Commusings: Go to Your Room by Jeff KrasnoDec 19, 2020
I adore my younger brother, Eric. I was his keeper for thirteen fraught years, managing his exceptional musical talents. There are many clichés that warn against mixing business with family but we not only speak to each other, we actually seek out each other’s company. We litigated all of our disputes in elementary school.
When Eric and I were five and ten respectively, our dad purchased one of the world’s first VHS players. This feat of engineering was a proper piece of furniture, mahogany-paneled and so weighty a grown man could barely lift it. When the system arrived, it came with four video cassettes: the original Grease, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and a naughty masterwork named Inside Desiree Cousteau. My brother and I so coveted the latter that its name still lives on my tongue. My father disappeared this treasure early on and, candidly, Eric and I passed the better part of our youth rummaging through the attic and under my dad’s bed in search of it. We found other things of significant interest, but never Ms. Cousteau.
In her absence, we settled for the Star Wars films. The videotapes we had acquired were most certainly not officially distributed by Mr. Lucas. They were bootlegs shot by some two-bit hustler in the back of a theater. Despite the shakiness of the camera work, I became obsessed with this intergalactic battle between light and dark. I so cherished these films that I kept the tapes in a purple felt Courvoisier bag that I nicked from the family bar.
I could recite the lines of these epics better than Spielberg himself. Every Halloween, I donned my Jedi cape, seized my lightsaber and skywalked across Tatooine bringing home a Death Star’s supply of peanut butter cups. For Christmas and my birthday, Star Wars merchandise filled the wish list from top to bottom. I collected all the figurines: Luke, Han, Leia, Lando, Obi Wan, Chewy, R2. We were on a first name basis. I housed them all in a giant Darth Vader briefcase that featured little cubbies for each of them.
My brother knew how much I treasured these miniature collectibles and he made it his hobby to furtively purloin them on the regular. He hid them among his worthless hodgepodge of baubles in a large green plastic frog. When I noticed one missing, I would stormtroop down the hallway, hurtle through the door and plunge into the frog. I considered it a rebel mission but, inevitably, it was a trap. For as soon as I was in his room, Eric would scream for mom or dad and levy false claims of physical abuse. This accusation evoked the wrath of my beleaguered parents who doled out the ultimate punishment: “Go to your room, Jeffrey, and don’t come out until dinner.”
My protestations were futile. I would mope into my room and flop on to the bed vowing never to speak to my brother again. That, of course, barely lasted an hour.
The most severe punishment that can be dispensed to a child, besides the corporal, is imposed solitude. Isolation is psychologically traumatizing to human beings of every age. Merely the idea of sequestration can be stressful. Ten minutes before my parent’s reprimand, I might be amusing myself happily in my room – alone without feeling lonely – but exiled against my will I would wallow in the meaninglessness of life.
As a species wired for connection, aloneness can be torturous. And this torment follows us into adulthood in myriad cultural manifestations, large and small. When ejected from the game, a basketball player is prohibited from lingering on the end of the bench. Instead, he is relegated to the locker room to contemplate his misdeeds alone. In the judicial system, the most severe form of punishment short of the death penalty is solitary confinement.
Most of us are simply not trained to deal with our minds in isolation. Blaise Pascal famously wrote, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Yet, suddenly, psychological quarantine is where many of us find ourselves; sheltering-in-place once again, divorced from our communal routines. The pandemic has conjured a moment of extreme mobilization for healthcare professionals, food providers, grocery clerks, delivery drivers, scientists, and government workers. The stress endured by these brave, essential souls has been and will be severe. The rest of us, however, are being called, asymmetrically, to inaction.
We’ve been sent to our respective rooms. And, ironically, the most noble thing we can do for one another is distance from each other. This helps to damn the deluge into our intensive care units and relieve pressure on our doctors and nurses, but, in this inaction, we are left alone with our minds.
In isolation and uncertainty, the untrained mind often defaults to fear. One begins to identify with the emotion which only reinforces the ego, the false notion of the separate self. The ability to think critically erodes and one becomes susceptible to outlandish theories. The monkey mind flourishes, swinging recklessly from branch to branch, compounding chaos. One seeks satisfaction and solace through external stimuli – whiskey, weed, Facebook likes, nutter butters, Amazon – pick your poison.
