Are there pivotal moments in life, those moments where nothing is quite the same after?
If you asked me for my strongest experience, I would offer you this. It is the spring of 1968; I was living in Berkeley California, in a small house up on the hill, with my wife and two young sons.
Like almost every other night of my life, I woke up needed a trip to the john. And there, standing in front of the toilet bare naked, reality somehow made a very strong shift. It was a physical sensation, as if life were blurred and had been blurred and fuzzy for a very long time, but now the lens of perception has somehow been adjusted and brought into sharp focus. It was really me, standing there . . . peeing. But really me.
There was an acute physical sense of presence and life and recognition of myself, quite distinct and strong. There was a unique sensation of my bare body standing on bare feet, slightly cold. I could feel blood moving in my veins, my breath going in and out.
I finished, and turned toward the door of the bathroom very aware of my nakedness, the cool of the air, the weight of my body on my feet, the feel of the bare floor on the soles of my feet—all sharply distinct. “Strange.” I said to myself, “How did I get here?” It was as if I had awakened from a long sleep.
Yes, at one level, I knew where I was. It was all familiar. Yet, at a most concrete level, just at that exact moment, the question; “How did I get here?” was very real. I felt somehow I had just arrived here from a long time past and was standing now at the toilet.
I paused at the door of the bathroom looking right and left down the short hallway that connected the bathroom with two bedrooms. I just stood there, taking it all in as if I needed to relocate myself. All the inner automatic processes of orientation were felt, as if something quite separate was watching some human man locate himself in space and time.
I looked to the left through the open door into the bedroom. I saw a bed, the shape of a woman sleeping, illuminated by the moonlight coming from the big window over the bed. Words came, “Yes, that’s my wife.” And the events of the last six years came like remembering a story, as if lived by me in a dream. How we met. How we had make love in the backseat of a car in the Florida woods. How she had gotten pregnant and we married as a result. And all the events that led to this moment of my standing there, naked in the hallway.
“How did I get here?” This time I almost said it out loud. “Who lived these years?” The shock of this left me almost paralyzed. Slowly I turned and looked to my right toward the other bedroom. A couple of steps and I looked through the door at a crib, and a small bed. Two young boys slept illuminated by the moonlight. “My sons” a voice said in me. There was this taste of knowing them like characters in some story I had read recently, or as a movie watched last night, as if I myself had not lived the story that led to this moment. “Who lived these years?” Not me, somehow. It was not a speculative statement. It was a statement of fact. I did not choose any of this. It had all just happened to me as if I had been in a long dream. I was shivering. Not from the cold but from this incomprehensible fact that somehow I had ‘arrived’ here at this place in time and space without my participation. It was as if my life had lived me all by itself.
In a state of shock and bewilderment, I walked into the center of the small living room in front of me. I could not sit on the furniture. Somehow it wasn’t mine. I just sat down in the middle of the floor, still stark naked. I could not move, could not comprehend what I was experiencing, and did not want to disturb the sleeping household. I was sure I could not face anyone like I was.
Some hours passed, the dark slowly changing to morning’s first light, I was cold and stiff but my mind and presence were alive and as if completely turned upside down. Finally, I heard some stirring. One of the boys was waking up. I needed to respond to the day at hand, somehow. So I got up, walked into my bedroom and began my day as if nothing had happened. I just did not know what else to do. It was as if I was in a play and needed to say my lines and play my part as best I could and not to let the other actors know that I knew this was just a play.
There was breakfast and the commute to San Francisco across the Bay Bridge in my blue VW to the office of the Addressograph Multigraph Corporation where I was a salesman selling small printing presses. I talked to people as if all was perfectly normal. And the days followed one after the other. I had no power to change anything. I found myself lost in the “theater” for hours at a time, in and out of the “story.”
Tentatively, I raised questions of this experience with my wife and my friends, in the form of something I’d read or as if it were somebody else’s experience I’d heard about. I was afraid to reveal it as mine. They all looked at me with an empty look, like what I was saying did not make sense to them at all. In fact, my wife asked me not to talk about it any more as it made her uncomfortable. She suggested I had been reading too much science fiction and needed be get my feet back on the ground.
So, I stayed silent with my growing questions, living with this acute certainty that everything I was doing—in fact everything I was—was a lie, intrinsically false. And yet, there was nothing within my power to change anything. There was nothing to do but go on as if playing a part in some play that somebody else made up and was directing.
After some weeks, I became numb to this experience. Sometimes I remembered it, as if it too, were just part of the story. It was if I had awaked for a short time and now I was back asleep in my dream. Something was content with all this. Yet, something had shifted, at a profound level. I just could not trust myself, my thoughts and my actions in the same way. There was a hopeless sense that I was inside another person who I could not control and could not trust. Again and again, I found something had just been said by “me” or just done by “me” that did not correspond at all with what I really felt or really thought or really wanted.
There were daily examples that I lived helplessly, again and again. I would be on the road home from work and observe that I was talking to myself about my life, my wife, about our relationship and my job and my duties and obligations— full of complaints and strongly wishing I were going somewhere else. I would carry this litany of complaint and alienation even up to walking in the front door. Then, entering the house, my wife would great me with a warm smile and hug, as if she was really glad to see me. I responded in kind, outwardly full of warmth and smiles, as if I too were very glad to see her and be home. And, at some level, this was all true, too. Who was I? The complaints and wishes to be somewhere else? Or the happy husband glad to be home? Both seemed true and false at the same time.
With two children and a wife to support it always seemed that no matter how much I brought home, it was gone before the next payday. I spent hours making budgets and looking at our expenses. On paper, we should have had enough money to live on if we lived fugally and carefully. But then I would go to the supermarket to buy food, and come home with many things not on the budget—a magazine, an extra toy for a child, a bottle of good red wine. Instead of spending the fixed amount allotted for food, I’d spend sometimes a third more. Not just once, but over and over and over. Something in me knew this while I did it. One part of me was running right over my good reason and logic like a Peterbuilt over the pet dog.
When having dinner with friends, we would drink some wine, always more than I planned to, and then there would be stories. I found myself talking with great conviction about things that really never happened or, for sure, did not happen as I was telling them. Sometimes I would see that I was lying and boasting again. I’d make some promise to stop and not lie, not boast, but in just seconds there I would be again, boasting and lying and telling stories. Over and over again.
In my quiet moments, I would see that my behavior often contradicted and usually had nothing to do with the good thoughts I'd had. Was I crazy? Were other people also like this? Or were others as they appeared to be on the surface? Not like me at all, but sane and possessing some inner order I did not see in myself?
Years have passed. And now, in the shadow of 70, I reread this experience I had at 28 as if it were yesterday. In all the years in between, nothing quite so real ever happened again for quite a long time. I was led to read, to go back to college and get most of the way through a masters program in the Philosophy of Religion, to meet and speak with many interesting people. And finally I met with some who’d had similar experiences. That led me to a path of inner work that somehow corresponds to the questions that appeared that night, standing naked in the bathroom.
But if I close my eyes, sit still and become quiet, really quiet, this inner fact still presents itself as true, that I am not what I think I am, not this “persona” that has led this life and who writes these words, who somehow contains the memories of a life. In fact, I don’t know who I really am. Who am I? Who are we?
--Chuck St. John
--Chuck St. John
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