“I once was lost, but now am found/ was blind but now I see”
-Amazing Grace, American spiritual song
Lately I’ve had a rash of losing things. A couple of earrings – never a pair, always one of two – a hat a friend knitted for me, and, until two days ago when I found it again, a mala given to me by my teacher. All of these objects have great meaning for me, so losing them evoked sadness. However, the more disturbing, or curious, aspect to me is how exactly did I lose these things? In order to misplace something, I figure, there must be a moment when my mind itself was misplaced. In other words, I, as is said often in popular culture, “lost my mind” for a moment.
Where do our minds go when we aren’t here, in the moment? To say that we lose our minds – for a moment or longer – implies there is what is called in meditation “a watcher” – some part of us that notices, or doesn’t notice, that the mind isn’t on the moment. There are many layers of awareness: awareness of the moment (or not), awareness (or not) that we are aware (or not) and awareness (or not) of our awareness. The main parts that interest me are the basal awareness itself – perceptions, sensations and non-judgmental interactions, and the watcher, the one who notices whether I am paying attention to sensation (eg being aware) or off on a train of thought (eg not being aware). In other language, we could replace “aware” with “present” – am I present or not? And do I know whether or not I am present? This outside watcher is how we know what is going on – inherently, we cannot tell from inside; we need a part of our mind outside.
So what happened to my watcher in between the moment when I was aware that my hat, grey and nubbly, with a plastic rim inside carefully knitted love, was in my pocket and the moment when I realized it was gone? A friend of mine once said that she believes we actually could remember absolutely everything we have experienced. And I feel certain that some part of me knows what happened, had the perception – the sensation of the weight of the hat, the bulk, falling out and away from me, or even a sight out of the corner of my eye – and decided it was insignificant at the time. Because we are making that kind of decision constantly – if things are working right. If they are not, then we are constantly over-stimulated and cannot decide upon which perception to act. We have filters, and for some reason that filter failed that day, and has been failing lately. The perception that either usually notices losing things, or the watcher that notices that I am not aware of where something is – two slightly different levels of awareness – seems to be dampened right now. It could be stress: travel, depression, overwhelm, not always getting enough sleep.
When we say “I wasn’t being myself,” or, “I’m not the kind of person who normally does that,” we are pointing to the experience most humans have in which we gather a collection of behavioral traits – good or bad, depending on our level of narcissism or cynicism – and call them “me.” Me, Miriam, I am “not the sort of person who loses things” so that explains my interest in finding out what is happening. However, I am not trying to cure or analyze or prevent, even. Rather, I am simply curious. A student wrote this week in class that there is no part of her she needs to be permanent. She was speaking of psychological traits – kindness, responsibility, etc – but this could easily fit the natural impermanence of our bodies as well, and of the objects that seem to represent us, to us and to others. I want to use these moments to explore why it is that I identify as someone who does not lose things, and how this feeling anomalous is so significant to me – why can’t it be just something that’s been happening lately? Because it scares me. Why? Because I fear losing my memory. Why? Because I fear losing my mind.
Aha. There we are. But what does that phrase mean, again? Does it mean not being ourselves? And if so, what does that really mean? I sincerely hope we are not always the same – hint, that’s impossible – for without change this would be a far more painful world (though sometimes that seems hard to believe). Does it mean not being aware? Again, do we mean that we don’t have perceptions? No, those will always happen; even if we lose one sense or two, we still have other organs working all the time. That we don’t filter them right: too much or too little? Maybe. Maybe this is closer to what we mean. Or maybe, after all, when we mean we lose our minds we mean we lose our watcher – the internal external perspective that tells us “hey, something is a bit off here”. Without that, we could be off and not know it, and others may know it without us knowing it. I know for me that comes pretty close to a sense of losing my mind, and one that gives me the heebie jeebies. I have faith in perception, I trust my filters (and realize one lesson I can take from this is to rest them with lots of down time so they can clean out and work better again), but I am wary of this watcher. The watcher who sometimes seems to fall asleep on the job, or be working for another boss – working for my critic, or working against my best interests. I am watching that watcher, like an over-involved manager, and suddenly I am aware that my being so doubtful of the watcher isn’t helping the situation at all.
Psychosis – the “ultimate” in losing one’s mind – is defined as a full break from reality without awareness that one has reached said state. Is the watcher the bridge? He seems to be the gauge, the gatekeeper who translates alignment, when operating properly. And here, of course, I remember that the thing my watcher needs most is good training and proper practice. Meditation, of course, is exercise for the watcher. That is, on some levels, the most practical aspect of meditation: to keep our sensations, mental and physical, in check with what is happening both inside and out. Meditation is that practice – noticing when we have left the moment, left our sensory data, left our minds and gone off into a fabricated world that does not, in fact, exist. When we come back we give priority to the now, and in this way, preserve sanity – allowing for the coexistence of confusion and neuroticism and fantasy (our mental constructions) while keeping our loyalties, via the watcher, via training the watcher, firmly planted in a vaguely shared reality of perceptions and interactions.
It’s worth it to recognize that I fear losing my mind, and, by the way, I fear losing my eyesight just about as much. But it’s more worth it to figure out that the best thing I can do for any mentally constructed concerns about staying connected is to keep staying connected. After all, the main thing I haven’t been doing while being so busy and stressed and traveling is meditation. So I will use losing a hat, earrings and especially a mala that found me again to remind me, just as I do when sitting in meditation and becoming aware that I have left my breath for a bit and gone off somewhere else, to return. Come back. NO matter how long I’ve been gone, I can always come back and find myself again.