Sometimes in an unsuspecting moment, I’ll get a sudden new take on life. On my life. On life in general. A light will go on in the dusty attic of habitual thought. I’ll have an “a-ha” moment. In fancier language, it’s called an epiphany.

Epiphanies can be powerfully positive, like Walt Whitman seeing infinity in a blade of grass or Henry David Thoreau seeing the sun as a morning star. Or they can go the other way. The light shines on something we’ve been keeping in the darkness – something we would rather not see, at least initially.

Nonetheless, in the long run, it’s better that the light goes on than not. One of the most unwise maxims ever is “what you don’t know won’t hurt you.”

Here’s a recent unnerving epiphany of my own, for example. It’s two o’clock in the morning and I’m lying in bed wide awake, half disturbed that I’ll have to face tomorrow’s to-do list tired and irritable. Insomnia is a common experience for me, for a lot of people, I hear. In part, it’s the pace of modern life. We have trouble slowing down, let alone coming to the full stop of sleep.

To not waste precious time, I try to read myself back to sleep, but that doesn’t work. Nor does counting sheep, or even counting my blessings, so this time I say to myself, okay, lie here in the darkness and just be. I’ve never tried that before. If life is good, and intelligent life (let’s say human life, for the sake of argument) is especially good, just be intelligent life lying here in the darkness for now. Being. Doing nothing.

And with that move, pop, on goes the light in my head. It strikes me for the first time that I find no satisfaction – no meaning really — in just being. (Other than I prefer it, of course, to non-being.) And peering a little further into the dusty attic, another unpleasant realization is already taking shape: that I’m a big hypocrite about this. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been talking myself up as a “being” kind of person as opposed to a “doing” kind of person, as if “being” is the yardstick by which I measure my life. And the truth is just the opposite.

Right away I want to tuck this thought back into the darkness, but the cat is out of the bag, as they say. Although I posture as a human being, I’ve become a human doing. When I first stepped on to this path, I can’t say. I wasn’t born this way. A baby is pure being. Then as a child being and doing are pretty much the same thing. As an adolescent, even as an adult, romance (including the heartache part of it), can throw you fully back into whatever being you might have lost contact with. Same with a birth or death in the family.

But on the path to so-called maturity, the being part typically erodes, until … But let me speak for myself, what my epiphany reveals to me about me: for many years now I’ve been on the path of evaluating my day, and thus myself, in terms of the percentage of things that get checked off on my “to do” list. Far too much. Way over-doing it.

To a painful “a-ha” moment like this one, the ego inevitably fights back. For God’s sake, things have to be done! Adults have responsibilities! But if the epiphany is powerful enough, as this one is, it is irresistible. It speaks with perfect clarity: Nothing wrong with doing, if the doing hasn’t taken over. But more likely the “doing” driven day becomes like sleep walking, becomes insensitive, if not hostile to “being,” and we find ourselves trudging through life as if it is something rather ordinary. And the big view – life as a miracle, a sacred gift — becomes obscure and finally lost. We no longer know who we are, apart from our doing. Surely this what Jesus was referring to when he said we must be born again, become again as a little child, if we are to see God. “Seeing God” is finding our way back into our being. “Back home,” one might say.

Who can take such a devastating insight lying down – devastating because to embrace it would require such a huge change in how one is living. My ego fights on, defending myself that the thought behind my “to do” list way of living (the unconscious thought, until the epiphany shined a light on it) is that if I get done what has to be done, then I can truly relax and just be.

But then it comes to me, like the thump on the head by a Zen Master: I’ll never get everything done that needs to be done. I’ll never stay on top of things. There’ll be one more room to clean, one more essay to correct, a person to whom I owe a call, a trip to the Y to exercise the upper body, a bill that needs paying, the motor oil that needs changing … There’ll never come a time when everything to do is done. And to continue on this way would finally be to get my life done. Duh.

And haven’t I long known that those who have something to offer life (like love, let’s say) are those who have a lot of space inside themselves, who are un-busy, even when doing things, because they aren’t doing too many things, because they’ve got “being” space for whatever happens to come before them. And to bring the Zen Master Jesus in again, this could be symbolized by the moment in the New Testament where the woman in a throng of people touches the hem of his garment, and he says to his disciples, “Who touched me?”

Dear God, how hungry is the world for people who are aware of who they are and where they are, and who or what might be touching them.
. . .

As synchronicity would have it, the book I’m reading on this so-far sleepless night is New Hampshire, by Robert Frost. I feel already half-defeated by how seemingly impossible it would be for me to significantly alter the path I’ve been traveling on for so long, when I come to perhaps Frost’s most famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” A-ha. This poem speaks to exactly what my epiphany is addressing: doing versus being; the importance of stopping the doing now and then; the importance of having that capacity and exercising it. The speaker is on an unspecified journey, horse and sleigh, maybe horse and carriage, from point A to point B. We aren’t told from where to where. In the middle of the woods he stops. For no reason. Even his horse is confused that he would stop without a farmhouse near. “He gives his harness bells a shake/ to ask if there is some mistake./ The only other sounds the sweep/ of easy wind and downy flake.”

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” the speaker goes on next to say. “Being” is lovely, dark and deep, I read between the lines. A-ha. There’s the rub: Frost’s juxtaposition of loveliness and depth with darkness. There’s a dark side to being we’d just rather not grapple with. To be aware of the loveliness and depth of being requires awareness as well of the loveliness and depth of darkness — that full stop that is awaiting us and everyone we love. Who wants to fully breathe that in, and fully breathe that out, and fully breathe that in again. The speaker in the poem only stops for a moment, before he goes on to his to-do list, which he refers to as his “promises to keep,” his “miles to go before he sleeps.”

But the speaker does stop. And the reader – this reader anyway — gets the feeling that when he arrives at his destination, the quality of that destination will include everywhere he has been, but especially wherever he has stopped along the way to just be. For every stop along the way, he will bring a little bit more to where he is going, in terms of those promises he intends to keep. A significant bit more.

It strikes me that here is precisely the tonic my epiphany requires, if it isn’t going to be too hard to look at, if I’m not going to have to run away from the “too much” it’s asking of me.

That’s the thing about difficult epiphanies. If you’re going to have them, to receive them, to give them the place in your life they are asking for, you’re going to have to be patient, and self-forgiving, in a way that doers often aren’t. You can’t get from here to there in one fell swoop.

And as I am remembering an old Arab proverb: “no matter how far you’ve traveled down the wrong path, turn back,” I fall asleep. I fall asleep in a good way, thinking that tomorrow I’ll do a little better, as far as being goes. A significantly little bit better.

1 Comment

  1. Mireya Mudd

    Very goid article. Most people do as oppose to be. Many suffer for just being. Unbearable to just be for most of the humans.


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