“What I think is you is really me masquerading as you?,” he quizzed. “What the hell does that mean? My feeling is that if it looks like you, talks like you, smells like you then it probably is you. Now you’re telling me it’s really me?”
“Let me put it this way. I saw a sign on a church a while ago and it said: ‘We never see things as they are; we only see things as we are.’“ The blank expression on his face made her realize again that this was not going to be of much help. The foam on their espresso was dissipating as she wondered why the cups had to be so small and the prices so high? Was it just that way in LA? And where was all this extra caffeine going? How was it going to find its way to the surface of society?
Sipping, she continued. “Okay. How about this? You know when I took that astronomy class I learned that when we look up at the distant stars, we see them twinkling. But the stars aren’t twinkling at all. The light they’re giving off is pure, unwavering. What we see as twinkling is merely the effect of the Earth’s atmosphere on that light. When we see the light through the air that surrounds our planet, because the air is moving around, shimmering, it makes the light from the stars seem to dance and twinkle. This might be okay for a nursery rhyme but it isn’t what’s actually going on. That’s why it’s better to see the stars on a cold night because the air moves around less when it’s cold than when it’s hot.”
“So do I, for that matter,” he added.
But the allusion to the stars seemed not to sink in as she would have hoped so she added: “Or you know, sometimes when the sun sets it appears to turn bright orange or red? But it really isn’t that color; it only seems to be that color also because of the bending effect of the Earth’s atmosphere on the sun’s rays. We’re again getting a distorted view of the cosmos.”
He reflected a moment and then said: “You mean that there’s a reality that’s neutral, objective, impersonal. Some sort of reality constant, as it were. But instead of seeing this objective, impersonal reality, we see what we see because we see it through some sort of filtering system?”
“Exactly!,” she added. “And our filtering system, like the Earth’s atmosphere, prevents us from seeing clearly and seeing the event, such as the star light or the color of the sun, in its true, objective, impersonal way. The way the Universe has in mind.”
“So what you’re saying is that whatever I’m seeing in you is really not in you but is in me?,” he asked.
“Well, mostly,” she answered. “You see, everyone we meet we meet in the middle of their lives. They come into our lives with whatever stuff, you know, baggage, they’re carrying. Sometimes the baggage is light, you know, carry-on type baggage. But sometimes the baggage is the under-the-plane type baggage, the kind you have to pay extra for. So those people actually do bring their stuff into our relationship with them. But in truth, as much as we meet them in the middle of their lives, we meet them in the middle of our lives as well. So their stuff, the stuff they actually bring with them, we see mostly through our stuff. So neither of us is actually seeing the other the way the other really is. We’re actually only seeing the illusion of the other and so it makes any real connection considerably more difficult.”
“Can’t be any more difficult than this,” he remarked.
“Not only that,” she continued, “but it makes us see the impersonal things that happen in our lives, like the people we meet or the things that happen to us, it makes us see them in personal ways. In other words, instead of seeing the Universe as being filled with impersonal life lessons, we tend to believe that those things and events and people are to be taken personally. We get hurt and so we can’t see the life lessons that are really just objective stuff.”
“But that denies that people actually have stuff and I know that’s not so,” he interrupted.
“No it doesn’t,” she answered. “What it does mean, however, is that we see their stuff through our own stuff. It means that how their stuff affects us is really mostly due to our stuff. You see, the important thing here is not someone’s stuff, we all have stuff, but rather how their stuff plays into our stuff. In other words, it’s not about what they do but how we are impacted by what they do.”
“Okay. I understand a bit now.” She seemed comforted by his growing knowledge. He responded. “So, for example, if I am in a room with say 12 people and I say something, each of those 12 people will respond differently to what I said. So it isn’t what I say that creates the impact upon them but rather what they did with what I said.”
“Exactly!,” she exclaimed. “So what those people in the room do with what you said depends entirely upon their stuff, you know, what they’re about and that of course depends upon everything that has happened to them in their lives to the moment you said whatever it is you said in that room.”
