Years ago I was walking up the stairs at the Cape Cod National Seashore with a friend. It was off-season, and I was blown away by the beauty. The sky was a perfect baby blue with those Winslow Homer–like clouds and the sand was Bermuda powdery white. I was about to gasp, Did you ever see anything so beautiful? Out of my peripheral vision way down on the beach, I saw two dayglow pink-and-green Christmas Tree Shop–type umbrellas wafting in the November breeze. So instead of gasping in awe, I gasped in horror. I said to my friend, “I can’t believe in the middle of all this exquisite nature I had to see those two unnatural, ugly, cheesy pieces of garbage.” Without skipping a beat, he quipped, “Freedom is the time between your perception and your opinion.” I said, Wait, did you just make that up? I ran to the car and wrote it down. And every time I thought about it days later, I thought I should really watch to see how UN-free I actually am.
A few weeks went by, and I found myself in New York City walking into a bar where the most stunning flower arrangement of delphiniums greeted me. I love delphiniums, and I was just about to do my gasp of awe when my mind switched into, Wait, are those real? They might be plastic, and the joy I had almost experienced flew out the door. I started to make a practice of noticing how often I would be experiencing something interesting or pleasurable and suddenly stop the curiosity or pleasure and slip into some kind of weird judgment. Once I started catching myself, I made a new practice of switching back into the original feeling of joy before I got into the negativity.
A few days after my delphinium disaster I was in Woodstock, Conn., taking a walk on an old stagecoach road. The cars were slowly climbing the steep hill, and I noticed the tar that had been used to patch much of the road looked as if the sun were actually melting it. The mica seemed electrified, like teeny Christmas lights, and the small stones of gray and brown, typical street materials, blended together like some kind of English tweed. This time my initial impulse was negative. Wow, thought judgmental me, they better do a better job of repairing this major thoroughfare. It sure seems dangerous. Those cars could actually sink and get permanently stuck. And then I caught myself! And I thought, Oh, now you’re the head of the transportation department? Shall I call construction? Before I could laugh at my controlling self, I stopped walking and looked, really looked down, and this time I saw sheer beauty. So from ugly and a problem, I switched to, Wow, Donna Karan‘s new fall line; the browns, the charcoal grays, the gunmetal blacks, absolutely stunning.
But it was hard to keep this practice up. I had to ask myself, Do I really have an opinion about absolutely everything? And the answer was yes. So if freedom is the time between my perception and my opinion, it turns out I’m a prisoner of my preconceived notions. In a flash I assume, I react, and I jump to conclusions that have nothing to do with factual information.
Sitting in a restaurant recently, I couldn’t help but notice a couple at the table next to ours. They weren’t looking at each other. They weren’t talking to each other. They were on their phones. Or staring down at their food. I said to my husband, Look at those two. This marriage is about to end. They haven’t said one word to each other. Right after I uttered my pronouncement on their fragile future, the guy said something, and the two of them burst out laughing. The laughter was the laughter of intimacy and total connection. Why do I do this? I asked my husband. Do what, he said. Make snap judgments, I said.
Why do you care so much? he said.
I said, Little kids don’t judge. They’re in awe of everything! They’re wide-eyed and completely in the moment, with no stories attached, no emotional baggage. They’re innocent. I want my innocence back.
Which is why I’ve been semi-working on this, off and on, for all these years. I didn’t say I’ve succeeded. If this were a piano recital, you would say, Why did the teacher let her perform in front of people before she was ready? But this isn’t a performance, it’s a process. And I’ve gotten better at catching myself.
And hopefully within this lifetime I will be able to say, Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last!