Recently, I was visiting the aged mother of one of my Zen students. The old woman lived alone in a big house, since her husband and brothers and sisters had all died. Her own kids had long since moved out, some of them living in foreign countries. She was sad and bitter that her remaining daughter (I’ll call her Paula), who lived nearby with two beautiful sons and a wonderful husband, did not visit her enough. She complained that her daughter was ungrateful, and did not call enough, and was not willing or able to visit her aged mother, instead constantly saying that she is busy bringing her active sons to soccer practice and their study clubs and to museums and to music lessons. Paula did not have a free moment: she worked all day to raise her sons and be a good wife. And she also tried to help her mother, though it was not easy to reach her more than once or twice per month.
“Paula is not a good daughter — not the daughter I raised. I don’t like the way she lives! She does not care about me anymore, and she is very ungrateful for what I did to raise her!“ She complained on and on and on. This woman’s constant, embittered dissatisfaction and sense of grave misjustice had become so problematic, that mother and daughter were growing farther and farther apart in the last few years. Tear-filled phone calls had become the norm, followed by sometimes long periods of non-communication on both ends of the relationship.
After a few minutes of this — and hearing the speech about Paula and her other children was usually a central feature of my visits to this woman, so it was not unexpected territory! – – I stopped her and, looking straight into her eyes across the table, I said, “I have to give you some bad news: Paula died. She was killed early this morning. Didn’t you know that?” Her eyes exploded to a super-width I had not seen with her before. I acted forward a quizzical face toward her: “Oh, didn’t anyone tell you yet?” Her face grew totally shocked, and her mouth dropped open. She began to stammer a little bit – – her lips were visibly shaking.
I continued, “Paula died in a car crash a few hours ago. But fortunately, her two boys survived. No one contacted you yet?” She’s searched my face anxiously for signs of some humor, but there wasn’t any there.
“What are you saying? Are you crazy?“ Her eyes were turning towards fury. She is Greek, so the emotional psi can go to 400 in 0-50. I did not want her to have a heart attack, so I was silent for just a few moments longer, while never taking my gaze off of her shocked and frightened eyes.
Then I said, “OK, Paula did not die. I am sorry to give you a shock. That was a thought-experiment. You know, we always hear of these terrible accidents where a parent suddenly loses a child. In America, you hear of these school shootings where kids are slaughtered. And the parents always say, ‘Oh, if only I could have even one more day with my child! I miss them so much. If I could have even only an hour, to tell them how much I love them and to just feel their presence again…’” We see these sorts of expressions in the media after such tragedies.
I told the old lady, “I believe that the universe sometimes answers this request to have our lost loved one back again. I believe that the universe answers positively to this wish probably a lot more than we realize. We get that second chance again, maybe a third or fourth chance, until we get the message about what we are probably not getting “right” yet in that relationship.
But here’s the catch: the universe erases all knowledge we had that the person died and that we are now having a second chance. We have no knowledge that this is a beautiful “do-over.” We are carrying on with our “previous“ mental state, acting out of habit toward them, without realizing that we have actually gotten “back“ this thing that we suffered so much from losing. And so we go on and on and on, unawares, with repeating the cyclical bludgeoning as if nothing had changed.
Don’t you remember the scene from the movie, The Matrix, where our friend Neo sees a black cat for the second time. He believes he is just having one of those déjà vu experiences that we sometimes have seemingly out of the blue. But then his new friends inform him that a déjà vu is not a meaningless accident of perception. a déjà vu is really a sign of a break or a ripple in the matrix, in the programmed software of reality.
In this way, we could perhaps look at the déjà vu moment as a place where the two pieces of film have been snipped, in our thought-experiment, and a new narrative has been edited into the movie of our life. Sometimes we see these déjà vu ripples, and sometimes we are so inextricably involved with busyness and distraction and desire and anger and ignorance that we are not aware. Or maybe sometimes the universe’s software makes it so incredibly smooth, this transition, that only some sort of an advanced AI of our thinking-minds could possibly find a trace of the editing discontinuity. Who knows? But this is one way that it was expressed in the movies. Do I literally believe this to be true? I don’t know, and anyway, it does not matter. Every moment, when we are awake, is the power of this déjà vu possibility.
This thought-experiment I am offering here is not some wishy-washy New Age spirituality technique. From quantum mechanics and string theory, to the works of the recently honored Nobel Laureate in physics, Sir Richard Prenrose of Oxford University, we know at least the mathematical possibility of there being “parallel universes”, where every situation and action is exactly the same for us in infinite parallel universes, except perhaps that there is a slight alteration in each one of the infinite number of experienced realities. If an infinite number of parallel universes do exist, into infinity, as quantum physics and string theory calculate, then there is also that possibility that this one tragic fact (or any other) can be different in another universe. In fact, it must be so: any “bug“ in the system will allow this to become a feature of a program which is repeated, on and on and on and on, into numberless infinity. Why not?
