25 Below Zero

Written around July 2008 of an experience in Annadel State Park. The unwritten addendum is that I was driven to the friend’s home, unable to drive the car myself, which resulted in failure to bring my sister the car for her driver’s test appointment the next morning on time, which she then failed. She would pass later.


The entire universe is really just two people sitting across from each other. One of them is you and the other is somebody else. Without moving, you are in different positions at different times; you can see that the other person is where you were very recently, the other person having been where you are now, and the other person changes also at times. Right now the person looks like a certain one of your friends, but not so long ago it was a different friend, the one who was where you are now while you, then, were where this other friend is now. Although, looking at it how you have to, you can’t see two people, just the one friend who is facing you, and the longer you look the more you get the sense that this friend isn’t another person at all, this person is some reflection of yourself (though it doesn’t even feel like looking into a mirror, more like you’re the mirror looking at you) that you had thought was someone else. He looks very similar to the other friend, eerily similar, and looks eerily similar to you as well. The main difference is that when you look at him, you feel no differently from how you feel about yourself – all the distinctions you’re used to keeping in mind as you look at his face and listen to him aren’t there anymore.

You’re both sitting on uncut wild summer-brown-green grass, about five meters apart, underneath a couple of thin gnarled low-hanging trees on a hillside. You’d just been standing there giggling for several hours, apparently. About what, you don’t remember anything specific, but there were some funny nonsense words and a whole lot of nonsense things to think about that were probably involved. What it’s really about, deep down, is the stomach, tautening and quaking. Real laughter isn’t really concerned with the mouth the way we think it is – the mouth is just the opening at the top that lets out the noises of exhalations propelled by the trembling gut. The pleasure, the clenched abdominal muscles and the anatomical proximity evoke coital thrusts, and the evocation seems more than a mere mental association: an actual biological revelation, a fusion of what could be called muladhara and swadhistana chakras or excited pressure of sexual glands and ejaculatory muscles. For every laugh you start conjuring a metaphoric image of its simple reflex as an orgasm – a picture of an arc-line pleasure center being rammed with an arrow again and again, with the words “That’s all it is!” repeating each time in your head. Every clench and release feels like letting part of a fixed quantity of something ripple away, maybe a fixed quantity of pleasure or joy or vacation-time, and this rippling away, while happy, leaves a faint aftertaste of sadness, a desire to stem the outward flow of this trove. That’s not the problem so much as the sad expression on your friend’s face, your friend who isn’t laughing nor even smiling.

The friend has periodically been trying to elicit commentary or conversation while you’ve been standing there looking off into the trees, but you’re not really responsive to him: you hear his words, stew them over in your head and start laughing, aloud but to yourself, about something ridiculous about them or about some thoughts they conjure. Maybe he feels like you’re laughing off everything he has to say. But from what he says, it seems that he has very little idea how your mind works – he often seems to criticize you, you remember, and you feel frustrated when you seem to have little to say to defend yourself, but now it’s clear that his criticisms are just a big misunderstanding, a misinterpretation of what you’ve meant by what you’ve said in the past – this is funny too. You realize, and this is huge, standing there silently and contemplating, that you have an entire introspective world to which he can’t possibly be privy; that, like he’s saying, his inability to understand you is borne out of your failure to communicate that inner world, which really should be obvious. What you’ve done by living introspectively is confined the phenomenological world to your head, and woven the physical world out of interior words and language; instead of being part of everything, you have taken in everything as an observer, which has taken yourself out of everything. You have words, but you have to play with those long after anything happens and you tend to be lazy about doing it, so people have no idea what’s going on with you. Most people can talk easily with each other, sharing the world around them this way, and speech seems more real, more physical since you can see and feel a moving mouth and hear the resonating vocal cords, and weaving the world out of words this way seems more instinctual, you notice something and you say it instantly and everyone there who can hear or read lips connects instantly, whereas nobody can see or hear your brain darting and your mad internal monologues and dialogues that can’t really be schizophrenic but give you a faint idea of what “hearing voices” might be like, the colliding thoughts and debates over thoughts to repress or filter to not sound stupid and aren’t like speech, which you can’t consciously track yourself let alone form a sentence directed at someone else because that’s not how your mind works, so there’s bound to be some kind of tension and misunderstanding between people who talk and people who don’t so much, a big ugly awkwardness of shame and feelings of inadequacy on both sides. To realize this is funny too, but you stop laughing because that person over there who feels like you to you seems upset, a pouting moué upon his downturned face.

