In much the same way that we instinctively feel unseen gazes upon our backs, I feel an unseen shadow pursuing my life. It lurks always out of sight, though never out of mind. It dives back into the bushes just before I catch it in my swinging glance.
Its hiding place is inward, the buzzing simultaneity of consciousness. A whir and blur of traffic all jamming their horns. The dense noise from all directions creates the perfect hiding place for the insidious stalker. It casts its unsettling stare into my soul from within the mess of impulse, emotion, memory, and anticipation that populate my mind.
What of it I’ve learned so far can only be approached from the side, alluded to and evoked through reference. As to its overall context, author Richard Geldard places it well:
“Many aspire to a higher or more fulfilling life, but the seeking is usually only an impulse of the moment, unrealized and not sustained. A vague sense of dissatisfaction arises in many people about the quality and nature of their present lives, but from that dissatisfaction no real sense or specific goal emerges. The telos or goal/fulfillment desired remains an inarticulate feeling, and these vague feelings do not find expression in the conscious mind as ideas which can be acted upon or which are capable of guiding our daily experience. The result is that we merely survive, longing inarticulately for freedom from vague feelings of dissatisfaction.”
Is this vague stalker a dissatisfaction of sorts? The ghost of a higher, more fulfilling life unrealized? Is it the shadow of who I could be? Walt Whitman felt within himself the presence of a destiny, a self unrealized:
“…the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.”
Almost as if breaking bread with the slippery bastard, Whitman describes the vague hellfire of destiny unrealized as ‘sweet’. I find the sensation of destiny unknown, unrealized, anything but sweet. Perhaps I should relax. But — Whitman gets it right here — it’s a flame. It consumes, burns, and grows. It charrs anything, everything I own. Shall we sit and sip tea while my building roars ablaze?
A family of groundhogs lurk in my mother’s backyard. The only way they know to survive is to eat her flowers. They do this, incessantly, to prepare for winter hibernation in their underground tunnels, for which they excavate over 700 pounds of soil. She recently bought a steel cage in which she hopes to trap them, one by one, to save her gnawed garden.
The mouth of a groundhog contains four chisel-shaped teeth growing at a rate of 1/16″ per week. This is suitable, for their ceaseless burrowing wears away these same teeth at a roughly equivalent rate. If they did not burrow, or ceaselessly nibble at my mother’s garden, these teeth would grow to impale their lower jaw. This would form an inadvertent, red-streaked ivory muzzle made of tooth and blood.
An 1883 report by the New Hampshire Legislative Woodchuck Committee reads, in part:
“The woodchuck, despite its deformities both of mind and body, possess some of the amenities of a higher civilization. It cleans its face after the manner of the squirrels, and licks its fur after the manner of a cat. Your committee is too wise, however, to be deceived by this purely superficial observation of better habits. Contemporaneous with the ark, the woodchuck has not made any material progress in social science, and it is now too late to reform the wayward sinner. The average age of the woodchuck is too long to please your committee…. The woodchuck is not only a nuisance, but also a bore. It burrows beneath the soil, and then chuckles to see a mowing machine, man and all, slump into one of these holes and disappear….”
Some, like my mother, and the gentlemen of the New Hampshire Legislative Woodchuck Committee, would appreciate the growth of their muzzles. Their deeply-dug tunnels undermine everything from gardens to happiness.
Perhaps my trouble lies not with the vagueness of the eyes upon my back, emanating from some unstated dissatisfaction, or some unrealized potential, but with my lackadaisical retort. I’m bothered not by the opaqueness of life itself, but my response to it. It’s as if I’m walking across a thickly frozen lake, and the soles of my feet register a slight vibration, a knocking coming from below. I glance and notice a patch of bare ice cleared of snow where, I cannot be sure, but there seems a figure knocking upon the underside of the frozen lake partitioning us. If someone is trapped below the ice, they’re drowning. I ought to rush, thrash at the ice above them relentlessly, tirelessly, to break it and set them free. Whether or not I succeed would be secondary; what matters is the earnestness, the effort with which I hack at the ice.
But I don’t. My body registers the vibrations, my peripherals register a clearing, but I keep on walking. I may periodically glance back, curious about it all. I may meander over and squint through the bare ice to make out what’s tapping from below. But I deploy no sustained effort to break the ice. I lose interest and walk on.
The groundhog knows no partitions. Its life depends upon diligent burrowing, unearthing of the deep. Recall that it’ll be impaled by its own teeth if it doesn’t. What happens to me if I do not burrow? If I do not pick at the ice? Nothing much, I suspect. I will simply live. I will ‘merely survive’, as Geldard puts it. I will forever wonder what lies beyond the partitions in my mind. What exists beneath the noise of consciousness?
Every evening when I sit to meditate on a little black pillow tucked in the corner of my apartment, I enter the excavated tunnels of soil. I pursue Whitman’s fire within, the blazing of destiny unknown that surfaces through the groundhog’s tunnels as a lukewarm invitation. I dig. I become the groundhog. I do so as if my life depends on it. I recognize this seated moment, with eyes closed and legs crossed, as a fleeting, sacred moment of attention. It is my brief excursion over to the cleared patch of ice where something knocks from behind an opaque partition. I know I will soon lose interest. I know I will soon open my eyes and wander over to the fridge for a snack, or check my emails, or Twitter. Something will pull me away from the clearing, away from attention.
But until this happens, I sit. I dig through unconsciousness. I dig through the mind’s incessant motion. I feel, if ever so slightly, that the gaze I’ve felt upon my back was always this. Stilled awareness — its omnipresent gaze refracted through the phenomena of my life. Until the subject of attention is attention itself, the sensation of stilled awareness is felt as a distant refraction, a vague gaze emanating from a far-off place.
It’s through the phenomena of life meditation digs. Through what partitions us from ourselves, attention from awareness. Like the groundhog, I will continue to dig as if my life depends on it. Should I lose focus and my tunnels fall short, it’s not my teeth that will impale me, but the numbed, dulled, sensation of a life gone by, unlived, unknown to itself.