Monday, August 22, 2011

The rope and the snake

Last night my wife woke me up at 3:00 AM. "I heard someone downstairs," she whispered.

I shook my head and blinked myself awake.

"Where? What do you mean?" I asked, still bleary from sleep.

"I heard the gate squeak," she explained. We have a children's gate at the bottom of the staircase, and it squeaks when moved. "Should I call the police?"

I thought for a second before saying, "No." I didn't want to call the cops until I knew someone was in the house for sure. It would save me the humiliation of waking up the whole neighborhood for nothing.

I rolled over and rummaged through my nightstand drawer for my hunting knife. My dad gave it to me when I was around 13, and for some reason I have hung on to it ever since. For moments like this, I suppose.

I slipped on my glasses and the dark bedroom slid into focus. I took and deep breath. My heart was hammering with a surge of adrenaline. I climbed out of bed and made it to the hallway.

"What should we do?" my wife asked softly, her voice laden with worry.

I turned to face her. She sat at the edge of the bed, phone in hand, ready to dial 911.

"Hold on; let me check it out first. If you hear me yell, call the cops," I said, not sounding nearly as brave as I would have hoped.

I made my way down the black hallway, the floorboards creaking with each step I took. If there was an intruder, he would know that we were awake for sure. I stood at the landing at the top of the stairs and flicked on the lights. My pupils shrank, and I squinted in the sudden light.

"I called the police," I announced into the darkness downstairs, turning to motion to my wife that I was bluffing and that she shouldn't take that as an actual cue to call. "Leave now and we won't bother you." I had no intention of "bothering" anyone; I just wanted to protect my family if I had to.

Nothing. Silence. Then a muffled shuffling sound from the toy room, as if someone were rolling over in the bed there. My heart picked up its pace.

There was someone in here! Images ran through my mind of a drug addict, strung out on crystal meth or cocaine, passed out in my toy room bed like Robert Downey Jr. I clenched the knife handle tighter and gulped. What the hell was I going to do?

Cautiously, I crept down the stairs, my heart galloping like a race horse.

I won't draw the suspense out any further. There wasn't any intruder. All my doors were locked and the windows sealed. Now anyone who has read my blog before knows that I'm going to make a metaphor out of this.

I am. Sorry, it's the English teacher in me.

The Buddha said that most of the time we mistake reality in the same way as a frightened man in the dark mistakes a rope for a snake. Standing at the top of the stairs, I was certain that I heard someone. Later, I discovered the source of the noise--my son has a plastic bed frame, so when he rolls over, it makes a loud bumping sound. In my adrenaline-filled state, I had misidentified it as coming from downstairs instead of up.

My fear had made me the man in the darkness, mistaking the rope for the snake.

But it doesn't end there. The more I practice, the more I realize that I do this all the time--mistake my thoughts for reality itself. The old map and the territory deal.

Just yesterday I saw a couple in the gym. They were tattooed and in great shape, and I automatically concluded that they were using steroids. Can we say insecure, Andre? Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. But that isn't the point. It took me maybe fifteen seconds of speculating before realizing that I was lost in my own little fantasy world. I was telling myself a story about them that suited my agenda, reducing them to stereotypes (and cliched ones at that) to fit into a mental category.

We weave these little stories about people, events, and experiences, framing and labeling them to fit into our convenient world views. I did that with the couple in the gym and I certainly did that at the top of the stairs last night.

Wake up! That's the goal of Buddhism.

Despite what last night might suggest, I'm working on it. I'm working on it.

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: paperbackwriter.

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