It’s distressing, and you ask what the matter is. “I expected more from you,” he says. “You just… don’t seem to be getting it.” The shadow across your mirth lengthens at the sound of his disappointment, at the suggestion that what you are doing is wrong. You thought the laughter with the good feelings was enlightenment – it is, maybe – but he’s shaking his head sadly. You now try to stop the laughing fits, which involves holding the stomach taut and then sighing in the attempt to get it, and the gut then pushes out slightly in a different way with the exhalation – the two motions become a kind of internal dance, you notice, feeling things there instead of thinking so much about the connotations of laughing and sighing, kind of like how this friend must have been talking about when you didn’t understand. He asks questions of how you were doing, and you answer that you are torn – laughing is nice, but maybe there should be something more to get out of this, like he encouraged, and there are a lot of sighs as you contemplate this. But what does he want, why is he disappointed?

He asks why you are disappointed. But he’s the one who is distressed, you say.

He says no, this is about you. But he’s the upset one. Your temper flares.

“What do YOU want!” you shout. He shakes his head.


This friend is intimidating. His shirt is removed for an altar and his torso is more defined and has less fat than yours does. As you stand stupefied in one place he darts around the scene, wraithlike, and when he stops he sits down and does a very intimidating breathing exercise in which his stomach jerks in and out with mechanical regularity like a bellows – except, like you always point out (mostly to yourself), human lungs probably were the foundation for inventing bellows, so the analogy is backwards – and inhuman-sounding exhalations shoot out of the rigid posture. Intimidating because you’re envious, contemptful? Because it’s something he believes in even though it seems arbitrary to you?


I was sitting there stupid with a saxophone on my lap. I had played it for a little while, but it didn’t feel right it at all; the sound was weak, I couldn’t remember the pieces I had just memorized, and the improvisation felt uninspired. Plus he said there was too much audible breathing and key click-clack interfering with the music. I felt like a fraud sitting there on a mossy rock with this expensive piece of equipment whose manipulative techniques I thought I had been working hard at. Later I played one note, a low C, rich and loud (louder than I thought), which satisfied me as a complete symphony. Now I sat there staring into space, with the sax on my lap and the neck strap still around my neck. I notice them every few minutes – that strap is kind of clinging to my forward-bent neck and the sax is sitting there – and get a little irritated with myself, feeling like an idiot with this equipment out and upon me which I wasn’t using, and I shift the things around uncomfortably. After half an hour perhaps I finally decide to put everything back into the bag, maybe with resignation, feeling a twinge of “I’m not a sax player at all, I’m a fraud.”

The intention I’d read made me feel like a fraud. I wrote it down thinking it was all-encompassing and intelligent and funny and certain to please, and then I read it today to him and felt like it was a show. An intention is something you’re supposed to say before this starts, what you want to get out of it, and people generally say a couple sentences, but here I was writing it out earlier, a whole page or so in a spiral notebook, to recite it to him now. A show, a recitation, a performance for him to react to and appreciate is what it felt like, not for me like it’s supposed to be. We sat next to each other at the altar, and maybe if this were a wedding it would be equivalent to reading a page from a pre-written notebook instead of saying “I do.” This altar is just stones on a hillside that some docile wild animals led us to, and it is a kind of marriage eventually, a different kind, but here he’s the priest too and I felt like I was lying to him and myself with my neat statement. It was about wanting to know what to do with creation of art, to which I seem to have devoted myself; I was talking about finding answers as to what I should focus on and where I should go with it, but writing this seemed silly because really that kind of thing is my decision anyway, so I wrote some more about how I’m sure I couldn’t predict what I would learn and what would happen so I’ll be open to anything, which should have been obvious and didn’t require further bloating the text to explain. I was glad when I finished reading it and he said it sounded like I was ready to listen to the voice inside, a kind of positive reaction to what I’d said, which was a relief.

Sitting across from this other person you see how the world works. There is no other person, just one person seeing a version of your/himself at a distance, like a dream in which you watch yourself in the third person. Conversation and laughter across the apparent gap is a time-delayed transmission received only by the sender. The friend right now is you when you don’t feel like this, when you feel like the observer and like you are left out – this you realize because you recognize that you have been in the same spot in relation to someone who has felt like this, not exactly on this piece of Earth but on a similar enough one. You right now are getting to feel magic, a stellar bodily feeling and a mood to match (completely at ease and magnanimous, as you’ve always wanted to be) and sheer awe at the beauty and stimulation all around, and only because of this other person who is not getting to, which is really you at an earlier or later time, the you who feels normal, somewhat pervaded with boredom and disgust and dissatisfaction broken through at times but not very deeply and not for long.

