If a beam falls and nobody notices, does it change anyone’s life?

An excerpt from Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”. Sam Spade tells the story of a Mr. Flitcraft, who has a good life, but completely disappears, abandoning his wife and two small children:

“Here’s what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up–just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk along side him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his fingers–well, affectionately–when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works.

“Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

“It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had got twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

“He went to Seattle that afternoon … and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Most spiritual practice begins with a shock: unmistakable evidence that an “ordinary” life, even a very good one, does not, and will never, satisfy. We all live immersed in differing degrees of denial and frustration, anesthetized (or simply deluded) by our patterns. We drift through our lives, mechanically serving the intricate medley of behaviour patterns that we call “Me”.

When the beam falls, there is an instant of awakening. What people do next varies a little, but not much. In the vast majority of cases, they go back to sleep.

I’m grateful to delanceyplace.com for bringing this into my inbox.

How to See Things We Can’t See

One of the toughest challenges in any kind of learning is that we have to go from not seeing something to seeing it. We generally don’t relate to “the world” itself, but to our mental model of it (“This is a chair, a chair is for sitting in, it’s upholstered in leather, that will feel nice if I sit in it, etc.). It saves a lot of time, but also tends to exclude new possibilities.

When we encounter a situation in which our mental models don’t seem to be working — on in which our intentions aren’t matching up with results — we need to look with new eyes. That can be really hard. How can you see something that is, effectively, not even there (at least according to our current mental model). Here are some ideas to help you do this.

Do a body scan: While considering your current view of the situation, scan your body for the sensations that are present while you’re thinking about it. What tightens up? What goes numb? What do you notice, what are you ignoring? It helps to treat it as a real scan, moving your attention from the top of your head, through your body, to your feet.

Use don’t-know mind: Remind yourself that no matter how much you do know, there is a lot you don’t know about the situation. See if you can connect with a feeling of not-knowing, a kind of curious wonder — I call it “don’t-know mind” — and regard the situation with that feeling in mind.

Cut: Hold in your awareness two things: the situation as you see it, and your own emotional reaction to it. Imagine these two things as though they are linked. Then mentally take a sharp sword and cut the link. Then look again.

Do an inventory: Search parties use a grid to ensure that they search all areas, including those areas nobody thinks are important. Your “grid” can be any conceptual model of the world that is intended to describe it entirely: for example the Six Realms, 10 Non-Virtuous Actions, 7 Deadly Sins, etc. Look at the situation and ask yourself how each of the items is present in it.

Pretend you’re someone else: Simply taking a different point of view is helpful. If you’re in a dispute, try arguing the other side. Or just imagine how other people, real or imagined, might view the situation. What would Donald Duck do? If the Queen were looking at this situation, what would she see?

Ask someone else: When imagination fails, you can always just go and get someone else’s point of view by asking them.

Our patterns are not sentient, they have no real awareness, but they are a bit like mad androids in a sci-fi story. While we see things through the filter of our patterns, there is no possibility of growth. Fortunately, life has a way of surprising us into dropping our guard. These above ideas are ways you can drop your guard voluntarily, rather than waiting for surprises.