How I Got Real (A Reflection on Illusions)

I used to be a pretty stupid kid. I don’t mean that I was dumb in the traditional sense of dribbling on myself or being unable to answer questions in class, but I had a lot of fairly obtuse ideas about what the world might be and what life had to offer; spent a lot of time daydreaming, caught up in reverie and fantasy, looking out of windows, trying to talk to animals. I’m sure if you could track down a therapist or a mental health professional of some kind they’d be able to look at my childhood and what I was or wasn’t reacting to, perhaps the divorce of my parents, the pain of separation, the perils of fragmentation, and all of the other stuff that I occasionally like to rant about whilst gesticulating and telling people that the universe is whole and wondrous at core and that we’re all a part of it because the ‘whole’ is within us. But, who knows? Maybe I was just a natural born idiot and that’s all there was to it.

Sometimes I wonder if some of the ‘funny ideas’ that I have are just a subconscious craving to return to the peace and quiet of the womb, or at the very least, the bliss of childhood, trusting implicitly and completely in greater forces, surrendering to the whim of the world that we’ve found ourselves in, knowing that all will be provided to us if we just cry out once in a while but ultimately remain patiently acquiescent to the whim of the universe. Isn’t that what the majority of us want most of all in our hearts, if we are honest? To let go and to slip into the surrender of just ‘being’? Whenever I resist, it makes me miserable – or, at least, that’s how it seems: ‘Everything is whole outside of the ego’, ‘the lines between things only exist in our heads’ – when you resist and explain away it only ever causes undue friction so why not bend with the wind? That’s how I seem to be thinking these days, but maybe that’s just the way the edge forces you to think.

I used to think that I wanted the ‘wild ride’. I wasn’t actively rebelling against the ‘standard package’, but I never saw the point in blindly following the traditional path of going to school, going to college, going to university, getting married, dropping dead, and telling myself that I was pleased with it all, purely because that’s what the traditional cultural wisdom about what people needed to do in order to be ‘happy’. That’s not to say that I didn’t do a lot of the things on that list, or that I won’t eventually do the rest of them, but I always wanted there to be ‘more’ -not in a greedy sense, I don’t think, but mainly in a deeper sense; I wanted to feel alive. I wanted to feel that I was connecting not just to the people around me but to all of the human beings before and after me. I wanted to live a life that was ‘human’, full of the requisite pain and tragedy and suffering, but also replete with the richness of overcoming these things and the joys and blisses of love and laughter and levity.

Maybe it’s because I used to like the Greek myths, maybe it’s because I watched too many movies, and got swept away with the music…I’m not sure. Whatever it is, I moved into my adult life with a set of high-level ideals about what life might have to offer and I used them to escape the clutches of the soul-sucking drudgery of the machine and to flitter free and confused about the great organs of the earth itself. I remember being convinced that somewhere out there awaited the world that we seemed to have been promised; the world of animal magnetism and soul-rousing adventure, the world of colour and poetry and myth. It all seems so funny now as I sit typing this in the coffee shop and look out the window at the dour faces slinking past the betting office or struggling with the self-service checkouts in Tesco but, at the same time, part of me still believes that this dourness is just a distraction and the real wine is waiting to be plucked from a vine somewhere, if only we can uncover the vineyard from the cobwebs of all modern beguilement.

For a while, these ideals seemed to carry me like some kind of Leonard Cohen gypsy Icarus, mainly because of luck or coincidence or the ‘invisible hands’ that like to tug on our puppet strings every once in a while. I flew too high and too close to the Land of the Rising Sun; four years in Japan, dancing around Tokyo high on life and Suntory whisky, somehow managing to get out of the English teaching racket and working as a model for the magazines and the catwalk, doing extra work in movies that I still haven’t seen, getting to think of myself as a ‘writer’ because I had a job using ostentatious adjectives to describe fashionable items on a website long since shut down. I had love and lost love, lost myself and found myself; everything was abundant, and everything shimmered and everything was beautiful and we were all young and cool and doing whatever the hell we wanted to do. Truly, not a care in the world, just scintillation after scintillation, as the world glimmered and I thought of myself as another diamond encrusted upon its crown.

I know I sound nostalgic; I know this piece of writing is verging dangerously close to the solipsistic navel-gazing that blogs on the internet used to be infamous for. But I used to love to write in this way; throwing it out there, dancing about on the words in my head, letting them lilt and dive on the pages of the Word Processer before me, as I tell myself that I’m being ‘artistic’ or ‘creative’ or ‘connected’ to the great conduit of the soul and the wisdom that it’s capable of puking up onto the page. It might sound weird, but this last year or two I’ve started to feel like I’ve woken up from a slumber and that the buzz of life that I thought only really existed in the dance of my youth is a buzz that can fill the rest of my days if I can get into the swing of the process and take purposeful action; if only I can release myself from the pain and the loss and the fear that unite me to every other sucker on the planet; the great mess of their lives as they try to unravel the threads that tie them to everything else, more often than not taking haphazard and circuitous paths around their own necks, but only because we’ve learned to become addicted to the thought of strangling ourselves.

