There is a centuries-old Zen koan that has accumulated any number of answers through the years: How does the Buddha meditate when he is too hot or too cold? The ancient zendos made few concessions to the severe climate: there was no heat; you were given maybe one blanket, and you wore the same garment winter and summer. One answer was “Buddha hot, Buddha cold,” which meant: when you’re hot, sweat; when you’re cold, shiver — what’s the problem? Another seems at first glance to say the opposite: “Heat kills, cold kills.” It is not heat and cold themselves that kill, but our ideas about them. Heat and cold are not problems. They are just facts. It is what we do with them that creates problems.
Which reminds me of a story that I heard years ago. Working at a scientific lab late at night, a man entered a walk-in freezer and inadvertently pulled the door shut behind him. There was no way to open the door from the inside, and there was no one else in the lab. He slowly realized, to his horror, that he would not be able to get out until the door was opened in the morning, and that he could not possibly survive those frigid temperatures for that length of time. Barring a miracle, he would die in the freezer that night. It was a terrible realization, and he spent some time trying to figure a way out. But he was a scientist, and eventually decided that his death could at least be of some use to the world. He could record in his notebook the symptoms of a man who was freezing to death. He began to write down times and the physical sensations he was feeling. Eventually he wrote that he was starting to lose consciousness and couldn’t hold on much longer. He was going to lie down and accept his death. That was how his colleagues found him in the morning: lying beside his notebook, dead.
They also found that the temperature wasn’t terribly far below freezing. It wasn’t nearly cold enough to kill someone. There had been plenty of oxygen to last through the night. The conditions in the freezer hadn’t killed him. He had just died.
When I was ten years old, I went through a period when I couldn’t sleep. Probably on the first night or two I just wasn’t tired when I went to bed, but after a while I began to worry about not sleeping — I didn’t see how I could go to school the next day, how I could possibly do any work — and my worry became the problem. The anxiety began as soon as I lay down: What if I can’t get to sleep? I recoiled from it as the question grew a hundred heads: What if I can’t sleep for three nights? Four? What if I can’t sleep for a week? What if I never get to sleep again? By then, no matter how tired I had been when I dragged myself up to bed, I felt wide awake. The question became a statement: I am not going to sleep.
For some reason, on those nights, I began to ask the unanswerable questions. I had been raised in a religious household, and taught that when I died I would go to heaven, but there — of all places — my troubles began. I knew that heaven was wonderful, that life there was endless bliss, but I just couldn’t imagine a life that never ended. You were exactly the same, the whole time? You just walked around or something? Wouldn’t you be afraid that, no matter what anybody said, no matter what even God said, it really would end sometime, you would finally be annihilated? Maybe God wasn’t actually in charge here. He thought he was (and to his credit, he’s had a pretty long reign), but there was another being above him, or behind him (how did you even say this?), who wasn’t such a nice guy, who would come in one day and wipe everybody out, God included.
Even if life never ended, wouldn’t it finally start to wear on you, all that time, with no ending, ever? Time seemed to have weight; I could feel it on my chest as I lay in bed with such thoughts. It could crush the life out of you. I felt the same way about endless space. How could space have no end? You go on and on and never come to the border? (Or if you do, what’s on the other side?) If there was no end to space, it seemed to me, then there was no such thing as location, because borders define location. So you were never really anywhere. The thought was dizzying, terrifying. It almost made me sick.
I would stay in bed with these thoughts as long as I could, but sooner or later would go to my parents’ room and tell them I couldn’t sleep. The first couple of nights they laughed, but as the nights wore on, their laughter began to bear traces of concern, and maybe annoyance: this kid just doesn’t quit. The unwritten rule was that if I really couldn’t sleep I could get into bed with them, but I seemed to be straining this policy to the breaking point — night after night, trudging into my parents’ room with weary, frightened eyes.
Finally one night I came in before my father had gone to bed and tried to tell him my fears. I don’t know how I put it, that I was afraid of the dark bedroom, or the black night outside; I was afraid of dying, of not being, but also afraid of living forever. I think I tried to describe what I actually feared. The crushing weight of eternal time. The dizzying space of infinity. I remember he laughed a bit as I brought these things up — so big a subject for such a little kid. I was embarrassed, too. I didn’t know why I was thinking such thoughts.