Like a dancer trains her legs for a jete, so must we train our minds. It may seem like a meditation practice is effete and dispensable during a bloody global pandemic. Nurses are intubating and the ill are struggling to breathe – while little old me needs to go “sit” on a paisley pillow and witness my breath to avoid a panic attack. But let me upend any notion that this practice is superfluous. For those battling the front lines of this scourge, even thirty seconds of Vipassana can relieve stress. If there’s any group that needs to remain in their pre-frontal cortex, it’s doctors and emergency room workers.
This practice is no less important for those of us sequestered in our internet caves. In the absence of IRL communication, our attention has become a sought-after commodity. We are fending off a meteor shower of information – some of it sound, some of it faulty. Social media is slinging poisoned arrows at us from every angle. How can we see the road ahead when 24-hour news cycle is fogging up the windshield of truth?
We need to cultivate a peace of mind that neuters fear and fosters discernment. We must hone the ability to peel away fallacy from fact. Meditation helps us disassociate from our emotions, witness them and not be them. It provides us with the power of equanimity. It boosts the immune systems, improves sleep and fortifies healthy habits. It gives us the presence, off the cushion, to notice if we’re touching our face or remembering to wash our hands.
While no one would choose a cramped, armored cell as their primary residence, solitude need not always be a banishment. It is often an opportunity to grow, to cultivate wisdom. Why do monks choose the monastery? Why do people seek spiritual retreat in an ashram? Or more relevant to this missive, why did Yoda find refuge in Dagobah, a remote world of swamps and forests?
In the hush of seclusion, we may discover a plane of consciousness unbound by space, time, location and form. Our busy, noisy quotidian lives are circumscribed by our five senses. We hear across a finite frequency range from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. We see within a spectrum between infra-red to ultra-violet. We taste across five flavor profiles. These limitations define our subjective special reality. But what lies beyond?
Yoda called it “the Force.” Of course, we remember the splashier bits of it like telekinesis, the ability to move and manipulate objects with one's mind. Though I spent entire afternoons staring intently at my lava lamp trying to move it across the night stand, I never did succeed in defying the laws of physics. But, in retrospect, this undistracted focus may have been my first meditation session.
The force has other cosmic aspects including telepathy and enhanced metaphysical perception. But these super powers are not the qualities that make Yoda so venerable. (I mean, wouldn’t we all would choose to be Yoda? Despite his utter homeliness.)
It’s a stretch, but close your eyes for a moment and envision Yoda at the grocery store. He’s filled his basket, most likely with green leafy vegetables, and is ready to check out. He approaches the register and, alas, there is a short queue. It will take no more than five minutes before Yoda will meticulously arrange his vegan delights on the conveyor belt. Does Yoda instinctively pull out his phone to assuage the momentary boredom? Of course not. He stands in line, patient and tranquil, and processes an idea or simply observes the goings-on. He lends a hand, perhaps magically slipping just the right coupon to a stranger in need.
Yoda’s mind is not distracted. His thoughts are not fragmented. He single-tasks. We revere Yoda because he embodies the qualities of a sage: patience, discernment, benevolence, serenity, timeliness, focus and wisdom.
This way of living is available to you, even in this madness, perhaps especially in the solitude of this strange time. You may not ever move a tie-fighter out of a bog with your mind but you might be able to not look at your phone at a traffic light. Or be present with your children. Or read a book. Or maybe even write one.
You don’t need the Millennium Falcon to cultivate this life, though using Yoda’s mystical sentence construction of object-subject-verb can be helpful. To distant galaxies one need travel not. On an inward journey a Jedi Grand Master must go.
Right here, in this forced monasticism, “You must unlearn what you have learned. Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”
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Commusings is a curious and contemplative commentary on the current and timeless from Commune Co-founder Jeff Krasno (and occasional guest writers). These weekly writings help us envision a collective path forward through deep thinking, quiet listening, and honest conversations about spirituality, philosophy, and culture. Subscribe to the weekly Commusings newsletter here.
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