This post is about all of the people in my life who have shown myself to myself through a bricolage of synaptic membranes connecting synchronous being-in-the-world discoveries, pains, and fascinations through increasingly complex loops. In my rather short life thus far, I have been profoundly fortunate to have found mirror-souls. I have experienced moments with others where it really felt like we were opening a portal directly into one another’s minds, perhaps even deeper. I want to share stories about these moments of that insightful “Aha!” connection.
But first, I want to give you a little bit of philosophical background for what I am describing. Ram Dass refers to this experience as the fourth channel in Grist for the Mill. He writes:
What do you say, once more? Flick, fourth channel. Now when we look into another person’s eyes, what we see is another person looking back at us. “Are you in there? I’m in here. Far out. How did you get into that one?” Now we see another being who is just like us, another entity trapped inside the illusion of all these packages of individual differences — body, personality, astrology. And the eyes, the windows of the soul, meet, and we say, “What is it like being in there?”
The first opening into this “fourth channel”, in my experience, comes through recognition of oneself in the other. I do not know why this is the case, it just tends to be true. We see or engage someone who is just so eerily like ourselves that we can no longer pretend that what we feel and choose to exude is rare and unique; now, it is shared. But when we can really admire someone as separate, but co-existing, and sharing this same axis or proxy for awareness that can express, exude, invent, and create, or even better — collaborate — we can really open ourselves up to the other. We can really listen with our whole being. And we can genuinely wonder what it is like for that person to be inside their own body, living with their own mind. When two souls really open to and tune into one another, there might as well just be a direct channel plugging one soul into another.
Last week I ventured into an old antique warehouse and found a collection of ceramic doll heads upon a table. Most of the heads lacked eyes. There were just holes in the slots where the eyes could be. I found this one bust of a ceramic head with dark brown hair styled just like mine and my lips, my complexion, my face…but those hollowed-out eyes not staring back, but through, or even really (actually, of course) not at all. Yet, it was so compelling. I wanted her on my desk to be staring back at me. It represents something deep about my own self-relation, and I cannot quite put my finger on it. We do not usually stare into our own eyes (lest with the aid of a mirror, and mirrors are funny tools of facading illusion), we look outwards to the world. This ceramic head of a woman beheld my own void, a reminder of inner-awareness or the journey inward. This is important for writing and self-discovery, I find, but it is alas still so superficial and egotistical.
When we think we know what is going on, it is usually only because we like the sensation of figuring it out. There is nothing to figure out. We can just absorb and express, witness, observe, and let the world flow its oceanic vibe, washing over our sensory modalities and our minds with juxtapositions of evocative images, sounds, pleasures, etc., that may fascinate and delight or frustrate and irritate (amongst other reactive variations). I find it best just to let go. I used to think I could or would or wanted to at least try my very HARDEST to FIGURE IT OUT. I have tried so hard. I have. I will probably continue to do so, but it is okay if my efforts are just a little dance around the finger pointing towards the moon of truth and maybe sometimes I will be more concentrically close and other times far out but both can be and I believe are valid ramifications of and in the process of truth-seeking.
And yet, there is a unique breed of truth that can be shared in a relationship between two people through honest, intentional, and open communication. There is a truth about what it is like to be a person in the world, and the attempt to share this and to express it is something that I am admittedly slightly addicted to. And yet, moreover, we can discover this truth as it occurs for and is experienced by others. And moreover once more, we can discover all of the shared bits of overlapping sensations and curiosities about being human, and thoughts and sensations and fears and passions that we had previously experienced only through our own interiority…now, reflected back. And yet, it is more than just a reflection because these thoughts and sensations have an orientation in regards to this other person, this whole other phenomenon of being that, while synchronous with ours in some or many ways, remains its own cohesive unity, separate and mysterious.
I do not have any specific views on Brahman or the Atman, not yet, but I do find the notion intriguing and I do think it is possible that in these moments we access a primordial version of the self in a more unified sense. I think this is what Ram Dass was pointing towards — that there is some universal energy force that is at the root/source of our being and in rare moments we can really see it in one another. However, for me, the real intrigue is knowing that, or finding it, and then still thinking, but you are YOU! Through being embodied and thrown into the life-world and responding to different societal pressures and cultural presences in various ways, we become individualized in a way that allows us to express humanity through many faces. I once used the metaphor of a satellite to express this: we all pick up different signals from the pool of “what is” and these possibilities in terms of our perspectives are all valid and meaningful.
