Originally published on Across the Margin , March 25, 2016
illustration by Michael Andresakis
When I was a child, at the beginning of every summer, my feet were tender from having spent most of the year in shoes. As soon as the summer arrived, off came the shoes. The first weeks of running around barefoot were always very painful. The blistering heat from the desert sun scorching my feet, the sharp rocks and twigs cutting and pinching my tender skin. I was like a cripple, tiptoeing and pussyfooting around because my every step was met with pain. Soon, however, the callouses began to form, and these provided me with more mobility. By the end of the summer, I could run full speed across the scalding desert rocks. Only then, was I finally free to explore, unhindered by pain. The following summer, after many months of socks and shoes, my feet were again tender and soft, and once again the trials of summer began. I came to enjoy this masochistic ritual.
I am reminded of Greek mythology and the story of Persephone – daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess Demeter – when I reflect on my summers in the desert. The story goes that when the innocent virgin Persephone came of age, she was abducted by the cold-natured, self-centered Hades, god of the Underworld. She was eventually returned after Persephone’s mother, Demeter, brought famine to the earth in retaliation. But Persephone had grown to love Hades during her abduction, and upon her release from the Underworld, she swallowed a handful of pomegranate seeds given to her by Hades, thereby ensuring that some part of the Underworld would stay with her. Persephone returned to world of the living, but found she longed for the world of the sleeping and the dead, and her role as its queen. As a compromise, she returned to the Underworld as a wife of Hades and the realm’s queen for four months every winter.
Whether it’s a child’s tender feet in the summer or Persephone’s winter getaway in Hades, we are drawn by love or desire, or pushed by necessity, into confronting the frightening world of pain and challenges that we would otherwise go to great lengths to avoid. How we deal with these challenges defines ourselves and our lives from that point on, becoming an integral part of our being, and as such, a part we won’t let go of easily. In the bright daylight of our innocence we feel free to give foolish flight to the slightest of fancies, but it is only through the darkness of wisdom, of experience, that we appreciate the mere reflection of that light in the moon and discover the light of the stars.
As a culture we have lost sight of this paradox because we are taught to praise innocence and avoid all but the most common and acceptable of experiences. Nature and nurture both compel us to run toward happiness and away from pain, and yet, we still manage to accrue a modicum of wisdom, perhaps enough to understand that the blind joy of innocence and the lingering pain of experience are inextricably bound to one another. So until we regain a deeper understanding of this abstraction, our search for happiness will only serve to create for us a prison of fear.
Perhaps Buddha was telling us the secret of happiness when he said, “Seek the headwaters of the river of pain,” for by doing so we learn that pain comes from our responses to an experience. We are continuously exposed to meaningless and random circumstances, which, devoid of judgment or beliefs, are neither painful nor pleasing, but meaningless. What we call experience is the meaning that comes from within ourselves and is determined by our culture and beliefs that have been adopted and built by our id, ego, and superego, which act not unlike animals with their own survival instincts. What we call pain is always the result of how we respond to an experience we have been trained to avoid. This includes physical pain, which is a response that arises from our brain’s neural network, a highly-advanced system that has evolved over millions of years to ensure our survival.
It is difficult to transcend the brain’s pre-programmed fear-based conditioning to experiences that threaten our survival, but as evidenced by the 138 (to date) self-immolated monks, the Native American Sun Dance, the Thai worshippers who impale their face with large knives, or countless other painful and deadly rituals the vast majority of us generally go to great lengths to avoid, it is not impossible. Less difficult and more immediately relevant, but still quite challenging at times, is changing our beliefs that dictate how we relate and respond to circumstances, painful or otherwise. Although Buddha never actually said, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional,” somebody certainly did.
Desire and inspiration are tempered by experience, but fueled by innocence as our lack of knowledge is something of a blank canvas that inspires one to take up painting. What can be more inspiring to an artist than emptiness, or more tempting to an explorer than the unknown? The sacredness of the virgin, of the untouched, of innocence, will inevitably be sacrificed on the altar of experience as this is the nature of growth, and therefore of life.
We never forget when we first found love, and when we first lost our innocence, often at the same time. But like love, innocence presents itself with every step of growth we take, willingly or not. The only choices we have on this journey we call life are whether we are going to voluntarily approach that altar to consecrate our innocence through our desire to grow, to try again, to reinvent ourselves, or, be dragged to it kicking and screaming.
With each step forward into new ground, we penetrate that veil of innocence that forever surrounds us, blocking our view of the life that lies behind it. With each step backward, we feel we are surefooted and know where exactly to place our feet, but it is still a step forward, just one taken backwards.
We tend to think of the journey of experience as the loss of innocence, but this is never the case. Even the decision to hide oneself from new experiences is a decision that only the innocent would think to be wise for they have not yet learned that life is always moving forward. Just as deciding not to decide is a decision, choosing to not go down any road is a road in itself.
Still, experience alone is little more than recording the results of the decision tree of your life within the well-defined rules of whatever game you don’t want to lose. It’s a mechanical process that can be, and is, reduced to ones and zeroes. It’s how IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat World Champion Chess Master Garry Kasparov on May 11, 1996.
Wisdom requires both innocence and experience as it is what allows us to navigate the paradox between the worlds of love and pain, life and death, courage and fear, success and failure, and shows us how opposites depend on one another, and how one cannot exist without the other. It appears that the true nature of Man is to both rush in and to fear treading in too deep at the same time. One has to wonder that, if our universe holds a creator, it may well be an innocent child toying cluelessly in the laboratory of life curious about what happens when one part fool is mixed with one part angel.
One morning, many years ago I woke up in my bed, but my eyes remained closed. I was enjoying those precious moments of inner quiet before the day began. I then realized something that, for a moment, terrified me. I did not know where I was. As I searched my mind for clues, I discovered I also did not know who I was or what I was supposed to even get out of bed for. Do I have a job? Am I a high-powered executive, an artist, or an unemployed laborer? Do I have a wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, or children? Am I in New York or Bogota? The feeling of complete and total freedom eclipsed my initial fears that come with complete loss of identity. I played with this idea, imagining I could feel like what it was like to believe that I was living in an East Asian hut or as a young California surfer in the sixties.
Although I could remember nothing that defined who “I” was, I seemed to recall perfectly the details of the cultures I imagined I might be surrounded by. Perhaps this was early onset dementia, a mystical experience, a brain fart, or all three. In any case, fighting the urge to open my eyes, I just floated in that space where I had no desires, no problems, no responsibilities, no identity. It felt like I was a newborn baby, but with an awareness honed by my decades of experience. I was, for those seconds, perfectly innocent and wise at the same time. I heard a bird begin to sing outside my window, and instantly “who I was” came back to me in an avalanche that buried me under the crushing weight of my past and the present.
This observation made it quite clear that the one thing that prevented me from experiencing the freedom of innocence was the prison of my past, a past that only had the value, the judgment, and the weight that I chose to put on it, or rather, the value that my culture told me to put on it. I was able to see that which had plugged that fountain of youth inside me was a giant “cork” of my own judgment, pain, guilt, regrets of my past, and the fear of the future that comes with such heavy baggage. Without that spring of innocence my life had become a dry, dying, wilted garden of hope, love and inspiration. My fear of making new mistakes was itself a terrible mistake, as my garden was dead and dying.
The present moment, the eternal now, is that infinitesimally thin, yet ever expanding frontier that separates the unknown from the known, and the future from the past. No matter how much experience one has accumulated, it is only blind innocence that can venture to the uncharted chaos of life with open eyes.