It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine, goes the song from REM, from my high school days, when the end of the world felt desirable. Please! I thought then. Let this world of Advanced Placement Everything end. Let this world of bra-rules and in-crowds end. Let me be saved into a parentless world of permission and freedom, soon. Let me be delivered from high school, the suburbs, and my own inability to connect.
Even earlier, maybe between ages ten and sixteen, I had thought of the end of the world in terms of ending my life. Not floridly, not in any way that would've required my therapist at the time (had I had one) to confirm suicidal ideation, intent, or plan – but more as a kind of low-grade, persistent belief that there was no place for me in this world – that I was among those who’d not been issued workable papers for this life and so, unless I wished to continue feeling misshapen and unheard, it would be better to find some back door, and leave.
Poison-as-medicine: one miserable afternoon, I remember my mother sitting me down in our dark-paneled living room in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, and telling me. Look, she said, Claude Michel, your Uncle Claude, didn’t die of a heart attack, like we told you when you were little. He killed himself. I want you to know that, because I want you to understand that sadness like this can be really dangerous. I want you to know.
What else did she say? Did she say, I recognize this sadness in you, because I recognize it in me? I don't think she did – it was probably too scary, given how long my mother had been fighting her own demons. But she knew. Did she say, We will find you someone who will listen to you, and whose own demons won’t make facing yours so hard? Maybe, but again, I don’t remember. It is true that for very brief period around that time, I saw a therapist, for whom I formed an immediate and intense distrust. She told me, probably among other things, but seemingly apropos of nothing, that I would never have satisfying relationships with men, until I sorted out my relationship with my father. Really, Lady? That’s what you say to the fifteen-year-old virgin exile in your office? I read her as just another adult pontificating about how I was wrong and defective, and absolutely refused to ever see her again.
Stepping back a little, I think it's worth pointing out that suicide runs a pretty strong streak in my family, generation after generation, taking obvious forms – jumping under a train, hanging – sneakier ones – Russian roulette, smoking oneself to death – and societally acceptable, but still suspicious pathways – airplane, horse, and motorcycle accidents. I think this is not at all unusual. Intergenerational pain also sometimes takes the shape of military conflict, or serial addiction. It is all looking for the end of the world.
So, what changes? A pair of squirrels stands at attention in the shaded grass. Now one turns, now the other’s tail flickers. Each follows its squirrel telos – not because it is the best squirrel, not because it is an immortal squirrel, but because these movements are authentic expressions of squirrelhood, within this present cosmic situation. I, Squirrel. I, Universe. Hop! No squirrels anywhere. Then two starlings flit in, arcing their arabesque out of and then back into the knotweed growing at the river’s edge.
The Buddha said, I teach the world and the end of the world. By this, he did not have some Repent! For the end of the world is nigh! eschatology in mind. More, he meant, I teach awareness of how stories are formed and imposed on experience, and in so doing I teach the possibility of an end to fixation on any story whatever. I teach the open field of awareness, within which the world arises and ends. There is this groundless ground, nowhere more or less present than right here.
I started, then, to experience myself like the squirrels, or the lilies of the field. This one turns in awareness of that one, and there is so much space to hold them both – a kind of open, harmonious intelligence, without plan or purpose. For such a mistrusting, isolated young person, unfolding in relationship was an intense revelation. I fell in love. No one planned it, much of the world was still on my end this now list, but something new was happening, too.
My friend and I became nocturnal explorers, not only of one another, but of the world. This staid mansion – what lies beyond it, and behind it? Quietly, on grass-flecked, wet bare feet, we walked at the edge of the lawn, at the edge of the pool, downhill to the vast, dark river unspooling at the edge of the world. We did this again and again, over many nights, catching different glimpses of the same recurring truth. Go past the No Trespassing signs, the ostentatious displays of property, go quietly without any intent of harm (even if you do leave the occasional perplexing doughnut to enliven someone's garden statuary), and you will find a great, quiet flow, moving observed and untroubled.
I have just returned from a week of Mahamudra Vipassana meditation, which might sound like whatsy whatsit, and means turning the mind’s gaze back on itself, to glimpse the nature of mind. Is awareness constricted, or is it unbounded? Is it dark, or is it luminous? Is it static, or is it changing? Whatever you find or don’t find, rest there. Each night, having written, drawn, sat, eaten, moved among an improvised community, and listened to teachings, I would leave the house, walking out to the edge of the field, where my tent stood in a birch grove. A very gentle form of the end of the world, but still: there is something about being intentionally outside at night, walking under stars, that goes both against and towards very particular human instincts.
I focused, out there, on the sense of being in relationship. Scrunch, scrunch – the slugs rasping their little tongues on the nylon walls. My field of benefactors, holding space. Dreams, coming in their horror and blessing. More slugs, eating my shoes very slowly. Both within and outside the end of the world, I tried to remember not to be too sure about which is which, and to let go of making something happen, either way.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now