Humans try to pain-proof everything. Like anxious new parents baby-proofing an apartment, we soften bad news, avoid stressful situations, encase the bodies of our dead in cushioned containers. We try to soften every corner in the world.
Of course, all the padding we create can’t protect us from the things we fear. We can spend a lifetime adding pad upon pad, like the princess in the story, and still still feel every pea through all those mattresses. Only the wisest among us know that safety lies not in adding more to reality, but in stripping things down.
My friend Stephen, a dazzling writer and former Zen monk, recently gave me some advice about overcoming fear. “First, pull the rug out from under your own feet,” he said. “Then, pull the floor out from under the rug.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Then pull the ground out from under the floor. Now you’re getting somewhere.”
Stephen really knows how to make a girl want to stab herself. But he makes a solid point. If you’ve been unsuccessfully trying to add comforting things to your reality, you may want to do a little subtracting.
Here’s a handy metaphor: My son Adam just got a fancy-schmancy virtual reality (VR) game system. Have you tried these things? You put on a headpiece and it projects a three-dimensional-looking environment so convincing it feels more real than the room you’re standing in. Here’s Adam playing his game.
As you can see, Adam is acting relatively normal, but this is not necessarily the rule in such situations. Below are two of my favorite videos of all time. They show people using virtual reality headsets that make them feel they’re in frightening situations. The woman is experiencing a roller coaster ride, the man something I can only assume is an attack of flying lobsters. The videos are a little jiggly, because the people recording the videos are laughing so hard they can barely hang onto their cell phones. You won’t regret watching these.
I don’t know about you, but I can think of a thousand occasions when I freaked out while sitting in a comfortable chair. I’ve done it several times today. In fact, almost every moment I’ve spent in worry, dread, or panic, happened when there was nothing frightening in the room. Just me in a chair, projecting my thoughts.
I really understood this for the first time when I was 28 and had an unusual experience during a surgery. Some doctors and nurses and whatnot were operating on me when I regained consciousness, sat up, and looked around at the room — which was odd, because my body was lying flat with its eyes closed.
I lay back down and had begun wondering what the hell was going on when a ball of incredibly bright white light appeared between the surgical lamps. As I watched, the light started expanding, filling everything it touched, including my body. It flooded me with an inexpressible comfort. It was so warm, so gentle, so unbelievably soft. And here’s the thing: it was laughing. It giggled and rejoiced, very much in the style of the people filming their loved ones’ VR freakouts. It basically said, “HAHAHAHA! You totally thought that was real!”
It’s not that the light was mocking me. The laughter made perfect sense, because suddenly I, too, saw the hilarity in my own life-and-death terrors. Why? Because they so obviously weren’t real. That is, they were only real the way a virtual reality landscape is. In that moment, it seemed obvious to methat the whole physical universe was being created by consciousness, the way a VR roller coaster is created by engineers. Consciousness itself, which somehow seemed to be embodied in that inexpressibly beautiful light, was much, much more real. And it was loving, gentle, safe, infinitely beyond any sort of harm or suffering.
The light stayed with me just a few minutes, and it left me suffused with a lifetime’s joy. The one message it gave me (other than the ridiculousness of my fear) was this: I’d thought spiritual illumination might happen to me after I die. The light told me that I — and all of us — are meant to feel that unearthly bliss while we’re alive. That’s the whole point of this virtual reality game, it told me. The object is to wake up, to realize that everything we fear is only a vivid illusion, while still enjoying the wonder of the experience.
Since that experience, I’ve never quite lost the perspective that what we call “reality” is a projection of consciousness. Suffering is genuine, significant, and truly horrible. But under it — around it, containing it — is something much more true. It brings light and grace to all the horror. It makes sense of everything.
I think “death” is just a scary word for taking off the metaphorical headset and seeing that we’ve been perfectly safe all along. Every monster roller coaster, every hideous flying lobster, every problem besetting us right now exists purely to enrich this mortal experience. We can begin sensing this immediately. We can stop frantically cushioning ourselves and feel the sense of something unfathomably gentle buoying us up, its arms wrapped around us. Then we can just sink back into the cushions and enjoy the ride of our lives.