Enter the Void

Hello, old friends! And welcome, new ones. I invite you to not think about the future with us, this small but gathering crowd of the curious, we makers and thinkers, believers and doubters. Our charge is “design, technology, and being human,” and this week’s dispatch is firmly within the realm of “being human.” If matters of spirit, metaphysics and mystery make you uncomfortable, I urge you not to skip over the next few thousand words and go right to the links at the end, but to read on and through. Just this once. Comfort, after all, rarely goes anywhere. Discomfort, on the other hand, makes things happen. (And once you’ve read it all — if I can keep your attention — send me your notes. Since I originally published this via my newsletter, you can just email me directly at chrbutler at gmail dot com, and no one but you and me will know. I’d love to hear from you.)

Picture me, then, uncomfortable, too. Let me tell you why.

CB, July 15, 2015

Last week, I turned thirty-five. No big deal, I tell myself. It’s a mantra meant to drown out the competing voices in my own mind, the ones that remind me at every opportunity of what others had already accomplished by this point in their lives, midway through their fourth decades. Fortunately, I have other help, because I’m no good at mantras.

On my birthday, I returned home from work to find an envelope waiting for me, posted from a good friend who lives many miles away. In it were five cards, each one about four by eight inches. On the front of each card is an image, printed edge-to-edge, and on the back, a title hand-written in white on the black card stock, and seven questions beneath. They were bound by a black strip, with the words “Thirty Five” written on it. The title on each card is one of the five classical elements: earth, water, air, fire, and ether. They look like this. The questions on these cards are rhetorical and probing. Perfect prompts for time far better spent in reflection than in comparison. It’s almost as if my friend, having already past this thirty-fifth milestone himself, knew exactly what I needed.

Let me share one with you, the first question written on the card marked “Ether.” It reads,

“What are the moments of emptiness or space in your life?”

This one question immediately cut through the comfort I enjoy at the surface of things, exposing the discomfort I have known is churning not far beneath. I quickly took mental inventory of these moments, and, not surprisingly, they are few. Very few. There could, of course, be more. But rather than leave them empty, I almost always choose to fill them. Sound familiar? My commute, for instance. On most days, I spend about an hour in my car, driving to and from work. And on most days, I choose to fill that space. As soon as I’ve buckled in, I connect my phone to the car stereo, and within seconds, one of the many podcasts I regularly listen to is playing. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with that. These programs engage me intellectually, inspire me, and connect me with the rest of the world. I need that. But I also need solitude — we all do — and every now and then, I could choose to play nothing and spend that time alone. Even just one day out of five. But I rarely do. Why? I have…an idea…about that. But it won’t really make sense without examining the moments I do allow to remain empty.

Here’s a pretty trivial one. Earlier this year, I bought a Fitbit. I’m a regular exerciser and have been for the last decade. In fact, since I decided to make regular exercise a part of my life over a decade ago, the longest break I have ever taken from my routine is four days. So, I didn’t buy it to bootstrap a new lifestyle, really. I bought a Fitbit out of technological curiosity. I wanted to know how it worked — how the hardware measured activity and how the software visualized it — and if it introduced some new things into my routine, well, I was certainly open to that. It wasn’t long before it did. As you may know, one of the Fitbit’s core metrics is the step. How many steps you’ve taken in a day. My recommended number is 10,000. Naturally, I quickly became preoccupied with that number — how quickly I’d hit it and by how much I’d exceed it. And that preoccupation led me to start taking the stairs whenever I had the chance. Until then, I’d commonly exit my podcast-filled car in the underground lot beneath my building, stroll over to the elevator, and ride it up to my office. Every day. But on Fitbit day one, I thought about those 10,000 steps and took the stairs instead. With this bracelet of accountability strapped to my wrist, it became an instant habit. A few days in, it occurred to me to take a break after lunch and walk up and down those stairs again, just to get a few more steps in. As I’d move up and down that quiet, concrete and steel column — nine or ten times, maybe — my mind would go all kinds of places. I wasn’t looking down at the Fitbit. The reward of seeing the number jump by hundreds of steps once I returned to my office was too great to blow it on a small jump mid stair-break. So all I had was the quiet and the steps and myself. This habit continues, and it’s a good one. Little to no cost, and almost all reward. The calm I bring back after just a few moments of unfilled space and steady movement is just as measurable as the steps I take to get it. So, my advice: take the stairs.

But there’s another kind of moment I’m trying to unfill. And, honestly, I’ve been far less successful with it.

Sometime last year, I decided to build a new habit: morning meditation. My goal was to spend 15-30 minutes in meditation first thing in the morning, at least three mornings each week. People who practice meditation know that this is a lofty goal for an entry-level sitter, if not entirely naïve. But, I started well. I’d wake up at 5 am, go directly downstairs to my home office, unfold the soft, plaid blanket my sister gave me some years back, and sit, cross-legged, on the floor, eyes closed, concentrating only on my breathing. In, very slowly, out, very slowly.

…iiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnn… …ouuuuuuuuuttttttttt…

Within five minutes, the first time I did this, strange things began to happen. First, I saw colors. They began as a warm, floating gold. Shimmering, almost, but softer, kind of like sunlight beneath the surface of water. Then, a sense of speed, moving forward. Not fast, really, but something more than sitting still. Next, I had this odd sense that I was facing a different direction. My body remained still, facing forward as I’d began. My posture was still upright, not yet crumpled as it would be only a few minutes later. And yet, in my mind’s eye, I felt as if I was facing more to the left. As if I, from behind the mask that looked forward, was now facing left, maybe just fifteen degrees off. A small thing, but an unexpected and odd one, and something that became common. Why? No idea. There was more. After the direction-shift came the sense that my head — really, my face and its features, that mask I mentioned — were bigger. Caricaturishly big. Swelling as the colors brightened and quickened. I began to feel light-headed in a way, and I remember thinking that maybe all this strangeness was just me, hyperventilating like a dope. Wouldn’t that make for a perfect headline at The Onion: “Man Tries Meditation, Prefers Breathing into Bag.” I let that thought bounce and fade. Back to the breathing. And still with that feeling of moving forward. Still with that big face. Still looking to the left. Then, the colors got more intense. Purple now, and deep. There was a sense of presence, too. I felt that purple was Something; like it was looking at me. At that point, even though I didn’t feel afraid, my heart began to beat more quickly. Everything fear does to my body happened. And then, I felt afraid. What was happening? Where was I going? Was I going to fall out of my body? What then? I opened my eyes. No, there I was, still sitting on the floor. I stood up, folded the blanket, and headed back upstairs to take a shower. Just a few moments later, I was off to work, that strange little trip drowned out by the radio and fading behind me.

The next day, again at five in the morning, I returned to the floor of that room downstairs. And the whole thing repeated. Pretty much beat by beat. I wondered, what was I getting in to? I Googled it. The colors, the dizziness, the body distortions — all normal, apparently. Not for everyone; some people feel nothing. But some get this stuff. Not because they’re more spiritual or anything. Just because. It’s a thing that happens. The brain is weird. It wasn’t strange every time, and, of course, I didn’t hit the floor every morning. But it happened enough to feel regular. And while I could manage my exploration — and most of the odd phenomena that accompanied it — with a little online fact-finding, that other strange feeling — that I-am-not-my-body-anymore feeling, that about-to-fly-away feeling — was something I didn’t understand any better. Maybe it was just my brain. Or maybe it was evidence that there’s more to reality than just brains. I’m not evangelizing here, either way. The point is, it scared me. And so the gaps between mornings on that blanket widened. To the point where the norm was not doing it. I felt like I’d failed my goal. And sure, taken literally, I had. But why? Why was more important. It was, I think, the fear.

To explain that, let me share something else with you. An old secret. Something stranger, even, and definitely more personal. Something that, honestly, comes with all kinds of intimate details I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable sharing with you. But so be it.

It was over a decade ago; the fall of 2004. I was living in Providence, Rhode Island. Just a few months beforehand, my ex-wife had flown off to Malaysia to start a job teaching art at a school in Penang. We weren’t married yet, then, but this profound separation — the oceans and continents and 12 hours of the clock between us — had suddenly made things ever more serious, and marriage was on the table. So, I was preparing to fly out there myself, to visit her, to leave this country for the first time in my life, to see what was to be with us. And while this all sounds very dramatic, it’s easier described this way in hindsight. At the time, we were young, dumb, and in possession of little to none of this insight. But we had a sense and we had urgency. Anyway, that’s the setup. I was preparing for the trip.

One night, about a month before my departure, I had a dream. I had arrived in Malaysia. It was morning. She was giving me a tour of her school. Suddenly, everyone around us began to panic. Scattering, running, shouting. I looked to my left and saw the shore, just feet from where we stood at the edge of the campus. Enormous waves were curling up, casting a cold, dark shadow upon us all, and roaring in the distance. I grabbed her hand. We ran. We ran up the street, and away from the school. I kept looking to my left, watching these waves come closer and closer. We needed to move faster. Then, from behind us, I heard the deep shudder of the ground as the first waves bore down upon the shore. As the school crumbled beneath them and was sucked away, it sounded like a thousand orchestral drums rolling, the tone only growing deeper as the water level rose. And still, we ran.

I awoke, breathing heavily, my heart pounding in my chest. I sprang out of my bed and darted over to the little desk I kept in my room, turned on my computer, and wrote it all down in an email — everything I’d just dreamed — and hit send. It was the middle of the night where I was, but early afternoon for her. I went back to bed. The next day, I awoke to find her reply. What a strange dream. What do you think it means? We traded a few emails back and forth about the dream. I’d been so shaken by it the night before, but in the light of the next day, with every new moment filled with work to be done, it faded away. And that email I sent, it, too, faded away, just one of hundreds of messages we sent and received between then and our reunion a month later. By the time I actually arrived in Malaysia, the dream — and the emails we’d written about it — were completely forgotten by us both. We spent most of the next three weeks exploring Penang, eating all kinds of new and strange and wonderful things, visiting, talking about the future, and, toward the end, celebrating Christmas.