The content of the conversation and the feelings and the profundity of observational awe is the basis for every component of metaphysical human thought throughout history. Taking in the bucolic trees and thinking simple thoughts with infinite meaning and feeling born into a new reality is how you create religions, how you weave God and creation into being. What you feel right now is creation. The words that carry across the space are those of the priests and policy-makers – words from your own mouth will be taken as preternatural truth and recorded for posterity, an ill-begotten and ill-begetting power that will bind the future to those specific words and concepts to the exclusion of others. Art is woven the same way; you the artist will assign the beauty you’ve chanced upon here to the page or the screen, hoping to preserve it, though its power may be just as ill-begetting. You become intensely aware of the unique pain of the artist and the analyst – the alienated retraction endured to stay outside to watch and capture and try to find truth to help yourself and others – and you understand that not everyone does this, and maybe you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself for struggling with it by constantly comparing yourself with others. It is strange and it is hard; fevered truth-seeking often means an asocial lifestyle, because the stimulants of your pursuit are often impersonal, in books or other artwork by the distant and the long-dead, and the shift of your focus may create an estrangement from people with different (often social) interests who seem to go about their lives with ease while you try to define them with great difficulty. No matter how beautiful your perception, you will never be able to fully recreate it; your artwork will be a dilution. It is too beautiful to describe yet too beautiful not to try to, and no matter how beautiful your creation may seem to others, you, knowing where it came from, will never see it the same way.

Thought-constructs are obvious to you now as your status quo is blissfully blown away. Your perceptions must be controlled and planned for by your unthinking routines indirectly dictated by the forgotten men at the top of the economic ruling pyramid if you so rarely feel the truth like this, when you do something unusual and controversial instead. Who are those men? And who are you?

You are a hideously sinful and ignorant person.

Your surroundings become subterranean now – you have dived beneath the world of trees to the realm of your personal thought-construct. Your idealism is revealed to you and you recoil in disgust. You think you will fight the bad men, you will save the world, and look cool at the same time, you see your face with a glossy airbrushed sheen, the image you have of a cool-looking guy in a cool pose who gets things done and doesn’t take any bullshit is your own reflection, and this is your narcissism. In awe of technological gadgets and coveting the stoically-above-it-all (all that glowing neon on darkened concrete, the artificial Earth shimmering with flying electrons and photons) feeling of dystopian science fiction, imagining yourself as the hero, strong and smiling and cool and in love with beautiful people with beautiful friends – everything airbrushed, an advertisement, such blatantly false happiness… this entire undercurrent is all a programmed materialistic fantasy, not your fantasy at all but fed from above and shared with the rest of the populace. All fake, this whole world you think and live in – yes, sounding like some other popular works of art, but here you see it is true for yourself and more sickening than you imagined. Your whole notion of cool is instilled by advertisements, surface-level images in films and other artwork, mere appearances, in your unchecked vanity. This illusion, revealed, now falls away, and you are not where you are sitting anymore.


All the light shining down on you and in around you on the trees transforms to gold – everything physical a few seconds ago is trivialized, now invisible. Where you are now is indescribable – a purely mental state, whose visualized physicality is a dull multicolor ether. Maybe there’s a large kind of pool or oasis, it kind of feels like there is but you can’t really be sure, and though you can’t really see anything definite everything feels upside-down and distant. You are no human being here, and you are not on human territory – this place is beyond all of that. You have been admitted into a dimension that, while incomparable to anything experienced before, feels truer and above normal life. Maybe the sheer novelty explains the feeling; maybe it belies everything seen before it. You are feeling and seeing this, so it must be real – not real in terms of scientific consensus, real in terms of scientific serendipity and discovery – and the enhancement thus of the previous reality is a stunning left-field-emergent corollary to true life before this. With this feeling, it seems like all that mystical language makes sense now, or at least feels appropriate – Isness, Suchness, Godhead, etcetera all just sound right. The nonsense-voice – high-pitched and on the verge of a gigglefit – in your head before, it was naming this place, calling it the Hebreem. “Teeter nannen,” it said, naming the feeling.


