October 30, 2005

Notes from the Interior

Some people are physical daredevils. They climb mountains, they raft through rapids, they hike across rain forests. I almost always enjoy myself when I’m athletically active or when I’m in a place I haven’t been before, but I feel little compulsion to seek physical challenges, to push outward for my adventures. Long ago I bet my whole life on a single gamble – the gamble of becoming an artist – and after that, with the roulette wheel spinning its mad lifelong circle, I’ve more often sought calm and quiet.

I’ve read that people are born with different levels of sensitivity to stimulation. Some people have high thresholds: in order to get their adrenaline pumping it takes a high dose of stimulation, a bombardment of the senses. They get bored sitting around – it seems like nothing is happening – they have to go out and snowboard or hang-glide or get drunk. These are the people who explore new lands and fly fighter planes. People who write are often the opposite. I can get charged up just sitting in my garden, as I’m doing now. I can explore a dark, labyrinthine cave lying on the sofa, and whenever I do that, I know in advance I’ll be bringing back five hundred words or so of interesting prose. I’m never bored when I’m alone.

I enjoy a privileged access to my inner world – or so it seems to me, for I’ve never experienced the access others have to theirs. I can enter a deep theta state at will. I recline on the loveseat with my feet and head up at both ends and my eyes closed, and feel my breath get deep and even. Gradually I loosen my limbs, my muscles. When my arms and ankles uncross, I know I’m relaxed, but there’s no limit to how relaxed you can become, there’s always another downward chamber to explore. Certain pieces of music help. Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis” gets me there. Once I’m there, Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” can take me deeper. (Some great musician was once asked what was his favorite single piece of music, when all was said and done and all evasions put aside. He said Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” and especially the third. I don’t have his knowledge of the repertoire, but I agree.) In another genre, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” and his little-known autobiographical piece “Up to Me,” which I know best in a version by Roger McGuinn.

In that state, I feel unable to open my eyes, unable to move. In order to do so I would first have to awaken myself from trance.

I’ve practiced other types of meditation, outwardly imposed, and have never been able to accept their formalities and doctrines. It’s been hard accepting that this – just lying around -- is my form of meditation, self-invented. When I was a teenager and in conflict with my parents and completely bereft of self-esteem, I used to escape arguments by lying down in my room and sinking away into darkness, unable to move. I sometimes feared I was going catatonic and would have to be lifted away, boardlike, and taken to an insane asylum. As an adult, this tendency to go off by myself and shut my eyes, or stare into the distance, has led me to accuse myself of being lazy, of lacking stamina and drive, of needing too many rest breaks between activities.

The hard thing all my life has been to accept my own way of being. I’ve spent too much time berating myself for not being an outward-oriented person. What has been wrong with me that I haven’t hitchhiked across the continent or joined the Peace Corps? Wouldn’t I have been a better writer if I’d bought a motorcycle and hung out at biker bars? (I took a few motorcycle lessons in my early forties and liked it, but dropped the subject – we were moving to a new state and expecting a new baby and I found out how much motorcycles cost – and I’ve never had much urge to take it up again.) The hardest challenge is to stop thinking, “What’s wrong with me?”

In recent years I’ve become aware of the central role of shame in our culture’s pathologies, and I’ve surmised that a shame of shame and unworthiness has kept me from being a more outer-directed person. But it may be that what I was built for is to go inward as deep as I can, even if it doesn’t change the world or help the less fortunate. And the shame I have to overcome is the shame of that.

Even the fact that I need to keep my eyes open while I write this, and I that I think from time to time of you, cherished readers, seems to me to limit how far inward I can go. But perhaps after all these years I can permit myself to try to go further. And if what I bring back isn’t for the world, but only for me, I may have to accept that too.