The day after Christmas, with only two more days left until I would fly back home and begin planning our wedding, we were awoken early in the morning by a shaking room. It took a few moments to realize that there had been an earthquake. We were staying in a highrise, and to say that the entire thing felt like it wobbled back and forth, as flexible as the branch of a tree blowing in the wind, doesn’t seem like much of an exaggeration. I certainly haven’t felt anything like it since. Nevertheless, this big oddity — an earthquake! — faded away with the morning, and we, perhaps drunk on love, thought only of our day together, and the two more we had left. We got up, ate breakfast, walked down to the school’s beachfront — just feet from the classroom where she taught art — and prepared to kayak out to a little rocky island just a half mile or so offshore. But then, even with life jackets on, kayaks dragged out, and oars in hand, something came over us and we thought, let’s go into town instead. We put everything back, climbed the hill away from the water and toward the main road, and caught a bus heading for Georgetown. Ten minutes later, there was a boat in the road. Out of nowhere. People shouted from within the bus. The driver swerved to the right and onto a smaller road heading into a crowded neighborhood. Everyone slid to the left side of the bus and pressed up against the windows. What was happening? Neither of us could make sense of it. Malay, Hokkien, and Tamil swirled, unintelligibly around us. All we could make sense of was that whatever was going on, it was not good. Eventually, we made it to Georgetown, and naturally, amidst whatever chaos had invaded this quiet place, we felt an urgency to turn around and head home. But no one — no bus driver, nor any cabby — wanted to go back that way. I eventually offered enough cash for one brave driver, and we made our way back through windy neighborhood roads. Over the course of the next day, we gradually figured out what had happened. The earthquake, the tsunami, the devastation in places nearby that was far worse than anything we’d seen ourselves. But back then, with no social media to spread the news like it would today, it wasn’t for two more days, on my stop in Singapore at the beginning of my journey home, that the terminal televisions told me the whole story.

A few months later, she forwarded that email back to me. That email with the dream. The one we’d both completely forgotten about until then. What did it mean? Had it been a premonition? I read and re-read it many times over. The details were uncanny. At the time of the dream, I’d seen only one picture of the area — a closely cropped selfie she’d taken walking away from the school in the rain, carrying a big, yellow umbrella. Other than that, I had no idea what the school looked like, or the geography surrounding it. Yet, I could now compare the details of the dream with the actual place. Where the school was in relation to the water. The direction we’d headed when the tsunami hit. All accurate. Sure, in real life we hadn’t run from the waves on foot, we’d been carried by bus. A minor detail, relatively. So what to make of this? I’ve juggled interpretations ever since. We both have.

What I’m left with now, though, is a sense of fear and trembling. That I, with my tiny, handicapped view of the world, am so outscaled by reality that to perceive it is almost to be swallowed up entirely, to enter the void, to barely exist in light of everything else. And while that sensation — whether it’s in reflection of a strange dream I had over a decade ago, or in simply closing my eyes and submitting to silence, or from any other strangeness I encounter in being alive and aware in the few scant moments I have the discipline to leave unfilled — is frightening, it feels necessary. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, but it does nonetheless. It feels like facing that fear and pressing in to the unknown, of which I sense is in wondrous abundance all around me, is what I must do now. Surely that empty space is not really empty.

In postscript, I should tell you that she and I were married the summer after the dream, the visit, and the disaster. I joined her in Malaysia and we lived there together for another year. Then, we moved home to the US, where we spent the next few years growing, both together and apart. We separated, and eventually ended our marriage with as much care for one another as we were able. We’ve remained friends, and I have her blessing — for which I’m deeply grateful — as I prepare to marry again, just a few weeks from now, to a wonderful woman on whom I have the privilege of leaning when I am afraid. They’ll each read this, and so I’ll end with saying thank you, both.

Heavy Rotation: Flying Saucer Attack’s new album, Instrumentals 2015, has about another day on first listen before it’s official release. It probably makes a fitting soundtrack to this letter. Shoot. I should have told you that paragraphs ago.

Recent Tabs: Why Slack’s business model is “evilly brilliant.” Can a system in which you choose your own salary work? I’m just saying, just chill with the justs, ok? “One of the biggest problems hurting design history today is the use of historical design imagery…without the correct citation.” They are watching. They are listening. Do these images look like alien ships? The plot of The Room, in an advice column. These shoes are upsetting. Anyone wearing them should be assumed to be some kind of imp or otherworldly trickster character and should not be trusted. “The focus of attention seems to have shifted from caring about the information itself…to how information looks.” Vintage Catastro-selfies. “I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.” Jurassic YAASS. Also, Bartkira is a thing. Finally, holy moly, Japan’s new satellite captures an image of Earth every ten minutes and this is what Pluto looks like.

Written by Christopher Butler on July 15, 2015,   In Essays

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