On the hike up here from the car we were talking about how our gathered group of friends tends to interact – how much of the conversation pertains to previous experiences, nostalgic remembrances of things we’d done when we hung out previously. The friend I hiked with was saying that in such conversations the nostalgia often exaggerates the memory’s good feelings to the point of lying about the experience, that the experience included far more boredom and negativity than its later recounting pretends. I dubbed the phenomenon “retroactive enjoyment.” He said these gatherings in effect pass time ignoring the present by living in a false past.

Several weeks earlier we were eating Chinese food, and were both stunned and disappointed by the bland and hopelessly inadequate words we wanted to use as descriptors. “Tasty?” “Delicious?” “Good?” These are the words we were compelled to share with each other, even as we both ate. This is sweet-and-sour (faux) pork we were eating! When someone can ask how it’s going when we meet and I can say “Good,” the ecstatic feeling of the food on our hungry tongues cannot remotely be deserving of the word.


The feeling here is not heavenly. Although the truth here is higher, and there is a sense of deliverance, there is no rapture – the place is kind of ugly, encompassing heaven and hell the way the world generated both of those concepts, but here you feel both simultaneously. But there was something before this…


The friend was running wraithlike from side to side and around you, right after you seemed to have been arguing, right after he seemed like a normal observer (albeit one who feels like you) who was simply watching and waiting, doing some reading and work he had brought with him, acting the way he usually acts when you talk together. This running around was not right, and watching it, seeing this sudden transformation, you are deeply unsettled. He’s chanting things, waving things, whispering things, he is not who he was and he is manipulating you. He is not at all the person you thought you came here with. He gets up close to you and whispers, says something he doesn’t feel in order to test you, matching his laugh to yours, faking the laughter in mockery, and then he starts speaking in response to your unspoken thoughts and feelings. Meaning he can read your mind. So he must have always read your mind, only acting as if he didn’t, when he has known you completely all along. This is a terrifying thing to realize.

This means that all those times that you internally criticized him, or thought you were smarter than him and more sensible, he knew of it, and you were horribly mistaken because he, reading your mind, has been miles ahead of you the whole time – he is all-knowing, and his every interaction with you has been carefully planned to affect you the right way, to direct you here. It’s all been set up. His pursuit of (to you) a stereotypically spiritualist path, believing in the out-there New Age rites and philosophies, coupled with the (to you) stereotypically scientific path of this other friend (the one who was in your current position before), believing only in strictly established scientific consensus or published studies, is no mere contrapuntal coincidence but a calculated ploy.

This strict scientist and strict spiritualist, and you in the middle – incorporating the truth of both viewpoints, making their duality nondual, like reality – are all the same person. “Person” meaning the consciousness/animating stuff of a person, not limited to the flesh (whose differences are much more slight than imagined). These friends, as you, are testing your own beliefs. You believe in nonduality, yet here you’ve been viewing these friends as dualities, in opposition to each other and to you – of course, ironically, you criticize them for their dualistic belief systems, for them arguing with each other and deciding they “don’t believe the same thing at all” when you can see that they do, yet that criticism – i.e. you thinking you are more right than they – shows your belief in duality. You say or think – which one clearly doesn’t matter – “My God, what a fool I’ve been. You did all that to show me this,” and he nods and smiles. “That’s it.” This is when you enter the golden-lit ether.


Now, whenever he tries to engage you, you know it is a test because he already knows what you are thinking and what you will say, so you stop responding to him. He just laughs or says something else when you ignore him, so you know he isn’t really waiting for a reply, only voicing your own thoughts and presenting you with forgotten self-scrutiny. That conversation about talking about past experiences was calculated – all talk is about past experiences, of course, so his questions are traps, trying to catch you doing something he’d earlier reviled. He mentions your friends and relatives, trying to trick you into thinking about people as different again, and you silently brush off the thoughts. He speaks of the beauty of your natural surroundings, but his voice is dripping with overtly false sentiment – this, too, is a trick. He sings “Over the Rainbow” but you don’t know the words.


You’ve started feeling knotted up inside, coiled in a kind of helix, and the branches and needles reaching out towards you from the tree appear to be arranged in spirals towards the sky, and you can’t stop your head from tilting and twisting so that your neck leans far to the right while your face is turned far to the left, trapped within the spiral – and there he is, the spiral turns you to look at him, though you keep him in periphery, as suits an inner self.