“So,” he said, getting the hang of this, “then no one can really have any effect upon us. Nothing that anyone does or says can really impact upon us because whatever they say or do has to be filtered through our own stuff and so it comes out differently for everyone.”
“And so,” she continued, “we each have to take responsibility for ourselves and stop blaming the other for how we feel. In other words, it’s not ‘Bill makes me sad,’ or “Sally makes me happy.’ It’s really about how we feel about what Bill or Sally said or did. At least that’s how it is when we speak about emotions in terms of pure spirituality. Real life may tend to be a bit different.”
“I understand that it is perhaps different,” he said. “But let’s for the moment stay with the spiritual ideas. So in other words our filtering system is really our own histories. It’s what has happened to us to make us think and feel about life the way we do. It’s what our fears are about.”
“Right,” she said. “So we interpret everything that happens to us through our own history and we try to make our history stay true to what we have made up. We only see and hear those things in the way that makes us right, even if we are actually wrong. Let me use another filtering system type metaphor: that of the sieve, you know, the colander you use to drain pasta. We all have history, no getting away from that. But instead of letting our history block the passage of events and people through us, we need act more like the sieve or the colander.”
She noticed he had turned to stare at a young lady who had come into the store. Here she was, she felt, trying to tell him how God thought and Satan entered the picture. She knew real life was different but she was upset it chose right then to be so.
“Excuse me,” she said, partly clearing her throat. “It’s like this. Our history makes our later life events stick to us too much. We simply cannot let these events pass through us, like the sieve or the colander does with the water that we want to drain. As a result, we tend to use our history to interpret what is now going on, you know, who we meet we see only through the goop left in our strainer.”
“So were we able to let events pass through us and not become caught up in our history, we might be able to better see them for what they are instead of what we are,” he interjected. “So like looking at the stars or the sun, it isn’t what we see that we are really seeing. It is what is beyond what we see that matters. In order to see clearly, we have to get beyond our own atmosphere, our own stuff, because it is our atmosphere, our stuff, that is distorting our view of the other person.”
They each sipped their espresso. She noticed that two sips were all that were needed to finish the coffee. She needed more and wondered if he needed more as well. His eyes wandered, still searching for the missing woman.
“So the question then is, ‘How do we get out of our atmosphere, that which prevents us from seeing the objective reality? How do we get beyond ourselves so we can see the life lessons in what’s going on?,” she asked rhetorically. “And of course that really means asking how we can become Enlightened.”
“One hurdle at a time, please,” he begged.
“Remember,” she asked, “when Ivan Hoffman started to write these Columns, the ones we’re in right now?”
“Sure. How could I forget? They’re wonderful!,” he responded. “I hope lots of people are reading them and telling their friends about them. I think they’re really important.”
“Please,” she interrupted, “don’t be so effusive in your praise. Others may be reading this right now and we don’t want to appear to be Ivan’s stooges.”
She went on. “Well, if you remember, he began with a series about the loss of ego,” she continued. “What he was saying there is that the ego, the mind, the fear, that which keeps us from following our hearts, is really the same as the filtering system of our lives, like the atmosphere of the Earth. It protects us from harm, much as our air does, because it keeps us from feeling pain. But in the same way that the air blocks us from seeing reality, our filtering system, which is based upon everything that has ever happened to us, keeps us from seeing reality as well.”
“Yes, I remember those early Columns about the Death of Ego,” he said, continuing where they had left off the previous week. “Then he used the analogy of the artichoke whose tough leaves serve to protect the heart and related that to our ego, the part of ourselves that operates out of fear. But I see it’s the same thing as what you’re talking about in terms of the Earth’s atmosphere.”
