After the reality of the split landed in my consciousness, I realized with urgency that I had to get out of there. It was as if I was about to fall ill. I could feel the tsunami of grief that was still a a proverbial mile from shore and I knew I needed to get to the comfort and safety of the familiar before that wave consumed me.
My parents were kind and generous in welcoming me back home for as long as it took for me to get back on my feet, so I packed up the bare essentials and caught the soonest flight out.
I had suffered some significant losses before so I was not totally unprepared for what was to come, but the sheer magnitude of the shock was something I had not encountered previously. Since I had not seen it coming, it was having an outsize effect. The loss felt total.
Yet humans are incredibly adaptable. Even though I was reeling inside, there were practical considerations. I managed to find a long-term substitute teaching position to earn enough income to keep afloat. Amazingly, I could put myself together enough to teach classes and handle my responsibilities, but as soon as I was off work and back at home, the grief would reassert itself and take over my consciousness.
Grief is more of a process than an emotion. I cycled through a roller coaster of devastation, pain, sorrow and disbelief, repeatedly and with no end in sight. This onslaught lasted for a couple of months.
Then one day for no apparent reason, a witnessing consciousness finally broke through the misery. The shift in perspective was almost imperceptible but just enough for me to get a toehold and start to investigate my experience.
I found it peculiar that the grief was so intense and that it was lasting so long. It was as if he had died and was gone forever, even though that clearly was not the I case. I knew that if I wanted to, I could pick up the phone and call him, so why was I acting like I couldn’t?
I still didn’t understand myself but I wanted to and that was an important pivot.
My inquiry become focused. What exactly had I actually lost?
There was a layer of obvious answers to that question. A lot of familiar things, like the creature comfort of a warm loving embrace and the sanctuary of home. But more deeply, I’d also lost a lot of precious ideas about what my future was going to look like. And those ideas had extended out quite far.
In a flash, I realized what my grief was truly about. The entirety of my identity had been wrapped up in that relationship. Without it, I was lost and I had no clue who I was anymore. More fundamentally, I had lost my very sense of self.
Ah, this wasn’t actually about him, it was about me! Now the intensity of the grief I had been experiencing made much more sense because I could see that it actually was a total loss.
I had been somebody. Now I was nobody. No. Body. In other words, No Self.
This was an utterly eerie insight. Overnight, my tears dried up as I became preoccupied with the disconcerting and disorienting state of affairs of having lost something so tightly laminated to my conscoiusness that up until that point I had not even known it was possible to lose it.
What had happened to me, myself and I?
Now I was walking around in the world registering with horror the ignorant bliss of everyone around me. They all seemed to assume, as I had too, that their sense of self was a given, an inconvertible truth, and something that was at least as solid as rock. They didn't question it in the least.
In contrast, I had just learned, without any warning and in one fell swoop, that, in fact, the precious sense of Self that we all revere and reinforce with our every word and deed, was actually quite empty, quite flimsy. It was as fragile as papier- mache and as insubtstantial as an apparition that you could pass your hand through.
The more I drilled into the nature of Self, the scarier things became. It was bad enough to deal with the fact that something I had relied on for my ground was shaky, but now my conscousness was knocking at a new door. Existence.
In my soul, I was trembling like a leaf with existential terror. I couldn't shake the feeling that the gig was up and yet I wanted, and very much needed, to resist what felt inevitable. I was in the territory of the French existentialists now. I understood in my bones where nihilism harkened from. Even how and why some people resorted to ending their lives. I could see that for certain people, that tragic act was not related to emotional devastation, but to the literal loss of meaning caused by a depth perception they were not spiritually prepared to handle.
Like a storm front, my consciousness started to gather itself into a single pointed question.
Do I Exist?
That simple question reverberated through my soul for days on end, ratcheting up, until I became completely overcome with terror that the answer would be a resounding "No."
I desperately wanted to avert my gaze from the horror I feared I would find if I looked. I wanted to avoid this confrontation at all costs. And yet, it was too late. My process had become a runaway train, barreling towards truth. It wasn't a matter of if anymore, but when, so all there was left to do was pray.
In the most mundane of moments, a miracle occurred. There I was, looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, firmly in the grip of this mother of all questions, experiencing the most intense intra-psychic state I had ever known, when a surge of Courage came into my heart.
With my inner ear I heard as clear as day an actual command.
Ask the Question.