by Dr David, Editor / Publisher
I left New Orleans and came to visit Cousin Larry in the great state of Tennessee. I have two cousins with whom I have stayed in close touch. They are closer to me than my own siblings. Larry is one of them.
I arrived 5-6 days ago. Larry and his girlfriend met me where the airport shuttle dropped me off, about an hour from his place in rural eastern Tennessee.
Larry's main residence is Florida, but he acquired this place 6 years ago and has been slowly remodeling things. One big change he made was to build a large storage building and inside, at one end of that, a guest apartment. That's where I stay.
We arrived late afternoon. He showed me around property. We made dinner and spoke into the night. I spent the night, very comfortably in his guest house. San Miguel is really too much of a city for me. It was great to sleep again in the country. These parts aren't as remote as my place in the mountains of Vermont was, but they do most of the trick.
That next morning, exiting the bathroom I was shocked to see a snake stretched out full length just inside the second bedroom. It was fat and gray, motionless, flat on the floor and significantly larger than the snake in the photo above. My first impression was that it was a rubber replica, left there to scare me. But a second later, when I considered that it might be a real, live snake, I jumped back, raising one foot and then the other high in the air, in a lively, two step jig as I did. Then I went back to thinking it was a replica. Really, if I had been thinking clearly, I would have realized that the snake had not been there when I entered the bathroom. I couldn't have overlooked it. As it was, I turned away, thinking that, for better effect, Larry should have positioned it in some more out of the way place. Then I went outside to do my yoga.
Some few minutes later, stretching on the grass outside the apartment, I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked up to see the large, pale underbelly of a snake, rising and writhing, pressed up against the inside of the window screen. I roused Cousin Larry and together we managed to remove the screen, evict the snake, lift him with a broomstick and place him in a plastic bin, put the lid on the bin, bring him to be identified by a neighbor. Roger, opined, "It sure looks like a Chicken Snake [aka a Gray Rat Snake], They're harmless. They keep down the rodent population." So we brought it home and released it into the brush away from the living quarters.
Earlier in this trip, in New Orleans, I took down from my daughter's bookcase and began to read two books on the mind, Michael Pollen's How to Change Your Mind and Pema Chodron's Uncomfortable With Uncertainty. Both of these books shed light on my serpentine encounter.
Pollen's book is about the use of psychedelic drugs in therapy and consciousness expansion, thinking outside the box. It reminds me of what I learned in neurology class. Namely, that the brain is best thought of as a reducing filter. There is simply too much sensory information coming in every second to think about more than a tiny fraction of the whole. The brain keeps asking, "Do I need to think about this? Do I need to consider, examine or worry about this? Should I send this information up the neural pathway to the frontal lobe where consciousness occurs?" Ninety-nine out of 100 times, 999 out of 1000 times, the answer is no.
Another mechanism the brain has for accomplishing it's Herculean task is to look for patterns. If you can detect a pattern, then you can stop examining the subject. Because the details all fit into the regular whole, they do not have to be individually considered. The brain sometimes "looks" without seeing.
Once I placed a small brownish-red book on top of a brown heat register so that it just covered up one set of vents. When I went back to look for the book I saw the eight sets of vents, but no book. The book was gone, or rather, it had disappeared. My brain saw eight sets of vents and did not see the book sitting on top of the sixth set of vents. It saw the pattern and not the detail.
Consciousness-altering drugs make the connections that your survival-oriented brain tends to deny. Rather than registering most everything as stereotyped, cliched, been-there-done-that experiences, the drugged brain becomes what the Zen masters call "beginner's mind." You see things as if for the first time, with a wondrous detail that the survival-oriented brain just doesn't have time for.
This is why, as Pollen notes, employees in various Silicon Valley firms regularly take micro-doses of LSD. These people are looking for innovations. They need to think outside of the box. They need to make those connections that the managerial brain, in its short-sightedness, has labeled insignificant, unproductive.
After we released the snake into the brush I was shocked by how not with it I was when I first saw the snake. I was completely wrong. Not only could I not think outside the box, I couldn't see what was right in front of me. I didn't see the snake. I saw a rubber replica. My mind was so short-sighted that I put myself at risk. It was a good thing that the reptile was harmless, because I was in harm's way, without a clue.
In her book Pema Chodron observes:
"The mind is always seeking zones of safety [certainty], and those zones of safety [certainty] are continually falling apart."
"When things fall apart, instead of struggling to regain our concept of who we are, we can use it as an opportunity to be open and inquisitive about what has just happened and what will happen next." 41
"This moving away from comfort and security [certainty], this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted and shaky - that's called liberation."
"[Egolessness] is our capacity to relax with not knowing..."
My encounter with the snake exposed my uncertainty. My not knowing was on full display. If I can ignore the reality of a six-foot long snake in the bedroom, how can I trust any of my mind's activity? What other situations am I misreading? What else am I missing? I've pointed to this state of unknowingness when I say, "I know now what I didn't know then, but I don't know yet what I don't know yet." But this time I was fully immersed.
In the aftermath of that reptilian visit I understood that my sense of self, my ego's ideology, was demonstrably false. I was forced to admit that my intellectual constructs are, at best, imperfect. I had to consider that my emotional reactions are fantasies, made up. There was some self-recrimination for being so "stupid," but this was different. It was the sensation of being lost, an internal disorientation, a profound groundlessness. It was a moment of liberation, wherein I was freed from my habitual same old same old. It wasn't just taking in something different. It wasn't even a different system taking it in. It was systemless, unmediated perception: there was no one home.
It seems to me that it is not that the masters know something more than we know. Rather it is that they know that they don't know. The Buddhist teach, "Enlightenment is not an acquisition." It seems to me that it might, in fact, be a loss, a getting yourself out of the way.
Chodron advises that accepting, examining and being with one's imperfections, one's negativity, is the practice of Buddhism, where "...we no longer shield ourselves from the vulnerability of our [negative] condition, from the basic fragility of existence."
The prescription for this negative state of affairs is compassionate interest in one's negative experience. Rather than reacting contrary to our negativity (running away from it or fighting to change it), we should embrace our demons and freely give them the creative attention that they now force from us. Chodron advises that kindly witnessing the negativity that blocks our happiness, exploring the serpent within, is the path to happiness.
I'll be keeping my mind open and, given the size of the snakes here in Tennessee, the door to the guest apartment closed. I'm not sure how much ego-dissolution I can handle on this trip.
photo: Alessandro Bo (cropped)
Dr David has been publishing this online magazine for 4 years now. He is about to expand the format of the magazine and publish it under a new name, San Miguel Sunday. Anyone with any interest in contributing articles is heartily encouraged to contact him at the email below. The "Best City in the World" deserves a good lokkal magazine.
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