This is, in fact, one thing I really do love about science. As much as it emphasizes an objective stance, it actually honors the multiplicity of perspectives and access to a world that itself is ever-changing.
I am going to start with a long-form story about my childhood growing up in Lemont, and one of the first people who I believe really saw me.
When I was in junior high, I just wanted a best friend. My former best friend Lauren had moved away when I was in fourth grade. Fifth grade was when it was still cool to be smart. I won the class Quizbowl once with the answer of Alexander Graham Bell for a three-pointer for the full name as the inventor of the telephone. I aced all of my tests and had the highest grade in the classroom. I won the most consecutive spelling tests in a row, except for one that had the word supercalifragelisciousexpialadocious (which I still cannot spell correctly) as an extra credit question. Then I really messed up when I mixed “angel” with “angle” and I still will never understand the phonetic rational behind the difference in spelling for those words. I was the lead in our class play. I got along with my peers. I was liked.
Sixth grade was different. I had a horrible haircut and wore a really awkward outfit on the first day of school. I asked to sit next to another girl in a class and she said no. What?! Rejection, for the first time, and a tough one. For the remainder of the year, I was just toughly teased and bullied incessantly. I could not escape it. I wanted to be liked so much. I just wanted a friend. I wanted to have a place to sit during lunch hour without being ridiculed.
Seventh grade was when the confident ascent began. One day in gym class I started meditating during a game of Horse (that shooting-hoops basketball game). I made every shot. (Gym was usually my worst and most embarrassing portion of the day because I am terrifically uncoordinated.) I realized something in that moment: I could be assertive, and I could overcome.
One day the school decided to put on fun rock music during every transition period between classes. Every time, I just swaggered and strutted down the halls with more gumption, attitude, and sass than a drag queen strolling through Chinatown. The best part? People noticed. They watched, mesmerized.
Yet, this is not the point of my story. I am just giving you context to situate you for what comes next.
I did not know it at the time, but all along there was a sweet poet boy watching me. I did not know, but he thought I was beautiful. He had thought this from day one, from sixth grade, all along. He had been watching me and wondering about me. In the very least, he saw something in me that was really just beautiful and entrancing. One day when our two classes had shared an art class due to some scheduling error, he sat at my table and we reveled over Van Gogh’s painting Starlight Over the Rhone.
On the last day of seventh grade, my English teacher, Ms. Dranter (who was very tough on me) asked me to stay after class to discuss one of my final papers. She asked me very inquisitively about my interpretation of the book The Giver. Not accepting my complacent ambiguity, she insisted. And then she told me that I was the most exceptional writer in all of the seventh graders she had taught that year. That conversation changed me. My self-identity became tagged with this gift: I was now a writer.
The summer between eighth grade and freshman year was really huge. To this day I remember it as truly one of the best, most lived, and the most accelerated phases of development in all my life, or at least of all of the summers of my life. I stayed up late every night writing, and then took a walk around my neighborhood at sunrise. I remember watching the moon and then the sunrise over the willow tree in my front yard, and I remember that rush as I would sneak out of the house for my morning walk. The world felt so sensitive then.
Early into freshman year of high school, my Honor’s English teacher assigned us to write an essay about ourselves that we would then read aloud to the class. My essay was one of the most vulnerable, poetic, and bold statements I have truly ever put fourth about myself. It carried an air of heavy mystery and wonder. While reading it aloud to the class, I got really choked up and almost lost my voice, struggling to read through to the end. It was really me sharing the deepest part of myself that I could at the time. The boy who I mentioned earlier (whom I will call Jonah) was there, and when we reconnected years later he said that he remembered this moment, my essay.
One day I was on Myspace and I decided to look up people from my hometown Lemont who I might have forgotten. The search brought me to a lot of people who I had befriended in elementary and middle school. And then I found Jonah.
On the main page of his profile, he had this video of himself riding a bicycle wearing a long jacket all around his hometown neighborhood. Some really pretty Belle and Sebastian played in the background. His silly curly hair and his long coat blowed in the wind. This image will forever embrace my memory. I almost cried watching this video, it was so sweet.
