Sunday morning coming down

(First published Oct. 16, 2005. Minor edits made, because I’m a better writer now than I was then. I don’t have the focus to write long pieces much these days, so I’m going to post the occasional rerun.)

Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.
–Thomas Merton

Blogging virtually demands that I appear to be a much angrier and hostile person than I am, and it saddens me when people actually believe that’s the sum total of my being. “I’m really a very nice, calm person,” I argued to another blogger.

“I can understand why they think that but yes, I believe you’re a nice person,” he said.

“I work at trying to be compassionate,” I said with a sigh. “My friends get so mad at me that when they hate someone, I’m always the one who talks them out of it, and gets them to admit that people are mostly just misguided.

“”The thing is, these people who are running the country into the ground are so… evil that in order to get people’s attention, it seems to require that I amp up the most negative parts of my personality in order to persuade readers, and it affects me.” (Like being an exorcist, I suppose.)

Compassion is not sentiment but is making justice and doing works of mercy. Compassion is not a moral commandment but a flow and overflow of the fullest human and divine energies. –Matthew Fox

I come from a verbal, sarcastic family and although we’re all a lot kinder than we were when we were young, the habits are still there. Blogging brings all that out again and it’s something that, given my druthers, I’d rather leave behind. Like Shane, I thought I’d hung up my guns forever.

This is especially hard on me because of a little something I like to refer to as “The Cosmic Fuck.”

A few years ago – October 3rd, 1999, to be exact, I had what they call a transcendental experience.

I’d been praying, but it was more out of utter desperation and bitterness than devotion. After a devastating breakup, I was at the end of my emotional rope, and I finally let go of the illusion that I could figure things out. I couldn’t, and I was drowning. I knew it, and I was calling for help.

Writer Anne Lamott (who is what I like to call “a cursing Christian”) says there are really only two appropriate prayers (because the nature of God requires Him/Her/It to know better than us): “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank You, thank You, thank You.”

My prayer that morning was somewhat closer to the former variety, something along the lines of, “Dear God, If You could see Your way clear to helping that miserable shit of a human being to whom I am obviously far superior – because after all, here I am praying for him when he’s such an asshole, it would probably be a good thing for the world and his future victims. Oh, and if You could make him bitterly regret losing me for the rest of his miserable life, that would be good, too.”

Here’s the thing. I actually thought that was a good prayer. After all, I wanted to help someone, right? But then something strange happened.

It’s almost impossible to describe (ineffable, as they say), and for a writer, that’s an abject admission of failure. I can only nibble around the edges, it’s too large to digest. (William James, the father of modern psychology, talked to a few people, and got a pretty good paper out of it, though*.) I suppose if I’d been a different kind of person, I’d have thought I was having a psychotic break or otherwise losing my mind, but I was actually finding it.

I’d done a lot of psychedelics when I was a kid and I’d had a mere glimmer, a tiny taste of something, but nothing like this. An overwhelming Benign Presence filled the room – and me. I remember a powerful light expanded into the entire room, and a feeling that I was a tiny drop in some vast, shimmering sea. That all of us, and everything, was connected and that my life until then had been centered on the comical, mistaken notion that it wasn’t.

I remember laughing out loud. I’d spent so much of my life wanting to be special, trying to stand out — and here was a delightful gift: disappearing into something so much larger than myself wasn’t an awful thing. How silly, I thought, that I’d spent so much of my life in terror of it.

There was this overpowering feeling of love that penetrated every part of me, every molecule. I felt this Force’s complete and loving acceptance of flawed little me, the kind of asshole who used a prayer to attack someone she still loved.

It seemed like the experience lasted maybe a half-hour or so, but when I looked at the clock later, it was more than four hours that I sat there in this state.

And it didn’t go away for a long time. The experience changed me. For one thing, I didn’t have any more scores to settle. It made me, I dare say, a better person. For the first time in my life, compassion was real, not an intellectual construct. And it pervaded my life.

It’s one of the reasons I still can’t really stay angry at people; the most I can manage is annoyance. Because no matter what horrors they perpetuate, I know their evil is only an error, grounded in the illusion of separation from everything else. I know it, because I know it in myself.

The whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, forgiveness. – H.H. the Dalai Lama

As the years passed, though, it became much more of a challenge to sustain that pure compassion, that transcendence. Eventually, I had to come back down to earth, where I endured a dull ache they don’t address in the DSM-IV (and remind me to tell you sometime about trying to discuss this with the HMO shrink who insisted I must be schizophrenic. Oy!): Knowing there’s more to existence than the mundane, but losing that sense of wonder, that direct connection to the Universe. I can’t un-know what I know, but I don’t feel it the same way now.

From what I read, I’m not alone in the longing and yes, even depression that follows when the intensity fades. Come back, I sometimes plead. Help me, help me, help me. People who know something about these things tell me most people don’t experience the Cosmic Fuck once, let alone twice. (The implication being that I’m some kind of glutton for wanting more.)

It’s difficult to balance the lessons of this experience with the so-called “reality” of hardball politics. Our nation is in a fight for its soul, and fear makes us fall back on the same tactics used by the opposition. We tell ourselves we can’t bring a knife to a gun fight.

But such is the nature of the paradox. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi all moved political mountains with love. We know it can be done. Is there a way we can live with a foot in each world?

Right now, we have only this exploitive, bastardized, politicized and watered-down parody of faith in the public arena. It’s so far removed from what I knew that October day.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound …

And see, that’s the interesting thing about grace. You don’t earn it, you don’t deserve it. (Its very randomness is what makes it grace.) As I sat there, imbued with divine light and love, I realized oh by the way, I was a person who couldn’t love. I was keeping people at a distance. Yet my Cosmic Lover was reassuring me, saying, “You just didn’t know any better, that’s all. You know now, so just don’t do it again.” 

I try not to. (Some days are much harder than others, but I try.) And no matter what I write about monsters like Donald Trump, I’m still fighting to find compassion for them, too. I mean, imagine growing up with Fred Trump as your role model.

Compassion, grasshopper

*Skip ahead to the chapter on mysticism, p. 286.

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