The soul...in its very essence, is free, unbounded,
holy, pure and perfect. But somehow or other it
finds itself tied down to matter, and thinks of
itself as matter. It is a fact of everybody’s consciousness
that one thinks of oneself as the body.
The Chicago Addresses
(Swami Vivekanada, an excerpt from his opening remarks, the first World Parliament of Religions, 1893)
(Swami Vivekanada, an excerpt from "Why We Disagree", the first World Parliament of Religions, 1893)
Waking up to the first really cool Saturday, I decided to throw my bike in the back of the van to ride while Matt was in his three-hour theater class.
It was perfectly clear. The mountains that sit at the edge of the valley were plain, their features distinct: crags, trees, a ruffle of houses around their bases. The air slipped by my neck, my cheeks, my hair, and made the translucent yellow wind-breaker slick close to the front of my arms but sound like a sail behind. I rarely get on a bike without remembering how it felt to ride one when I was eight, a surge of power and independence, imagining that my bike was a car that could go anywhere I wanted.
No wonder I’m afraid to age, afraid to die. I like my body. I like having one. I like having this one. Sure, it’s had its share of defects: two lazy eyes that had to be surgically corrected when I was just two, some illnesses, but not many. And it heals quickly. After all, isn’t that the real miracle? Not that we get sick, but that, with all of these complicated interlocking systems that seem pretty fragile, we spend so much of our lives healthy?
And then, oh, those sensations…the touch, the smell, the taste, the beauty that seems to land like thunder deep inside; the sounds of tires humming, of a bird at dawn, of a tune played for the ninety-ninth time; the smell of my husband’s skin, of my sleepy cat’s fur; the slip of silk against skin, the cold of water in my throat, the fuzzy-soft of the pink angora sweater my grandmother used to wear, the squirm in my sons’ bodies when I tickled them. When I was still allowed to tickle them.
Yes, I am attached to this body. Very.
That these profound joys will become increasingly elusive and, finally, gone, is terrifying. I don’t remember anyone touching my grandmother in the years before she died except to help move her between the wheelchair and the bed and back. Accidental touching. No more touching with intent, with recognition, with communion.
I mean, I still have the same car I bought new in 1995 and I put every single one of its 130,000-plus miles on it. I don’t want a new car or a new body. I like this one. Its flaws are familiar, its resilience known.
But, whether I want or don’t want, whether I resist or accept, I know my car will not work one day. I’m not going to have a choice. It’s just going to be too expensive to fix one day. But the metaphor Swami Sarvadevananda uses doesn’t help that much. I’m not sure that the “I” that drives the next body, the next car, is the same “I” that’s in this one. As deeply pleasant as it sounds, the notion of personal reincarnation, of getting a body back (and, if you do a good job in this life, a better one in the next!) I simply can’t reconcile with Swami Sarvadevananda’s ocean metaphor – that we’re like ripples on a single ocean, rising up for a lifetime and then fading back in to the whole -- which does feel possibly true to me.
If we are like waves on the ocean, bits of the Absolute that rise up into form for the flash of a lifetime and then return to that of which we are made, then doesn’t it make more sense that it isn’t that I, Marley, would be reincarnated again, personally or specifically, but the root essence underlying each and every one of us – God, if you will – that “reappears?” I mean, even if you stick with science, you have to admit that the raw material we’re made of certainly reappears in other forms. But the idea of the me I think of, the me who likes drugstore marshmallow eggs and watered down orange juice, coming back again? That feels like pure wishful vanity. But I have a Swami now to ask such questions.
It was time to head back to pick up Matt so I headed out of the park, off the bike path and onto surface streets leading back to the studio where his class was. I’m still new to bike shoes with clips on the bottom so, at a major intersection, I squeezed the handlebar brake levers to stop at the red light and then, in slow motion, feet still stuck to my pedals, I fell over to one side like a cartoon character. The skin tore off the knee that caught me, my other shin got whacked black-and-blue by the handlebars.
Okay, maybe there are some sensations I can live - or die - without. Or maybe the key is to get to a place where it’s possible to feel that the sensuous and the painful, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are equal, the same, no different; to not get too attached to either as neither one is permanent, eternal, meaningful.
But I have a confession: I’d rather have a skinned knee and contusions than nothing. I guess, by Hinduism’s terms, I have a few more lifetimes ahead of me.
(30 September 2006)