The Trance of “Real But Not True”

Last night I accidentally erased six months worth of texts sent between my partner and me. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not *that* big of a deal. Sure, I sometimes indulge in looking back at a sweet message from a day or two ago, but I rarely scroll back through several weeks or months of everyday exchanges except to find some bit of information to reference, an address or someone’s phone number. Still, I found myself surprisingly distressed at the loss.

“I still have them,” my partner yawned as I curled up with him to go to bed, “and you probably have them in the cloud–I bet I could get them back for you.”

“I guess,” I answered, somehow not feeling convinced or comforted.

He quickly slipped off into an untroubled sleep, but for some time I lay there feeling vaguely uneasy for reasons I couldn’t quite pin down. In the dark quiet, my mind slid into mildly panicked thoughts–what if I weren’t able to recover them? What if something were to happen to my partner? Wouldn’t I wish I had these countless, mundane but faithful records of our steady, playful, rich  relationship. My heart ached just entertaining these thoughts. I felt my skin tingle with a “gut” feeling that I’d somehow jinxed myself, that perhaps the intensity of this moment was the universe’s way of preparing me for tragedy.

I do this a lot–well, less than I used to, but still more than I’d like: I get so caught up, so invested in a “feeling” that it seems more real than the world as it exists in front of me. Irritatingly, it happens most often when things are going especially well in life. It’s as though some part of me has never quite accepted that I might deserve good things. I always seem to be holding my breath, waiting for these gifts to be wrenched away from me.

My meditation practice has been helpful in learning to recognize that these thoughts, when they come up, are just thoughts, not pronouncements from a god I don’t believe in, not animal instinct of foreboding. Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach’s phrase, “real but not true,” continues to be a useful one to invoke as a reminder that this feeling is real in the sense that it’s an experience I’m having but not “true” in any sort of factual way by virtue of the fact that any such fears are based on projections on a future that I can have no way of knowing at the present moment. Certain dreaded outcomes can be likely or even inevitable, but what can’t be known is what *exactly* my experience of that outcome will be. The suffering I am bracing myself for is imagined–whether it proves to be more or less painful than the reality, the experience itself will not be anything I can conceive of until I am in that moment. But still, even though I can label these experiences as such, I’ve spent my entire life worrying as a way of steeling myself up for the “unbearable” pain that’s just around the corner, and old habits die hard.

However, the thing about the unbearable pain  (when it arrives) is that, somehow, we always seem to bear it. As teacher Diane Musho Hamilton says, “Everything is workable.” This doesn’t mean everything will be “okay” in the sense that we will avoid loss, sadness, fear, and pain–all of these experiences are part of the human experience and inescapable–but instead everything will be as it is, and we will handle it, sometimes with grace and sometimes without. In either case, the suffering will shift subtly with each passing moment and will not be one solid block of pain but, rather, countless microseconds of more and less pain, of neutral numbness, of little hints of optimism and despair. And this “everything,” it applies not just to working through the suffering but also the bliss. There isn’t actually one way to approach what we like in life and another to approach what we don’t. Both must be accepted and not given undue bearing on our experience.

I’d like to say that a conscious acceptance of the neurotic nature of my mind is what allows me to step outside the fog of worry-ridden thoughts, but the truth is, more often than not, it’s the poke of the physical world that snaps me out of my trance. Last night, just as my mind was reaching a fever pitch, I found myself sitting upright with an abruptness that surprised even  me: inexplicably in the midst of this chaos, I remembered that I had not set my alarm for the next morning. Before I knew what I was doing, I scrambled out of bed and across the room to where I had plugged in my phone. “Babe, what are you–? I’ll sort it all out for you tomorrow, I promise,” my partner mumbled. “Come back to bed, try to sleep.”

Opening my mouth to explain, I looked up from my phone and over at the jumble of covers to see him extending his arms out to welcome me back. Involuntarily, I felt my lips curve into a smile, triggering a chain reaction relaxing the muscles in my face and shoulders. I finished setting my alarm, padded back to bed and nestled into the crook of his arm. And, for a moment, I lost myself in the pleasure of feeling my cheek against the skin of his chest and the sound of his steady heartbeat.




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