Jonah loved the word “ennui.” I remember that. It is still one of my favorite words. We exchanged messages; he remembered me! At the end of one e-mail, he quoted the Neutral Milk Hotel song ‘Two Headed Boy, Part II’:
And in my dreams you’re alive and you’re crying,
As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet,
Rings of flowers ’round your eyes
And I’ll love you for the rest of your life when you’re ready
I remember that it scared me at the time. I wrote a response and he did not reply for weeks. I remember doing my makeup in the mirror one day and feeling so sad that he had never responded after such initial zeal. It turns out that he had been in New York for two weeks. I like to think of him meditating in Central Park.
Over the course of years, we kept in touch. I would regale him with Alan Watts quotes, philosophical puzzles and reflections and vibrant, ecstatic writing. And he would be a little shy and distant, but always curious and interested. When I saw pictures of him at Knox, I just thought that the pictures captured exactly the beauty and the genuineness that I wanted in my life. So I transferred there (for that and one of the best undergraduate research programs in the midwest).
One night in college I had an argument about the nature of consciousness with a good friend of mine. For the entire night, my mind ached to express itself to someone who could understand. It was a Friday night and I felt truly like a lone wanderer. I felt both alienated and exalted at the same time, but I did not care terribly for either. Finally I found Jonah.
He was in his room, alone. He knew I had figured something out and he was so sweetly excited. He brought out a mask that he had made for a theatre class. He told me about it and handed it to me and I touched it and it was like I was touching his Jungian shadow, so delicately and lovingly, with the deepest curiosity. I was saying, “I see you, and I want to keep exploring.” And as I stared into and touched his mask, I just had this overwhelming sensation and when I looked up at him again and we met eyes I just thought (out from nowhere, it seemed), “Do you want me to kiss you?” I did not say it aloud.
At that moment, his girlfriend (also a close friend of mine) walked in. Then another friend came in. And we all had this conversation. I could see every level of what Jonah was holding back and not saying. I could see every little itch and tinge of hesitation behind his every gesture, movement, and word. It was all so clear. I could not even hear the base level communication he was expressing as he talked; I got lost in the undertones of the unspoken.
One night Jonah and I watched one of my favorite films, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, together and it was like I had double vision and could see the film through his eyes too. It gained so much momentum and meaning! I have never watched a movie like that before. We talked for awhile. He told me this amazingly sweet story about his first kiss, about how ran back to this girl because he had forgotten to say goodnight. There was possibility that night, but that’s the closest that we ever got. That was the night when he told me that he remembered seeing me when I was a little girl, in middle school, and thinking that I was so pretty.
I had a rare childhood illness when I was in third grade and was in the hospital for sixth months in recovery with tubes coming out of my body all over the place. When I was admitted into the hospital, when I was told that I would have to stay there for awhile, I cried harder than I have ever in my life. And there was so much love around me, every day. No one wanted to see me suffer. And I made it. Yet, when I got back to school, I felt like a weakened soul.
After that, I was this girl who had experienced the edge in this really profound way and I could not really relate to my peers as much anymore. I think I feared that they would see my sickness, my weakness, and that my recovery was not complete. Everyone teased me for being pale, some even said that I looked sickly, that you could see my veins under my nearly transparent skin, or that I looked like I was dying. I was this sensitive young girl, all afraid and wanting to hide but also just to be accepted.
So when a boy like Jonah says that he thought I was pretty in sixth grade, seventh or eighth, freshman year of high school and junior year of college, it really means something. It means that he saw through even when I felt the weakest. Like he always know what beauty lied beyond.
One day I met with Jonah to confess my feelings for him. My romantic partner at the time actually convinced me to do it after a fit of dreams that I had regarding wanting to approach Jonah as he sat in a tree or wandered behind a corner. (My partner and I once actually had the same dream at the same time regarding me grabbing Jonah’s arm and whispering something in his ear.) For the rest of my life, I will hugely regret my timing and brashness. He was fresh from an emotional breakup and I had my needs and desires so heavy that I just had to express them, at the cost of his own hurt.
Towards the end of that encounter, Jonah asked me a question about the types of romantic connection I had experienced in my life. Without thinking, I responded that I had in fact experienced a transcendent tantric connection, and it was true. However, what I failed to acknowledge at the time was the vulnerability in his confession that he had never felt that close to anyone. I felt like I wanted to show him that yes, it was possible, but instead it came off as cocky and dismissive. I regret that too, every day. And perhaps if we had discussed it more, he would have understood my intent. But I had a train to catch.