So, by this quantum physics or string theory version of my homemade thought-experiment, in one universe, a parent loses a child to an unspeakable tragedy. But in yet another of those infinite possibilities, they do not lose their child in that accident or tragedy – – either the accident doesn’t happen, or they get the child back again. And they experience that “parallel” possibility just as fully as they inhabit “this” one. For any given set of facts or situations or experiences, the experience of another, completely different aspect of it is also perhaps what is happening, right now. Who knows?
If this seems too ridiculous or far-fetched, then the mind is stretched into even greater ridiculousness to contemplate the unreason and illogic and senselessness of so much that occurs anyway — willy-nilly — in our world and in our lives. Why would such a senseless and completely absurd reality as what we experience every day need to be the only possibility, if these credible theories by some really intelligent folks armed with the exactitude of mathematical computations and supercomputers to verify at least the theoretical existence of such scenarios, have absolutely zero sense or validity to them? My scientific sense finds much more credibility in something even mathematically coherent than in something seemingly of preposterous randomness, absurdity, and — frankly — dumb as our present set of circumstances in this very, very weird, unreasonable (say, for example, if you are a toddler blown to bits in a market in Baghdad because of some jobless, sexually-frustrated male driven mad by the murderous otherworldly illusions from a mouldy book planted in his brain, like so many computer viruses, by people who have access to enough science and reason to be able to know or at least imagine better realities).
The old lady was silent, and she never took her eyes off of mine. I told her, “OK, now you have Paula back again. The universe has granted your fervent wish that any parent pleads to the heavens when they learn that their child has died. You have Paula back again for another ‘try’. Now, will you carry-on with her with the same negative and egocentric thoughts that you had before? If one of those parents in America, who lost a child in a school shooting, if they received that child back again even just for one day, and yet only complained and criticized the child, wouldn’t we others think that they were not worthy of having been granted this special gift in the first place? ‘Look at her,’ we would think, ‘carrying on negatively as before with this daughter that she retrieved back from death for a few short hours. How can she spend this time arguing about useless things? It was a total wasted opportunity!’ And why, then, is any opportunity we have to spend with a child or a friend or lover or colleague — without them having to die! — any different than that? Wouldn’t we act with miraculous gratitude if we met even an acquaintance or the local shop-owner who had just been brought back to life with us from the eternity of never seeing each other again?”
She was noticing what I was getting at, and nodded her head slowly, with eyes down. “I see what you are trying to do, Sunim.”
I continued: “In the same way, you will help yourself and you will help Paula if you receive her at her next visit, just as if your desperate wish had actually been granted after desperate pleading with the universe. For how many people is this single wish a fantasy that they never get to to realize or experience? But you get to make a choice, to realize it right now, in this situation. Or else, not. It’s your choice. How wonderful!”
The next time I spoke with the old woman, she told me that she had such a wonderful visit with Paula the next time she visited. Mom was happy and grateful and felt such a deep connection. Rather than spending the visit as usual, embittered and counting the ways that Paula did not attend to her and serve her, instead the old woman told me that she doted on her daughter and loved her in a way that even shocked Paula. “It was so good to have her back again!“ she said. “Oh, so so so good to have her back again!” I was very happy to hear the news!
“But you are still a very bad bad monk for giving me that shock! To even imagine losing her, like that — it kept me awake that night! Don’t forget that I am still angry at you for that!” We both laughed heartily together.
I do not believe in the cheap, shallow, false, kitschy pseudo-comfort of greeting-card New Age spiritualities.
But I do believe that this universe is a lot more subtle and mysterious than we give credit to its infinite empty cold vacuum-space for being. And when I say that, I do not mean just the physical appearance of what we call “outer space“, somewhere out beyond the low-hanging clouds. I am speaking about mind – – this most subtle, most mysterious, most complex and yet simplest universe in the whole universe.
The basic teaching that runs throughout all of Buddhism is “Everything is created by mind alone.“ Mind is the ground of all reality. In 1666, John Milton wrote “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a hell of heaven, or a heaven of hell” (Paradise Lost). An old Zen saying says, “This whole universe covers my mind. But my mind can cover the entire universe.“ Even in having this discussion which conceptualizes something such as “universe,“ the power of the mind can, as it were, cover that concept – – with a word, with a concept, with the thought “universe“.
The way we orient our thinking, to anything, can completely re-orient our relationship to the universe we experience. It is always our choice: to live an awakened life, or not. And this is why we meditate, every day.
This life does not offer automatic answers for our questions and confusion. It is always our choice to make, from moment to moment. That is why meditation is such a powerful, absolutely essential tool – – meditation is this quite handy “user interface“ set of technologies that enable us to access our reality, to “unlock“ it, to hack our frozen karmic certainties and open them into the vastly wider parallel spaces of “just-now possibility“. One brand name for that user interface software is “don’t know.“ It is a quite useful brand – – it is both the interface software and the user itself, himself/herself. And it is free and it is open source, available for modification to any possible need or capacity. What could be better than that?