My father was a big man, six feet tall, two hundred pounds. He was a big hugger, warm and affectionate, and I sat snuggled against him in his chair as I told him my fears.
I have pondered that conversation ever since. Sometimes what he said to me has seemed as mysterious as endless time and space. Sometimes it has seemed perfectly straightforward. Sometimes I have thought that he gave a perfect answer to my questions, sometimes that he didn’t address them at all. I do think he gave me the answer he thought was true. If he’d believed, for instance, that there was no God, I think he’d have told me that. This was no bedtime story.
What he said was that, when we are young, when we are infants, we think the whole world revolves around us, that it all exists just for our benefit. As we grow older, we begin to grow away from that sole concern with ourselves, toward God. The process of living is a process of growth. Our life is a growing toward God.
I don’t think I made any sense of his words at the time. They were no particular comfort to me. (The comfort was in resting there against him, listening while he spoke.) But I have remembered them, or at least their import, all these years. No doubt their import has changed, as I have changed. Maybe the words have, too. I’ll never know.
What has always haunted me about that night is that, six years later, when my mother told my brother and me that our father had leukemia (he would die roughly five months after that, on New Year’s Day, 1965), she said they had known about his illness for six years. I have always wondered if I was asking him those questions at the worst possible moment. I have even wondered if I was having those fears because he’d discovered his illness, if there was some mystical connection between us, and he’d passed his anxiety to me.
I am an older man now than my father was when he said those words to me, almost the age he was when he died. I probably have less of an understanding of what I mean by the word God than I’ve ever had in my life. It doesn’t seem to matter. The name that can be told is not the true name. But, if it makes any sense to say that God speaks to human beings, I believe he was speaking to me on those nights when I lay sleepless. It wasn’t what I would have expected. It isn’t necessarily what I’d expect now. But if God has ever spoken to me, he was speaking to me then, from within my fear.
At a nine-day meditation retreat I attended this spring in Barre, Massachusetts, we awoke every morning at 5:15, began sitting at 5:45 and — except for a one-hour work period and a couple of breaks after meals — alternated sitting and walking meditation throughout the day. We were not permitted to speak, or communicate in any way, through gesture or eye contact; nor were we to read or write. We spent the whole day just inhabiting our consciousness.
The mornings generally went well for me; my work period — chopping vegetables in the kitchen — was from 7:15 to 8:15, and I was fresh for the sittings. The main meal of the day was at noon. I would always take a three-mile walk after lunch and return in time for the two o’clock sitting, after which I would head back to my room for a nap.
That moment after the two o’clock sitting was a difficult one. My room, a small cubicle with a cot, was not a haven for me but a place of considerable torment. The year before, at the same retreat, I’d suffered from extreme insomnia, and, though I was sleeping better this year — four hours or so per night — I still felt anxious about the possibility of being sleepless, facing my fears alone. As I headed back to my room in the early afternoon, I experienced the daytime version of that feeling: the afternoon stretched endlessly before me, nothing but sitting and walking, sitting and walking. The evening meal, at five o’clock, would be a light tea; there would be a talk at seven o’clock, and for forty-five minutes we would get to hear the sound of a human voice. But, even in the midst of that talk, night would be falling. Broth would be served around 9:30. Following the last sitting, I’d return to my room with the same heavy foreboding I’d felt when I trudged up the stairs at age ten.
So in the afternoon, that stretch of time between three and five seemed unbearable, utterly empty and impossibly heavy at the same time. The next day would be the same, and the day after that, and I could clearly see that, when I got home, though I would sprinkle my days with a patina of supposedly worthwhile activity, beneath it would lie this emptiness, waiting to swallow me up. Emptiness was the basis of everything, and if I couldn’t embrace it there would be no peace for me, afraid of the night and dreading the day; afraid of time itself, the ocean we swim in; afraid of the present moment, which is eternity. There was no beginning and no end: this was it, this was all there was.
My feelings were raw on that retreat, and the slightest thing would set me off. I would lie on my bed and sob, afraid, sick of my fear, frustrated at feeling it again, tired of being the person I’d been all my life.
This was the same thing that I’d been afraid of when I was ten. It wasn’t really death, or what happened after. It was life. I was afraid to live.
I was already in heaven. I had been all along.