He tells you to let something out. When he asks you a question, there’s no need to respond, it’s posed merely for your contemplation, but when he tells you to do something it seems like you should do what he’s saying to do. “You’ll want to sit up for this,” he says. You are clenching your stomach very tightly, flexing and feeling as much pain as you can generate for an intuitively necessary intensity, an opposite to the carefree, relaxed release of laughing – did he tell you to do this or do you just feel like doing it? You hold that tightness, as hard and as long as you can, because you have to, it’s a test of your worth and your capacity. The intensity creates vibrations, inside and out, your head twitching as your energy seethes with unknown purpose, traveling from deep in your gut upward, upward and into the chest, into the throat, and




shoots out, and you collapse onto your back, utterly spent. Weak, lying in filthy soil, mulch, wood chips and dead leaves, delivered back to the Earth after a labor, stupefied, this indeed is creation, this is you and humanity coming to life again.


You stare up at the trees, which look majestic, and it looks like the spiral has diminished – you have undone a small portion of the knot. But more work must be done. He helps sit you back up. You can’t just avoid pain and try to enjoy everything; it takes a lot of work, he says or you think and you understand. With him next to you, you volunteering for this terrible but necessary work, you see yourself as a primitive shaman – primitive in the sense of your appearance and surroundings, though in this golden etherworld (with maybe a lake, maybe some trees) you hold the entire modern world hallucination within your mind – whose task is to unearth and extract some of the awful pain from this modern world, working out of this higher dimension. These intense energies within your body are headless black serpents with barbed tails and jagged bodies, and you must purge them, evil forces, from inside you, meaning more furious clenchings of your entire body culminating in slowly crescendoing screams that release the invisible serpents into nothingness.

You do this two or three or four more times – tautening your entire body as it’s never been tautened, screaming and collapsing. You’ve knocked away a little bit more of the spiral, but now you’re exhausted, but now you feel deserving of the etherworld and you relish it. He tries to coax you away, as if he really had to go home, as if he really had to talk with some people – of course these are tricks, designed to pull you out of this newfound dimension, and you stay put.

In the distance you hear his voice, and it sounds like he really is talking to someone else, and now it sounds like he’s the old friend you knew, because he’s speaking in the same way you used to know, with the same inflections and mannerisms. Now you get confused. Does this mean he’s back to that old friend, or is this a charade to test you – he’s still the all-knowing mind-reader and resident of the higher dimension, and maybe he’s tempting you away from this true state of being. Did “It takes a lot of work” refer to resisting this temptation and staying here to work at this newfound calling or does it refer to the lot of work required for living in the usual lower dimension, which itself is required? He comes back to you, but you hold out – sure it looks like the sunset and the day is ending, but that could be part of the lure out of this place for the weak-willed. He walks away again, and really seems distraught – maybe you do have go back with him, maybe that’s how this has to work.


Standing again by now, you micturate into the mulch wherein you squelched. You were here. But you don’t put away the organ that marked the spot; you leave it hanging out of your pants. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? How ridiculous that we would hide something of ourselves and treat it as taboo. After all you’ve gone through today, you feel like trivial idiocies like that should be done away with. This is a penis, and a lot of us have one, and it is nothing to be ashamed of, and you will face that shame head-on and vanquish it by keeping it out – not to “point out what [you] want” as The Knife sang, but to point out the inanity of the custom and show that you have advanced beyond it. And here he comes.

He walks over to you and sees it dangling there, looking embarrassed. “You wanted me to see that?” he says softly.

You are terrified, still speechless, but you make no motions to cover up or put away. You stare him hard in the eyes with a mixture of fear and confrontation, not responding, thinking it might still be a test.

“I feel like you’re attacking me,” he says, firmly, but hurt.


Oh my God what have I done. “I’m sorry,” I say, averting my eyes and covering up (or do I) – I feel stupid, the flaccid thing dangling awkwardly out of a sea of clothing, and embarrassed and ashamed, maybe more that I was attacking him than that I was exposed. “It was a limp gesture,” I offer. He nasally exhales but does not laugh – though he writes it down later – as my delivery is halfhearted and slightly pathetic. He walks away, and I put it away, and I follow him to watch the sun go down.

We get terribly lost on the way back, not that it bothers me too much – it’s nice to walk around for a while, even if an hour or two into approaching and then encroaching darkness. We find my vehicle – the first sounds from the stereo “Where’d you park the car” – and he takes us home.

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