Cerberus is a blog series. To start reading from the beginning, click here.
I met Cerberus at my graveside. He had taken away all the feelings that almost died as I swallowed forty sleeping pills. When my euphoric high from my first breaths of life crashed into my panic, I ran to the Student Health Center. Cerberus grabbed my injured feelings and fled. I awakened in the morgue the next morning, the hollow man seated at the foot of my bed. Cerberus was there to protect his stash.
Cerberus showed up in my life again on Saturday mornings, when I cried without knowing why. I was a successful television producer so I treated the tears shed during the weekly crying sessions like invaders who must be expelled without remorse or regret. Cerberus was there to protect the invaders’ secret: they, my feelings, were alive; I was dead. They showed up as mourners at my wake.
Finally, Cerberus took me to St. Paul A.M.E. church every Sunday for two years and then disappeared as I fell into the place where my feelings thrived. Every time I swayed back and forth, moved my shoulders and arms up and down as music director Donnell Patterson played the piano and sang accompanied by singers and the jazz band, I fell into the space that gave my emotions the wings of a holy presence.
The cumulative effects of these three sets of experiences were easily summarized but difficult to fathom. I now knew that my ideas and my feelings didn’t live together. I felt as if I might touch a rabbit and call what I felt an elephant. For the first time in my life, I didn’t make sense to myself. Maybe I was like the man who thought his wife was a hat. Was I going insane? Was I falling apart? Or was I finally coming together?
My ideas and my feelings didn’t live together.
I knew Cerberus, the hound of hell, was a demon, an evil thing In Greek mythology. He was a multi-headed beast with a serpent tail and countless snakes protruding from his body. He could keep the dead in a punishing hell because he, himself, was the embodiment of every wicked thing and demonic force.
Was Cerberus also a demon, a dragon, and an evil beast in Christian biblical lore? In the New Testament’s Book of Revelation (22:15), was he one among the “dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying”?
Dogs have a bad rap in Christian scriptures. As the New Testament reader is told in Philippians 3:2: “Watch out for those dogs, those workers of evil, those mutilators of the flesh!” And in Matthew 7:6, the reader is warned “Do not give dogs what is holy; do not throw your pearls before swine. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”
All I knew was that Cerberus was the mythic dog from hell who came into my life baring hidden truths. Myths, after all, are fake news events disclosing hidden truths. I, for example, had never believed in the end of the world scenario described by the narrator in the Book of Revelation. When he prophesied a gathering of armies for battle between the forces of good (God) and evil (the dragon) in a place called Armageddon, I believed he expressed real human fears, real anxiety, and real dread that got paraded around as mythical beings and events.
Accordingly, when the narrator
saw coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs; for they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them together for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty (Revelations 16:13-14).
I believed the narrator might simply be animating his own anxiety as mythic narratives. But after going to the St. Paul A.M.E. church for two years, a different verse from this narrative now caught my eye:
Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walked naked, and they see his shame (16:15).
For me, this verse described my fear of being really seen and my fear of my own shame being on full display. I grew up believing that I, at the core, was shameful. I was not loved because I was bad and wrong and thus unlovable. A shameful thing. My mother had not wanted me or loved me because I was undeserving of her love. Or so I mistakenly felt. But now, thanks to my unbounded feelings of being loved in church every Sunday morning, I knew she was wrong not to love me. She was the problem, not me.
I grew up believing that I, at the core, was shameful. I was not loved because I was bad and wrong and thus unlovable. A shameful thing.
And so the questions began. Were my own feelings that had been buried alive now the source of my life-giving feelings in church? Were my darkened emotions the shades of my shame? Did I shop ‘til I dropped to drape these feelings in clothes that couldn’t hide my shameful feelings, no matter how hard I tried to dress them up?
My mind raced ahead of me like a speeding train that’s lost its breaks. I was terrified as the runaway train headed for my graveside. Cerberus, awaiting my arrival, sat on the left side of an empty tomb. For the first and only time in my life, he spoke to me, saying,
“The `flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder; and the great earthquake’ described in Revelation 16:18 refer to punishing human behavior. Your mother and father blasted away at your feelings of love and compassion when you were a child. You tried to finish the job by razing those feelings. I took those feelings away to protect them. And I kept them out of harm’s way so that when you were ready you could find them and stop being a member of the walking dead.”
I had never thought of myself as a walking dead person. My suicide attempt, I now realized, had indeed been successful. I hadn’t killed my feelings. These feelings of love, compassion, and caring that gave me an extraordinary high when I first regained my breath, were taken away for safekeeping by Cerberus lest I try to destroy them again. I hadn’t killed them; I had “offed” me as a compassionate and loving being. I lost my ability to care compassionately about myself or others. I was now totally and utterly a pod person.
Was the tomb empty because I, its occupant, was the dead woman standing?
