I once met a woman who was a hairdresser from Colombia. She had been in the U.S. for several months and spoke almost no English. She smoked cigarettes and drank strong Colombian coffee from morning till night. She worked long hours, ate little and poorly and had a host of physical complaints related to her lifestyle. When I went to get my hair cut we would nod and smile and I would show off my snappy command of the Spanish language by saying “Hi” and “Thank you very much.” I once tried to ask her how she was feeling. What I actually said was something like, “How does your bed feel?” Have you ever had a dog quizzically tilt his head and look at you with a mixture of confusion and pity in his eyes? She gave me that very same look and I quickly decided to stick to nodding and smiling, frequently and broadly.
She was a pleasant woman and I was somehow drawn to know more about her. I remember my ego subtly nagging me that there was no sense in getting to know her because (and now ego seized memory and the moment to support its argument) I shouldn’t be around smokers or people who abuse themselves by overworking and poor diet. She knows no English, I know no Spanish, and furthermore, she comes from a totally unfamiliar cultural and vocational background. Even if we could communicate, what would we talk about? “After all, Frank,” my ego now kicking into high gear, “You need to have ‘deep’ conversations to satisfy your intellectual appetite. And what if she has drug ties…
Boy, what a crock! I couldn’t believe my thoughts. It was hard to accept that they were actually coming from me. But there they were, bold as boloney. But were those thoughts coming from me? Nothing was coming out of that part of me that was watching. That was just innocent observation of what the mind was thinking. Then in a flash I realized that those objections came from my memory. Outdated thoughts from my memory were dictating my present thinking and actions. I was both appalled and fascinated. It was like watching a car wreck in my own mind. I couldn’t turn away. And it is a good thing I didn’t.
I continued to be split in two, as it were, simultaneously observing and thinking. The observing “I” was never judging, never interfering with the impudent and “off to conquer the world” shenanigans of memory “me.” Even though my mind sputtered on relentlessly, as it always had, I felt a deep sense of benevolence; an intimate rapport with peace. I, as others have, came to call this delicious state of inner wakefulness, Self-awareness.
Several weeks later I had occasion to share a table with the Colombian hairdresser in the smoking section of a crowded restaurant. I listened, patiently Self-aware, as my mind reeled off the reasons I should not be in the smoking section with a smoker who didn’t speak English, and with whom I had only my graying hair in common.
I slid into the booth and smiled the kind of goofy smile that precedes a long, awkward silence. Then I proceeded to endure a long, awkward silence in which I truly believed I could feel my hair growing. Finally, just before my smiling muscles turned to knotted wood, I said, in my best Spanish, “Good water.”
“Si, in glass.”
“This is ketchup.”
“I like ketchup.”
“Si, it was red.”
… And so it went, thin slices of conversation sandwiched between thick slices of silence until the meal ended. All the while, I observed as judgments, leftovers from my memory, continued to jostle for dominance. Never interfering, I watched as memories bubbled up and burst on the surface of my consciousness.
Then I realized something most remarkable. As I observed a thought, erupting into consciousness, it immediately dissipated, becoming a kind of silent energy. Memory was past energy, trapped and stagnant. All I did was quietly observe a thought as it was released from memory and it was liberated; prevented from recycling back and deepening attachment to the past. As I remained awake and innocently watched the process unfold, negative thought energy converted to a subtle healing energy. For years I had tried to win the war against negative thoughts and all I ever had to do was…well, was nothing! Waking up and watching is effortless and immediate. How simple, how utterly brilliant. All evening I had been dining on the Self and as the corporeal meal was winding down, my new friend asked, “You want sweet food?”
“No thank you.” I responded, “I’m feeling deliciously full.”
Tossing the tip on the table, I felt a deep sense of calm as if everything was just as it should be. If I had listened to the echoes from my memory, I would have been sniffing my clothes for smoke and mentally highlighting the awkward moments that dominated an otherwise innocent adventure. Instead I was at peace. During the months that followed I learned more about the Colombian I broke bread with. We eventually became friends and parts of my life have been greatly enriched because I chose to observe, rather than react to the mania of my memory.