One Saturday morning as I sorted through a long neglected closet, a distant voice drifted in to me through layers of linen and wool. It was from the kitchen radio. At first I ignored it; the closet was a challenge. So much had accumulated without my conscious effort, coats that would never be worn again, shoes past their prime. But the voice was intriguing. The man spoke of an experience he had on a subway in which he was unnerved by a woman ranting aloud to herself. Her agitated, circular voice stayed with him until he reached his workplace and heard himself say aloud to the men's room mirror, "I hope I never become like that." Voila! In that instant, he realized that he was, in fact, just like the woman, his mind always churning and ruminating, not aloud, perhaps, but to the same pointless end.
I backed out of the closet and listened. He spoke of falling into a vortex of depression in which he was told one night by an inner voice to surrender everything. The next morning he awakened saturated by a sense of wonder at the profound beauty infusing everything around him. He observed the exquisite way the morning light fell across his desk and the glowing life force of the tree outside his window. He had fallen into grace.
The speaker, it turned out, was Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now. Although I had never heard of him, I soon discovered I was in the minority. A lover of literature and poetry, nonfiction books like his were not my thing, but the interview captivated me. I had to see what The Power of Now was about.
Strangely, as I read Tolle's work, scenes from the novel I had recently finished sprang to my mind. The novel, April and Oliver, had been sold, and from a creative point of view it was like a sculpture already put in the kiln — finished, complete, frozen in time — and without need of further thought from me. Yet here I was, reliving scenes and being present to the characters as though they were still walking the hallways of my mind. I realized that, although the book was finished, there was still something the characters wanted to reveal to me.
Tolle writes that emotional traumas we experience in life leave behind a residue of pain that lives on in us. It merges with other pain from the past and collective pain from our culture and becomes lodged in our minds and bodies. This phenomenon, which he calls the "pain-body," rises up in us when triggered, and often we seek triggers because the familiar dramas feel normal to us. My character, April, for instance, is an intelligent, resourceful woman who has the baffling habit of putting herself into destructive relationships with men. Her concerned grandmother tells her that "your idea of what feels normal took a left turn somewhere." April is addicted to craziness. She is what Tolle would call "unconscious." Emotional reactions take over her, and she becomes them. Tolle argues that this is the normal state of most people. It is not necessarily a state of acute pain or unhappiness, but can be a low level of unease, discontent, or anxiety — a kind of background static. In one scene when April has a fleeting moment of clarity, she compares it to an experience of working in a factory one summer when all the machines shut down at once, suddenly allowing her to hear her own thoughts. Through a series of incremental moments like this, when the background static quiets, April has the opportunity to realize that she is not just a bundle of conditioned reflexes. She has choice.
If April is stuck reliving the wounds of her past, Oliver is absorbed in the future. Waiting is his perpetual state of mind. He looks forward to becoming a lawyer, marrying his fiancée, and having a successful life. Tolle says that there is nothing wrong with setting goals and striving to achieve things. The dilemma occurs when, as in the case of Oliver, this becomes a substitute for the feeling of life. Rather than staying present to everyday experience, rooted in his physical body, he lives in a constant state of distraction, which allows his mind, with its incredible momentum, to drag him along like a log in a river. Oliver's obstacle to peace is his chronically thinking mind, fixated on a future that never quite arrives, while April's obstacle is the pain-body she carries from the past. In this way, both are perpetually absent from the moment at hand — except when they are together.
When they are in one another's presence, the power of the here and now is intensely alive for them. Tolle suggests that, whenever a relationship is wrought with strife, whenever it brings out the madness in you, be glad, because what was unconscious is being brought up to the light. Such moments present an opportunity for salvation. The key is to be present to one's feelings. If there is anger, know there is anger; if you are jealous, acknowledge your jealousy without judgment. Simply notice what is. In this way, your relationship can become your sadhana, your spiritual practice. April and Oliver's relationship exists not to make them happy, which it clearly doesn't, but to make them conscious. Tolle advises that when someone you know behaves "unconsciously" — that is, reacts by reflex to an internal script from the past, recreating old dramas through sheer habit — the best thing you can do for that person is to relinquish all judgment.
At first, April and Oliver carry many judgments about one another: He thinks she is addicted to abuse; she thinks he has lost touch with his soul. Over time, however, their ideas about each other are cut through by the sheer experience of each other's presence. At a moment of high drama, when their behavior toward each other is purely unconscious and verging on violence, one of them gets accidentally hurt and the script is abruptly dropped. In a single instant they return from the brink of mutual destruction to recover themselves, to be present to one another's true essence. Even though they have acted horribly toward each other, they do not mistake that behavior for who they are. In this way, they momentarily break what Tolle calls the insane cycle of the involuntary action. They transcend their old mind patterns and experience their true essence.
April's life, with its many losses, can be seen as something of a nightmare, but Tolle says that when you are trapped in a nightmare, you are more strongly motivated to awaken than someone who is trapped in an ordinary dream. Acute unhappiness can be a powerful awakener, and for many people, their failures, losses, illness, or pain turn out to be their greatest teacher. April cannot escape the suffering of losing her brother, but she can allow the suffering to force her into a state of intense, conscious presence. Naturally she does not want to feel her grief. She tries many escapes, but, of course, the only way out of the pain is through — not to think about it, not to create a script in one's mind about it, but to simply feel it. For a long time, she resists surrendering to the reality of his death, but it cannot be undone. When April's car radio dies, she decides not to fix it. She drives in silence. With surrender comes the opportunity for grace. Disaster can quickly show us what is real and unreal in our lives, Tolle writes. Each of us must have failed deeply or experienced some deep loss or pain in order to be drawn to what is most true in our lives.
At one point, when April is about to hook up with yet another man, she steps back and observes herself as in a dream:
April saw herself staring in through the shop window. It occurred to her that they'd all been in their 40s, every one of them, since she was a teenager. Was it her fault she wasn't attracted to men her own age? Attraction wasn't the right word. It was more like curiosity. But she was getting tired of it. The script had grown stale. Maybe this time she would walk away. Maybe she didn't need it anymore.
At that moment, he looked up and saw her. He took off his glasses and hesitated before rising to let her in. What the hell, she told herself. You're here, aren't you?
How much more pain does April need before she can choose to walk away? Conditioned by her past, her mind wants to keep its old habits, which tell her that intimacy and abuse are linked. Even if the old pattern is painful, at least it is familiar. Although in this case April ignores her moment of insight and continues on as usual, the moment is profound because it allows her to bear witness to her thoughts, to see precisely what she is doing. For April, it takes many such interim moments building on each other over time before the scale can tip toward real choice. The reason she doesn't act sooner is simple. Since childhood, pain has become an essential part of her, and she wants to keep herself intact. If she relinquished it, what would be left of her?
Tolle's work gave me a new way to look at my characters, to understand their stubbornness, and appreciate their breakthroughs. As for my closet, I'd like to say that it is shipshape now, but there are many things I am still trying to give up.
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A painter, teacher, and mother of twins, Tess Callahan has written for Cottonwood, The Stylus Anthology: 1950-2000, The Boston College Magazine, New York Newsday, and elsewhere through syndication. Tess has an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College. April and Oliver is her first novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Tess Callahan is the author of April and Oliver