The death of childhood; a child reborn through meditation.
I remember my last night of childhood clearly. It was the last day of the summer holidays, last day of the month of January, beginning of the hottest time of year in New Zealand, the time of the year that school begins. Tomorrow was the first day of high school. Tomorrow my childhood would end.
Perhaps the slowly growing sense of desperation, unarticulated fear clawing at edge of heart was an unconscious sense of impending death. I certainly couldn’t see living in my future. Here in the very height of summer, amidst late-setting nights and balmy, humid days, the winter of my life would begin.
Over my protestations, reasons thought out and eloquently argued, repeated over and over to a mother’s tiring patience, stubborn resolve—probably exasperation as well for her decision was well-meaning—a high school had been chosen that I in no way wanted to attend. An inner city school nowhere near where we lived or where I had grown up, where not one single person known would attend.
“Why can’t I go to the same school as my friends? Why can’t I go to the school that I want to?”
The assurance that I would make new friends rang hollow—friends had very definite names and faces that couldn’t be replaced, could not be found anywhere else.
I watched a documentary that night on television, an investigation into a recent war which, although I had lived through it, was barely old enough to register more than it’s name, and although the programme was fascinating, thoughts of the next morning were making me sick with fear, as though I myself was about to go to war. The thought of a thousand strange, unfamiliar faces faced me like an enemy army of the mind, each student-solider an unreachable, inhuman mask to my darkened, brooding imagination.
I drew out the act of going to bed, talking to my mother, offering to make her cups of tea, deliberately trying to delay the inevitable dawning of a most dreaded morn, desperate enough even to ask veiled questions that might elicit some never before heard advice or wisdom, anything to shed light upon my irrational fear—despite the fact that I had known for several years that neither mother nor barely seen father could offer useful advice of this sort. The inexorable decline of the seemingly endless sun of childhood probably began on gaining this sad, unsought wisdom. On the next morning it would finally set.
* * *
The first day of high school wasn’t as bad as I had feared it would be—how often is the reality worse than the fear? A fellow student also on his first day was encountered on the school bound city bus, and we spent the entire day together, I sticking to his side as to a life support in cold, unfamiliar seas.
Once through the doors, over the threshold of initial fears there was, quite unlike fevered imaginings, a process and routine to lose oneself in—classes, meetings and introductions to provide at least scaffold like support where none was yet built. A new class into which you are assigned, thirty unknown classmates whom you will be spending the next five years with; brief, completely meaningless to those actually involved rituals carried out by way of introduction, introduction to what is almost an extended family—although nothing remotely resembling the familial occurs; shuffling from classroom to classroom and by-the-book introductions to science, social studies, maths and English, from teachers who seem to have long forgotten how to teach—perhaps never even knew.
Just when I was getting to know my new high school family of thirty, tentatively feathering my nest, beginning to feel comfortable—if no longer feeling like you were about to face a firing squad, but still within prison walls could be so called—we were packed with all the ceremony of convicts off to “camp”—compulsory first year of college bonding in the countryside, three days at a Christian holiday camp booked out by our school just for the purpose.
It was a most incongruous experience. As if scripted by some omniscient, all-seeing playwright with an eye for the poetic, life had dramatically conspired to return me to a beloved childhood location, this very camp scene for family and church “getaways”—in reality hours, days spent playing sport, playing without exhaustion upon a stage of grass and pine until the spotlight drew low in the sky; magical, fondly remembered moments to treasure from the distance of adulthood. Treasured even on the cusp of young adulthood. It was here, amidst happy, now bitter-sweet memories, that I watched a black curtain close on my childhood—final act and unwelcome death to all happy memories.
As the bus drew up to gates, from its back a particularly loud, assertive boy stated the question—more a challenge: “Is this place Christian?” His quick, suspicious eyes were visibly affronted by the two story tall, crucifix emblazoned sign by entrance, hand on heart witness to faith: “Christian Holiday Camp.”
“I hate Jesus!” he announced venomously, and to the general acquiescence of an entire bus of apparent heathens. As though trapped on the highway to hell, this Christian-raised, still secret believer sank into his seat deeper, tore an invisible cross from sleeve and collar in acute, hidden embarrassment.
It was hardly an auspicious sign, portent of things to come, and of the three days spent in the countryside I can recall not one highlight. I didn’t make friends—beyond the classmates I already knew; despite loving, even excelling in sport enjoyed none of the outdoor activities; especially didn’t enjoy the midnight “confidence” course where animal body parts from a local butcher had been nailed to fences and posts by high school seniors—not yet vegetarian none the less appalled by the barbarism; and the worst moment of the camp—abseiling: a moment of personal shame to haunt me for years to come.
I have never been afraid of heights. As a child I would scare friends and family witless by scaling trees to dangerous heights. Yet on a small, no more than three storey ledge with a harness around my waist, I met my personal Everest. I simply and without reason froze, legs losing all their strength, courage deserting me of its own fickle accord. In a small, croaky voice, in front of all my classmates, I refused to descend.
Little matter half of the children before me had as well, that no-one was paying particular attention to me, or that as far as I can tell no-one even remembered my weakness more than half an hour beyond. With a harness but not rhyme or reason as support, I swallowed the impatience, thinly veiled contempt of the instructor as my own, digested as weapon against self for lack of courage and resolve. In the eyes of my peers I could only see myself reflected back, shamed and humiliated—could only see my failure to live up to an imagined, heroic adult ideal. Was this paranoia? Insecurity? Self-hatred? At the time I had no idea—I had never felt such things before.