Sometimes when I look back at my life I can’t believe I’m only in my early thirties. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve lived tens of different lives, experienced tens of different deaths, danced with different devils to the beat of myriad different drums, and fallen to rise again with the same shortness of breath, each time to witness the crumbling of different worlds, gazed upon with the same empty yearning by the shimmer of different eyes. When I look at this latest incarnation, I can’t help but laugh at how dangerously close to the edge I am; every time I’m plugged into the dialysis machine and I look at the needles in my arm and my blood swirling through the system, every time I look around me at the fade-away faces of the other patients, tune into the coughs and the splutters, watch the nurses maunder on by with their occasionally dour expressions, their patient acceptance of the ebb of the tide, I can’t help but think back to my childhood as that dim-witted dreamer and the exhortations of chastising adults to ‘Wait until you get to the real world’. And now the immortal, time-tested question: ‘Was it really worth waiting for?’ as I attempt to synthesize a spluttered ‘Yes’ in response.

I’ve nearly been on dialysis for eight years. I’ve learned a lot, seen a lot, and accepted a lot, but I still get shocked from time to time about the realness of the situation though, more often than not, it helps me to ‘centre’ myself and to let my illusions slip so that I can get back into the swing of what actually flows, not just the tricks that my mind sometimes plays on me about how it all actually might be. Though this process may be a shock to the system each time I go through it, I can’t but help but be grateful because, if I’ve learned anything this last decade, it’s that the source of our misery is our expectations and illusions, so anything that cleanses me of them can only be a ‘gift’ in the long term even if it crushes the whole of you in the here and now (but maybe that’s just the ‘edge’ making me rationalise again).

I already wrote on this blog about Death and how being awoken to it, having it constantly tap you on the shoulder and tell you that there are better things to be doing with your time than playing goddam ‘Angry Birds’ or languishing before the television, will make your life infinitely richer, but what I haven’t written about is how I am surrounded by the stench of death for at least twelve hours a week as I’m plugged into the machine, watching people’s bones melt, observing the trembles and festerings of other sentient beings, watching them struggle with their faith or sense of rhyme and reason, plugged into oxygen machines, coughing their guts up as the sweat drips down their faces and they silently scream within the prism of their own minds because they’re scared to reach out and people are scared to reach for them in return. I haven’t written about how when you’re surrounded by this much reality this much of the time you can’t help but start to think like I think. You can’t help but try and figure out ways to help yourself and others suffer most efficiently.

Before I found myself in this situation, I was quite complacent within the symbolic ‘bubble’ that the majority of us are encouraged to live within. I was detached from death and disease and madness, had no real inclination of what really went on backstage, and why should I expect to have done so when I was having so much fun singing and dancing in the great pantomime? Our society is built around hiding from the ‘Truth’ because it is built as a reaction to this truth, not an acceptance of it; death is hidden out of sight, the sick and the searching are usually tucked away in the hospitals and are encouraged to hide their illnesses or madnesses if possible, and so all that we see before reality affects us personally by creeping into our own lives, are the shimmering neon signs of the advertising boards, the fancy paintings on the walls in the coffee shops, the LCD screens that we spend our days gazing upon, the order, the order, the order, the illusion of control and structure that we like to pretend is the ‘real’ world, so that we don’t have to suffer the pain of changing or growing, the shock of having our illusions shattered, of breaking free of our world views and up into ourselves and out into the world into something stronger. We are encouraged to neurotically pretend that everything is fine and that we are as perfect as can be and that none of us are flawed or broken and that no more light need filter through the cracks because everything is shining oh so brightly!

When I first got ‘ill’, it wasn’t the illness itself that really bothered me but the shattering of the illusions that I carried about myself and the world. I suppose it hit me like a hurricane because I had been relatively idealistic before it happened, because my life had been almost ‘magical’, or at least a most fortunate wild ride, as I swanned around Tokyo in my skinny jeans and gazed at myself on billboards, toyed with the idea of moving to LA; hung around with babes from all over the world and thought I was real hot shit living the realest of high lives. A tragedy is only as tragic as the depth of the fall and, in my head, at least, I fell from the top of the mountain only to land at the foot of the world itself. I wrote a shitty, unpublished novel about this whole experience, the depression, the loss of ‘faith’ (whatever that means), the inexorable pain of having to face the facts that all the things that you value about yourself were essentially meaningless and vapid because they were external only. Life showed me that if you want to rebuild you have to look at yourself and ride through the ‘pain’ of it all, that you have to admit that you’re nothing special, that you’re just as scared and alone and as vulnerable as every other Tom, Dick, and Harry, and that your life is yours and yours alone, and all you can really ever do is cross your fingers, hold your breath, and keep going. Build from the inside out and you just might get there, but even then, there are no guarantees. It is what it is.

