually helping people. (Imagine — not just a job but a profession!)  Also, after some false starts, I eventually found and built a relationship with someone whom I could make happy and who could do the same for me. In addition, during a time of fragmentation and uncertainty, I’ve managed to gather or join communities of men and of other explorers here in this mad metropolis. 

I’ve also found ways of filling my Mother Void by locating her inside, where she always is, and always caring and smiling and offering soothing words. I’ve learned how to tend my own garden.

But it’s gotten to the point where I overload my day with more than I could ever do; my desk with more than I will ever read; my closet with more than I’ll ever wear…and many other more-thans.

And that internalized mother who gives me solace also bids me to pull my punches and be reticent about taking risks. So even when I go out on a limb, this apple never really falls far from the tree.

And playing it safe can be dangerous in these times, if not downright deadly for the body or soul.

Further, this adventure in avoidance has been exhausting, as it always is whenever one devotes a great deal of one’s life to avoiding a feeling.

And so now I wonder how much of what I see around me is evidence of the same avoid-dance. The hyper-structured urban lives we lead, or which lead us. (Our dead ancestors look down at us and ask When do you guys ever relax?). Racing each other like rats, and living locked within the grid. (There’s a Hopi word for what results when we construct a world where the soles of our feet never touch the earth, and that word is their word for hysteria.) The self-perpetuating cycle of compulsively striving for, spending, and fretting over money. The constant three ring media circus of fantasy, fear and what’s fleeting. We busy ourselves in these ways to avoid the feelings that would emerge if we stopped.

Even my addictions to fear and melancholy are ways to play it safe with what’s familiar, lest I go beneath to the void; to what isn’t there.

I wonder what would happen if I allowed myself to just sit with the emptiness I can’t stand. 



10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 11:42 am

    The courageous honesty of this sounds like a perfect prelude to meditation. Meditation is neither about clearing one’s mind of thought nor being perfectly calm. It is a place where we sit with the discomfort within us so that we can 1st be with it, and then eventually to get to know it well enough to have choice in the face of it so as to be more free. As you say, society encoureages us to run from our internal discomfort, hopefully through consumption. It is so scary because we make it so by avoiding it so assiduously. When we learn how to befriend our discomfort we begin to see it as a signpost of an unmet need to be addressed. Good work!

  2. Dan permalink
    September 20, 2011 1:15 pm

    One of your best!!!!!

  3. September 20, 2011 1:18 pm

    I just told someone the other day that you were partially responsible for my decision to finally leave NYC in 1985 and head west to the spaciousness of Big Sur. Maybe you recall this incident: You called me, and I said, “Can’t talk now, running out the door, can I call you tonight?” (The days before cell phones.) “No, you said, I’m out tonight, how about I call you in in the morning.” “I’m gone all day tomorrow,’ I said, and this went on and on, with our little calendar books in front of us, until we found a slot, two weeks later, where we could schedule a PHONE APPOINTMENT! I hung up and said to myself, “This is nuts, I have to get out of NY.” And I did. And I literally didn’t have a calendar book or a T0-DO list for at least the next ten years.

    And lately, I’ve noticed I’ve become the opposite of you, and the grass isn’t greener on this side: My current TO-DO list is virtually empty, and you’re right, there can be a lot of fear racing in to fill in the gap when the world is expecting nothing from me except what I choose to create.

  4. Bella permalink
    September 20, 2011 3:01 pm

    It so happens that I am reading right now this book called “Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness” by Mark Epstein. The title of chapter 1: “Emptiness”. His point is that, where Western therapy is trying to resolve and remove the uncomfortable feelings associated with emptiness, Buddhism is seeking to help the individual to make friends with it. “The problem with the Western experience of emptiness was that it was mixed with so much fear,” Epstein says.

  5. Daniel Wininger permalink
    September 20, 2011 3:13 pm

    I agree with Dan that this is one of your best posts yet. Clutter in space AND time is less of the logistical nightmare it seems and more of the psychological nightmare it is underneath. It is avoidance at its subtlest.

    And frankly, I can attest to the time-space clutter in your home, Charley. Even when it is visually more empty, there is always a to do list, and rarely unscheduled time that isn’t devoted to electronic media of some kind. And the fridge!

    In my personal explorations and reflections, when give myself a dose of unabashed honesty, I begin to notice areas, both physically in space and in my mind, that receive little, if any attention. And these tend to be places that are dirty, ignored, and full of seemingly arbitrary and unnecessary things. It could be as mundane as realizing what’s in my pockets.

    Just as the American consumer is inundated with new products they don’t know how they lived without before, when you eliminate excess, you remember how you DID live without those things… more grounded and more still.

  6. September 20, 2011 3:21 pm

    I’ve felt all of the feeling you poignantly describe at various times, and lately I’m finding great resonance in the words of Pema Chodron – in particular, her book When Things Fall Apart.

    The recognition that there is no ground – nothing that will not shift, nothing stable – and the encouragement to become comfortable with this reality, is profound.

    And Chodron shows how integration of this fosters a loving kindness, first with oneself and then with others, the tenderness of which can be transformative. I’m just/finally getting into it, and it’s amazing and beautiful.

    I’m grateful to you for your vulnerable exploratory endeavors – thank you so much for sharing them.

  7. September 20, 2011 4:08 pm

    Profound insight and beautifully articulated. Thank you for this.

  8. September 20, 2011 11:10 pm

    Beautiful expression, Charlie!

    I can certainly relate to the need to clear the clutter (internally and externally) and get to the route of the need to “fill the void”…

    Your writing this IS a meditation, an insightful self-reflection on that which also permeates throughout western culture: material distractions… addictions… keeping busy… let’s do anything to avoid tuning into our true vulnerability- mortality.

    For me, it always comes back to mortality- the kick in the pants I need to remember, in order to help me transform more consciously and gain awareness… catch a glimpse and perhaps even connect to the Mystery.

  9. September 23, 2011 3:17 am

    Right on!


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