“Right,” she said. “And he said that the Ego is what separates us from God, from Eternity, from the Universe. So the key to seeing clearly is seeing with our heart and not with our ego. In other words, the way we can see reality is by letting go of the ‘it’s about me personally’ approach to seeing, which is nothing but ego, and seeing everything that happens as impersonal and objective. In order to do this, we have to connect with Eternity and we can only do this in our hearts.”
“Waiter,” he answered, “two more espressos, please. Make them doubles.”
Hell, caffeine be damned, she thought.
“But,” he said, “and this is very important here; what you’re talking about is the ideal. The emotional place you’re speaking about is being Enlightened. But you mentioned earlier that most of the time our lives and how we behave are usually not at this high place. As far as I can tell, most of us are still human and so we’re most of the time far short of the goal. We have pain. We have loneliness. It looks like if someone loves us, respects us, wants our work, that that makes us feel better. I know it probably is better to stand alone, be integral, not ‘need’ someone.” He made those quotation marks in the air with his 2 fingers. “But we do and when others don’t see us, don’t love us, it hurts like a bandit.”
“Of course that’s very true,” she freely admitted. “None of us is ‘there’ yet.” She made those quotation marks in the air with her 2 fingers and smiled at him. “But we must always have in mind the elevated position lest we lose our dream, our goal.”
“So how do we reconcile the deep spirituality that you’re talking about with the ‘reality’ of our lives?” He made those quotation marks in the air with his 2 fingers, smiled back at her, at which time she grabbed his fingers and kissed them tenderly. “I mean, isn’t all this stuff just some sort of rationalization for being out of control? When we don’t know what the hell’s going on in our lives we pretend that the very mystery of it all is what it’s all about. It’s like we’re just rationalizing our fear.”
“Well maybe it is rationalizing,” she added softly. “I mean, how the hell do I know if there’s a God, or a plan, or anything beyond what I actually see? It’s all just stuff I’ve made up. But if it works to bring me peace now, if it helps calm my fears now, if it helps bring me a bit of joy to the seeming chaos, then isn’t it true? I mean, what’s actually true anyway? Isn’t true just what works for you? If it works, then it’s true.”
“Well, maybe it is,” he said. “But isn’t it also true that if I enjoy laying in bed with you, watching television, having you hold me and having me hold you, being sweet and gentle and in love, isn’t that ‘real’ too?” He thought about making those marks again and decided not to and then decided again to do it. After all, if he could get a couple more kisses, even on the fingers, he could use it. So he did, and so did she. Get it where you can, he thought.
“Yes, of course it is,” she agreed. “But in the deepest sense of the words, I am not the cure for your loneliness. No matter how much we love each other, neither you nor I can find peace, in our hearts or our minds, in the other. Because even if we don’t want to admit it, we each know that the other can leave us. There is always some holding back, some not letting go, some keeping our hearts guarded from each other.”
“I suppose, actually I know you’re right,” he said. “And I suppose that we do that because of our histories again.”
She laughed. “I guess none of these people reading our conversation were feeling we would ever get back to the original topic. Leave it to left-brained you to do that for them.”
“And for us,” he quickly added. “But seriously, we hold back from the other because we all have pretty much the same history. It’s a history filled with loss of one sort or another. We all seem to grow up with some sense of scarcity, mostly in love, so although we try to find completeness in someone else, we know, down deep, we can’t. Even in our most loving times with someone else, our history tells us that it can end. So what’s the answer here?”
“The answer?,” she replied. “I don’t know that there is an answer. At least not one that works for everyone. Maybe the answer is simply to let go and trust in our individual processes. Reading books, going to workshops, all that stuff helps perhaps but at the bottom of it all, we have to find what works only for us to bring us that place of joy, of Enlightenment.”
“I know you’re right about all of this of course,” he said. “But you know, it’s a lot more fun to go to a movie with you than to go alone.”
© 1995 Ivan Hoffman
ADAPTED FROM: “THE COLUMN” and “SHE
SAID…HE SAID: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT LOVE, RELATIONSHIPS AND THE MEANING OF