Certainly it was self-loathing, and a kind self-criticism that, although necessary at times was in my particular case thoroughly excessive, and without sense of perspective, for believe it or not I did make it to the bottom in the end. After a seeming eternity of panicked refusal, courage was finally summoned then commanded to jump off the edge, legs carrying me forward, over and down despite myself, and the shouted opposition of my mind.
This failure of will and courage, failure to live up to my own high, impossibly high expectations, coloured the beginning of high school a shade dull growing darker. With wisdom and experience you learn the difference between seeing and becoming is wide and paved with hard work, but I had little wisdom and absolutely no experience. It takes time to become the things you want to become—at thirteen, let alone thirty, one is far from a finished product.
The funny thing was—funny from this calmer, wiser perspective, ability learned to take one’s self less seriously, view oneself more compassionately—I was too self-obssessed to consider that others might be going through a similar experience. While there is no doubt I was far from a typical teenager—this degree of introspection is unusual to say the least, let alone healthy—I am sure at least a few of my peers were treading similar waters, lost in similar seas. But, caught in a dark fog of my own making, this younger version of my self would have mercilessly written them off in the same manner he wrote off self—dismissed them as weak, pathetic failures. Mountains out of molehills? More like fathomless caves in the sky.
* * *
“Coping” would best describe my first few weeks in high school, a time of trying to find one’s feet in shoes several sizes too big, finding one’s way around cold unfamiliar hallways, wide open courtyards and fields crowded with strangers, most of them older and almost all intimidating—virtual giants even though separated in age by just a couple of years. All in all a very strange mixture of claustrophobia and agoraphobia, navigating shadows of fears real and imagined.
Later on you couldn’t even say that I was coping. To my disbelief, incomprehension really at a reality completely outside previous experience, I never hit the ground running. How could this be possible? I a person to whom success had been effortless, suddenly not? Not making friends easily, unable to find anything I liked or wanted to do, the path to a future so clearly imagined suddenly lost. It was like I had been blind-sided by life itself, hit squarely in the jaw by a punch I never saw coming.
Before high school unhappiness had belonged to very definite events, clearly defined causes and effects; it was thus quickly forgotten and moved past. Life had been simple then, and so had happiness. Now becoming an adult—although I had no idea what that was supposed to mean—happiness was complex and elusive to find—except as a lingering, melancholic memory.
Perhaps though I was more stoic than I imagined, was a little stronger than I gave myself credit. Not a single person would have guessed a line of my inner melodrama—neither schoolmates nor relatives, old friends nor slow, cautiously gathered new. I was an outer mask of normality hiding an inner upheaval anything but normal—or at least my experience of such to date. Years later I would gain a little more insight into “normal,”—not to mention “privilege” or “gratitude”—would meet those of childhood’s marked by death or completely absent parents, of beginnings in this world not even half as stable or happy as mine, and would learn to take my own suffering a little less seriously, to see myself less tragically—have a sense of humour even! But that wisdom was yet to be gained.
* * *
Thank God I eventually grew up. Thank God for a singular miracle—that I eventually lost my mind.
Sri Chinmoy describes the mind as beginning to operate powerfully from around the age of thirteen, and he is referring to the intellectual mind, the mind of abstraction, doubt, cynicism, ability to separate, limit and divide; the mind that draws, more cauterises a line stark between child and man, childhood and adulthood, innocence and innocence lost. High atop it’s own tower, it is the intellectual mind that separates us from what we intuitively are, always were as children—our own hearts.
I have met people who could not remember anything before the age of thirteen, or so they claimed. Upon their word It would seem their childhood self had, without a whisper, been dead and buried for all time. In becoming adults, it is possible that they had forever lost, along with such memories, a part of their selves as well?
In Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, the poet Wordsworth suggests that we gain a knowledge of this world at the expense of another from which we are born. And poses the question, does the light we bring into this world, upon adulthood “fade into the light of common day?”
From an adult perspective children may appear “childish”—without the adult qualities of knowledge, wisdom and insight, yet this is seeing children as the purely mental creatures so many adults become. From the mind-lorn state of mature years, do we really see, feel the innocent joy of childhood—a joy that is without limits and bounds? I would suggest, and from some hard-earned experience, that this joy can only be felt with a child-like heart, and never an adult mind.
There were so many reasons for my own unhappiness at the age of thirteen—many of them valid, some even unavoidable, but in my round the clock misery there was a constant that could, with meditation and its slow dawning light, have been avoided, a constant more important in achieving happiness than any other: my own mind. Yes, changing schools, houses and friends are among the most stressful things in a child’s life—especially for the first time—but my attitude towards them was far from positive, let alone conducive to my own happiness.
Of miracles, Sri Chinmoy writes that the greatest of them all is the transformation of human consciousness. Outside of major illness, brush with death or traumatic loss, how rare it is to see a person re-route the flow of their life, change track of habits and behaviours decades in the making. And from a spiritual, karmic point of view, products of lifetimes.
My personal transformation really was a miracle—and it still is. A person utterly lost in mentally created limitations found himself in the limitless heart. A person far from happiness found it once more. In meditating I found all of the things I always wanted to be—not through power of will, self-analysis or personal effort—but in becoming what I truly am.
In becoming my heart once more, I have become the child I have always been.