Once upon a time there was a monk named Costello, who trained in meditation in a noted monastery. One day after a frustrating session, he approached the chief monk. “Hey, Abbot,” he said. “I’ve been working hard for months,” he said. “And I need to know: what will it take to become enlightened?”
The old abbot, who had observed the young man carefully but at a distance, smiled. “You really want to know, Costello?”
“Yes, Abbot” the young man said.
“Then come with me,” the old one said. He walked with the young man down to the river, then suddenly and with an eagle’s grip seized Costello by the back of the head and thrust his face into the stream! The young monk struggled madly, but could not escape the elder’s grip. At the point he was about to pass out, the abbot pulled his head out of the water and gave him a few seconds to gasp in a breath.
And then…stuck his head back under the water. Then a breath. Then back in the water. Over and over, then pulled the young monk back out and threw him on the river bank, where he sobbed for breath, spitting up river water.
The abbot waited for the young monk to regain his senses, and then asked “what were you feeling?”
The young monk recoiled, but answered. “I…I…I thought only of a breath. One more breath. I would have done ANYTHING for just one more breath.”
The old abbot smiled. “When you want enlightenment THAT much…then you will begin.”
Jason broke his ankle a week ago, and has been miserable since then. He wants to settle into an aimless haze of playing video games with kids (?) who mysteriously have no school to attend, and I’m not having anything of it. We had a clash of wills yesterday, and I won.
He was miserable, profane, spitting venom (fear) at me, and I was calculatedly unresponsive, except when I removed him from the Playstation and took his phone, isolating him in a world of pain and grief. It was terrible, and all I could do to maintain that emotional distance. My natural tendency is to go to him, to comfort him.
That’s what I would have done with Nicki. And it would have been precisely the wrong thing with Jason. I HAVE to make him come to me. I HAVE to force him to find the internal motivation to take that step. If I don’t…I’m dooming him. I watch the emotional storms and every time they reach the level where they would cost him a job, I’m starting to tell him.
“You just lost your job. You can’t pay your rent, or buy food. I hope you aren’t married, and don’t have any kids, because you just let them down. Again.”
Jeeze, it hurt to say that, and the ONLY reason I could get away with it is that we have enormous rapport. He KNOWS I adore him, would do anything for him. But what he doesn’t have is confidence that he will find his way out of his emotional maze.
That fear creates a false ego shell, composed of the juvenile bravado that passes for wisdom among teenagers. Fed by the illusion of competence fostered by video games. Just look at them performing feats of skill and courage beyond Navy SEALS and circus acrobats and world-class MMA fighters! Wow!
That’s a world in which tests and injuries and loneliness don’t exist. Where there are “friends” you’ve never met who enjoy shooting you in the back, but they’re better than having no friends at all. Where the notion of pulling your head out of your…I mean, turning off the PS4 and picking up the text book to study is a dose of real-world pain.
No. You aren’t a great hero, or cowboy, or ninja, or master criminal. You are a kid with no idea how you will become an adult, how to protect your body, satisfy your sexual urges with integrity, develop the power to build and protect a home and family, feel safe enough to open your heart and genuinely love.
And later, after the emotional storms had passed and he had done his homework in tears, realizing he had lost his other privileges for the day, he was miserable, wondering how he could have avoided the mistake that got him here, the moment of lost focus on the football field that led him to slipping and having the sled run over his leg, which shattered his illusions of invulnerability so that he had no agency over his body or behavior.
A better metaphor for taking the wrong path in life I could hardly have asked for.
“What do I do?” he finally asked, as honestly and openly as I’ve ever heard him, with a voice that was both mature and vulnerable.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“I DON’T KNOW!” he cried.
In other words: I am afraid to ask for what I really want. It hurts to strive and fail. It is better to pretend nothing matters.
NO. It is NUMBING to pretend nothing matters. It HURTS to care. Just as you can and probably will injure yourself exercising or playing sport.
There’s only one problem: NOT exercising is even more damaging. And NOT caring ultimately hurts so much more than striving and losing.
“You don’t know what you want…because you don’t know who you are,” I said.
He has two questions to ask himself: Who am I? What is true?
And he must struggle with those, every day. With every action, every thought, those two questions are in the background.
Once you know who you are, you know what you must do.
Once you know what you really want, you know the kind of person you are, or must become to do it with integrity and joy.
The questions are connected. Once you know what you want, and who you are or must become, you know WHY you want to do those things. When you have enough reasons, the fear and obstacles vanish, as if your child was trapped in a burning house: the only question is: what do I do to rescue my child?
There is a picture on the door of our refrigerator, a picture of his sister Nicki holding an infant Jason. And he swears he remembers when it was taken. In all likelihood, no, he doesn’t. But I won’t argue with him.
Because constructed or not, it is his first memory, a memory of love and support and caring, and Nicki is unutterably beautiful to him.
And last night, casually, I asked him: “can you visualize yourself as a baby?”
Yes, he could.
“Can you imagine holding that child?”
Yes, he could. I let his imagination go there. Until he was smiling, his face relaxed, adrift in a world of love.
“And what would you be willing to do to protect that child, that innocent, helpless self?”
And…I watched something in him bare its teeth. ANYTHING. He would do ANYTHING to protect that child.
“Look at me,” I commanded. “I am doing all in my power to give you the tools you will need to do just that. Protect your dreams. Walk the world with power and dignity. Find love. Build a home. Have the family you want, and protect them. All you have to do is be real with me. Be the son I love. I would do ANYTHING to protect you. What are you willing to do to protect yourself?”
Enlightenment is the step beyond non-dualistic thought, an extreme and rarified state. But “Awakened Adulthood” is available to all of us, and a goal worth striving toward.
All it takes to get everything you need…is everything you’ve got.
If you can’t do it for yourself…do it for the child you used to be. All the aliveness, and joy, and creativity, and energy is THERE. Right there. Waiting for you to hold your own head in the river and remember the blessing of your next breath. At every moment of your life, that reality is available if you’ll just move beyond ego and seize it.
I don’t know what will happen with Jason. I do know is that I will look for every moment where he is willing and able to be real with me, and I will tell him in no uncertain terms that he is worth the world. That there is nothing I would not do for him…but I cannot do it FOR him.
That he is my boy, and I love him.