Reflexively, my head turned toward the sound of a breaking plate, and then more slowly back to the middle-aged woman sitting across from me. We were at a small marbled table in a trendy café. It was an island of equanimity cluttered with mid-morning deserters from a chaotic world that waited, like an expectant father, just beyond the glass doors.
She was a friend, visiting Sarasota for a few weeks to soak up a compassionate winter sun. We had been catching up on each other’s lives. She told me about her children, her job and the health issues she was dealing with. She set her cup down and when she raised her eyes they had lost the sparkle that had played there just moments before. I waited. When she broke the silence her voice was muted and her mood pensive.
She said with real concern, “You have said that in order to have inner peace we must lose our hope. Hope is all I have with my diabetes. If I were to lose hope I would have nothing.”
“What is wrong with nothing?” I asked.
She looked at me in disbelief. “If I have nothing I…I lose who I am. Just thinking about it makes me feel empty, abandoned.”
She seemed to shrink before my eyes, a kind of caving in on her self.
”Giving up hope,” She shared, “Is giving up life!”
Let’s try a little experiment, O.K.?” I encouraged her, “But you will have to trust me, do exactly as I ask.”
She was tentative but agreed, and I asked her to close her eyes. She placed both hands on the table, laced her fingers and let her flickering eyelids close. Behind her lids, her eyes darted about, not willing to be seduced by the soothing darkness that now surrounded them.
I said, “Let go of your hope. Let nothing take its place. What do you feel?”
After a few uneasy seconds she protested, “I feel afraid; anxious…I am very uncomfortable. I don’t like doing this.”
“Stay with me,” I encouraged, “Which emotion is the strongest?”
“Fear.” she said quietly.
Gently I instructed, “Instead of turning away from your fear, look at it closely. Become acutely aware of your fear. As you watch it, it will change.”
“What is happening to your fear now that you are watching it?” I asked.
“At first it got stronger. I wanted to open my eyes.” she replied, “Now it is like a pale shadow. It is like my awareness is the sun and the fear is burning away like fog!”
“Go on, continue observing your fear.” I encouraged.
A few moments later I noticed a change in her breathing and asked, “What do you see now?”
“Nothing.” Came her answer.
“Do you feel fear?” I asked.
“No, I feel nothing.” She repeated.
I said, “Pay attention to the nothing like you did the fear. What do you feel?”
“I feel peace, completely at peace.” She said with some surprise.
Her body was relaxed and her face glowed. Her eyelids had stopped flickering and her eyes were at rest. They must have found what they were looking for.
I asked her to open her eyes and as she did her lips parted in a gargantuan smile. She asked, “What just happened?”
Fear is a shadow that creates other shadows like anxiety, dread and remorse. Shadows grow darker in the subconscious when the conscious mind turns away from them. Hope turns the mind away from the present, where peace resides, and entices it to dwell on the future. Hope, like the future, is an illusion. Hope, like happiness, is conditional. Peace is unconditional and always present. Unconditional means it is free from things and ideas and emotions; free from the agony of opposites like right and wrong, birth and death, good and bad. Nothing is also unconditional and free from opposites. Nothing is the progenitor of peace. We don’t really fear nothing. We fear the idea of nothing. Peace is the movie screen upon which these shadows are thrown to create the illusion of life. Upon quiet inspection you will see through the phantom of fear, and its specter offspring, to the peace that is radiating just beyond. Peace is always there in the background, like a loving mother watching her child at play.
We spoke of many things that morning and the time to part came quickly. We stood up from the table and looked around the still crowded café.
I said, “You still have diabetes, but without hope you will be at peace with it.”
My friend gave me a big smile and a bigger hug. Then we turned and stepped through the glass doors to embrace the chaos beyond.
Video: Stop Thought Experience