I met him on the line at Lemonade.
He was an old man. Maybe in his 80s. I apologized for cutting in front of him, and he glared at me from under his cap. After a second, I realized he wasn’t glaring AT me, he was glaring INTO me. And I was looking into him. So we started a conversation.
After about 20 seconds, he told me that I was remarkably present and this surprised him. I laughed and told him that I do spiritual work and I am aware of my growing capacity for being present. He had a high level of awareness himself, and I was curious where it came from. After we both finished paying, he asked me (without any lead-up): where do we sit? So we had lunch together.
We talked about what it meant to be present. I told him that I thought being present was about fully opening up to the experience of being in your body at any given moment. How there are all these ways that we build stories around things, or physically contract ourselves, that are ways to escape the intensity of the present moment. That are all different ways to escape the truth of what is.
He told me that he thought that being present meant going into the past in order to relive the sensation of past pain. I said, yes, and then when you fully feel it, you can let it go. He said yes, but— I have enough pain and memories for 100 years so I can never let it all go. I am serious, he said. I asked him to explain.
It turns out that this man was a primal therapist. Primal therapy is basically a reliving of the birth experience, over and over and over again. As he told me, his face still glaring and serious, this work is very rarely done because it is extremely painful. And it can cause, and often does cause, your life to fall apart. Primal practitioners are less likely to have children, or even long-term serious relationships. And the primal experience generally does not get easier over time. In his own case, he said—holding out his hands wide to show his initial pain–he had maybe shifted a tiny bit of that pain–bringing his hands together just a few centimeters. And it was obvious with his age that he was not going to close that gap before he died. Yet he still faithfully did this practice every morning.
So I asked him. WHY are you still doing something that is so painful and gives you such little reward? And he answered: what else is there?
There is a part of me that wants to cushion the blow of his answer and spin a comforting story of a life well-spent. And yes, maybe I don’t have the right or understanding to judge his life. But I will. Not out of disdain, but because my heart broke for this man who spent over three decades voluntarily reliving an extremely traumatic experience because he did not “know” what else to do. Was he addicted to the pain? To the story of his pain? Who would he be without this pain? At this point, I don’t think he could imagine.
I was having a conversation earlier with someone about how to move from intellectual understanding of a truth to concretely embodying that truth in your life. In other words, how do you shift from “I know this shadow-aspect of myself and I want to let it go” to actually BECOMING a different person. I thought that there was some intermediate stage where you intellectually understood the issue, but still couldn’t figure out how to get out of your own way. The person I was talking with disagreed. They thought that when you really SAW the truth, the change would naturally follow.
I am still curious about the relationship between awareness/understanding and concrete change. But my lunchtime encounter showed me at least this much: if you can not imagine a different life, you cannot create one. When that man asked me: “What else is there?”–that question was not for me. It was for him. And he did not know the answer.