And, despite ‘knowing’ all this, I still have to remind myself from time to time so that I can keep my sanity and live clearly.  The brain wants us to buy into the illusion because it doesn’t want us to feel the pain. Sometimes, I don’t want to face what is ‘real’ because reality hurts, especially if you’ve been out of touch with it for a while and the reunion reintroduces you to certain things about yourself that you’d forgotten or tried to forget about. This is why most of us would rather have our illusions: because they protect us, because they make us feel mightier than we actually are, because they help us to think that there is order and that things make sense and that everything happens for a reason and that it all must mean something so the pain of being human is somehow worth it. And perhaps this is the key to the understanding of our condition: that everybody is struggling with some kind of pain, even though they may not always talk about it. We all have that thirstiness inside us, not just the lustful kind, but the thirst that craves to drink in the whole of life itself, only to be endlessly disappointed time and time again, when we realise that each sip we take adds to the coarseness at the back of our throats and compels us to drink ever more. But until you drop dead this is just the way it is: You will always be thirsty and you will always want more. It is what it is, so keep sipping but don’t ever expect to be satisfied.

Despite saying all this, accepting it all, I still think that reality is the best friend and teacher that any of us can have. Though my reintroduction to it and the continual reminders of its expression can sometimes be overwhelming, reality has taught me so much about life and death and how to make the most of everything in between that I can’t help but be grateful for each grating moment of my life experience. I know that sharing these ideas, or banging on about dialogue, is out of synch with the mainstream and the neurotic idea that anything is possible and that anybody can be limitless, but all of these ‘wishful think-y’ type notions are based on a reaction to humanity’s smallness and a fear at our perceived powerlessness. My view is quite the opposite; that we are just about as powerful as it gets, that we are all forces of nature within the systems of further forces, but that this doesn’t mean that anything is possible because we all have our own cross to bear and part of making friends with what is real about us involves learning to carry it without judging ourselves.

I know now that the only thing that can really make you ‘miserable’ are your illusions, both in terms of what you expect of yourself and the world, and what you allow others to expect of you. For a long time, I thought I was going to be ‘dead soon’ and so I allowed this belief to place a ceiling on what was possible for me. What was the point in having a career? What was the point in settling down? What was the point in anything besides hedonism and decadence if you were doomed to be checking out in a few days, whether you liked it or not? Regardless of if they are focused on the past, the present, or the future, your illusions will hold you back from yourself and the world, because reality itself is all you really need to connect to in order to be able to ‘flow’ into the synthesis of all these things. You don’t need to be ‘safe’ all the time in order to lead a good life; in fact, I would go so far as to say that your ‘fulfilment’ is found on your edge, in the potency of pushing through it and out of your own actual limits, not your neurotic denial of them. Having limits is a good thing because it allows you to push back at the world, but first you have to be aware of them. This is why I sometimes convince myself that I’m happy I was ‘broken’ for a while…

All of this adds up to help me build an awareness that, at the very least, allows me to suspect that I’m not crazy. Before the great fall and crash back down to reality, I was a neurotic fuelled by unrealistic ideals about what life might mean and what it could offer, but the majority, if not all, of these ideals were built on seeking shortcuts to the insecurities that I’d dragged into my adulthood through childhood, for whatever reason, and at the service of whatever function or survival mechanism they had to offer me. Whether standing as the veil between yourself and life, yourself and others, or yourself and love or the world, your illusions will always be the start of your downfall because they are the only mountain from which the inevitable creeping in of reality can push you over the edge of.

Though it would be foolish to suggest that I suffer from no illusions, I think it’s fair to say that I am at least more aware of the possibility of having them and that, over the years, I’ve cultivated the skill of testing my beliefs and detaching myself from them so that I can live more harmoniously with reality as it unfolds (see: ‘Personal Revolutions’). My heartfelt conviction now is that, from the limited vantage point of a human understanding and lifespan, detaching and learning to let things unfold on their own terms is the best that we can hope for. It doesn’t mean that we be passive, merely that we stop trying to control things. When you get dragged out of hiding you’ll see that the ‘control’ that you thought you had was mostly an illusion anyway and so all you can really do is try to build a life on the waves that move beneath your feet, not the castles in the sky that promise to stand forever but which will crumble as soon as the weather changes…

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