My suicide attempt, I now realized, had indeed been successful. I hadn’t killed my feelings … I hadn’t killed them; I had “offed” me as a compassionate and loving being. I lost my ability to care compassionately about myself or others.
“Welcome home,” Cerberus said.
“I don’t want to die again,” I whispered.
“I know,” he said.
Neither of us spoke for an eternity.
“Who are you,” I finally asked. “Are you an emotion, too? And if so, which one?”
“Find the part of yourself that’s not you, and you will know who I am,” he said.
His answer was paradoxical. Was it a riddle? An oracle? Was he mocking or miming me? “Where should I begin?”
“Don’t look in books,” he said. “Look inside yourself and don’t run away. You will know who I am when you watch me disappear at the edge of infinity.”
Cerberus’ instructions about what not to do made sense to me.
“Don’t look in books. Look inside yourself and don’t run away.”
I had spent years studying Western philosophers who described what happened when they turned their attention in on itself.
René Descartes. This seventeenth-century French philosopher wanted to find out what he could never doubt in his own skeptical age. The only thing he could never doubt, he concluded, was that he is “a thinking thing.” But we are more than thinking things. We are also feeling things.
Immanuel Kant. When this eighteen-century German philosopher studied human consciousness, he discovered that our mind constructs what it knows. He tried to prove there was something we could know beyond our constructed ideas and sensations and affections, beyond our own narratives, but he couldn’t do it. Kant had accidently reduce all human experience to social constructions and nothing more. I wanted to grab hold of the universe.
Friedrich Schleiermacher. This nineteenth-century German father of the science of human understanding (hermeneutics) told his readers how to grab hold of the universe. We can indeed experience the “basic feeling for the infinite,” he insisted. And he gave instructions in his book On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers:
Observe yourselves with unceasing effort. Detach all that is not yourself, always proceed with ever-sharper sense, and the more you fade from yourself, the clearer will the universe stand forth before you, the more splendidly will you be recompensed for the horror of self-annihilation through the feeling of the infinite.
I published two books about his insights and wrote many articles on Schleiermacher. But none of this work ever created in me an actual personal “feeling of the infinite.”
I also read Buddhist texts. When I met Gunapala Dharmasiri in 1994, he shook my hand as if we were reunited friends. I was an assistant professor in the religion department at Williams College and he—a Theravada Buddhist ethicist, scholar, and author of Fundamentals of Buddhist Ethics (Golden Leaf Press, 1989)—was on campus to deliver a public lecture. Dharmasiri, as I quickly learned, had read my review of his book in The Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, published in 1990 – and he liked what he read.
“Ah, Thandeka,” he said, “You understood my book better than any other reviewer in the United States.” My personal Buddhist practice of vipassana, or “insight” meditation, combined with my own academic work on consciousness without an object in Western philosophy, gave me the perspective I needed to understand, explain, and affirm his delineation of the two forms of Buddhist morality that he calls ordinary morality and enlightenment morality.
I felt gratitude to meet the man whose work I so deeply admired. And I felt joy that we could meet so wholeheartedly as persons from two different faith traditions. I practiced meditation techniques from his Buddhist tradition, but I was not a Buddhist. My community is not a Buddhist sangha. So I did not have regular and ongoing access to embodied practices that are the Buddhist path in one’s life.
Contemplative prayer in Christian religious settings also fascinated me. I read the work of medieval mystics like Meister Eckhardt, who described the movement of the mind beyond knowledge. He watched his mind disappear into the dark matter of sacred ignorance.
But I was not a member of a Christian community where such contemplative practices unfolded as part of a daily ritual practice. So I was not transformed by the texts that captivated my attention.
I must now become the active agent rather than the passive reader. But how could I read me and find the place where Cerberus lives inside me? How could I track him down without relying on books or on the church doctrine preached in the community where my feelings danced.
I must now become the active agent rather than the passive reader.
How could I leap into this place without dancing my way into it?
The early twentieth-century Harvard psychologist William James moved into this state of consciousness using drugs. He took nitrous oxide to experience something akin to the mystical experiences he studied. During his trip, he entered a “field,” a space in consciousness where opposites met and the contradictions and conflicts that make human life so difficult reconciled and melded into a unity.
This “field” of consciousness, James said, is “extramarginal and outside the primary consciousness altogether, but yet must be classified as conscious facts of some sort, able to reveal their presence by unmistakable signs.” James listed these “unmistakable signs” as: (1) a consciousness of the life and order of the universe, (2) an intellectual enlightenment that places a person on a new plane of existence as if a member of a new species, (3) a state of moral exaltation, (4) an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness greater than the enhanced intellectual power, (5) a sense of immortality, (6) a consciousness of ethical life, and (7) not a conviction that one shall have all of this, but a conviction that one has it already.
James’ list described what I felt when I went to church. But I wanted to find this state of consciousness without tripping.
So I created my own exercise. I cut a baby carrot into three pieces, picked up one of the small pieces of carrot, put it in my mouth, and chewed on it sixty times.
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