By Brian Westbye
I’ve always had a fiercely self-protective streak.
Self-preservation has always been at the core of my character, even when I’ve put myself through the ringer with extremely self-destructive behavior. It’s easy for me to look back at dark chapters of my life and rewrite my past to line up with my current Buddhish perspective.
But looking back, I can see that I don’t need to rewrite anything. I can actually see that Buddhish thought has always guided me, even when I had no understanding of Buddhism or, for that matter, much of anything else.
I picture myself at 27 in Boston, a loner with no steady gainful employment and not much else going for myself.
The Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, which spans the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge, is 364.4 Smoots Plus One Ear long.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the first thing you run in to on the Cambridge side, and as you’re walking the Mass Ave bridge, which is also called the Harvard Bridge, north, the famous dome of the Barker Library guides you.
Yes, the Harvard Bridge leads directly to M.I.T.
Only in Boston.
One night in the ‘50s or ‘60s, the story goes, a group of M.I.T. yuksters decided to measure the bridge with the only instrument they had on hand: a classmate named Smoot. They laid Mr. Smoot end to end along the length of the bridge, coming up with the final measurement of 364.4 Smoots Plus One Ear. The Smoot Lines are repainted every spring on the east sidewalk.
In the middle of the bridge, possibly where Houdini once performed, is also painted HALFWAY TO HELL.
This was my spot.
Behind me to the west, close enough to touch, would be the light towers of my favorite place in the world—Fenway Park—and the famous Citgo sign, which seems to float above the left field wall. Ahead of me, the sweep of the Charles, the Parisian brownstones of Back Bay, the Prudential and John Hancock insurance towers and the dome of the State House on Beacon Hill. The gold on the dome was inlayed by Paul Revere himself.
City Upon a Hill. City of my struggle.
I used to stop at the Halfway to Hell point and lean over the rail. Just a bit. A hard look into the murky brown water, choppy, eddies swirling by.
I could never do it, and I knew this.
But I wondered…
Would it be peaceful? Just a lean too far…maybe a slight pitching…my stomach flying into my throat as gravity takes over…Would it be as peaceful as I had read? Would I struggle or accept? Would it silence the demons and the pain?
Would anyone but my family notice?
I could never do it, because I knew my family would be devastated, and ultimately because I knew that all of the pain was transitory and I was meant for better things. After a few moments I pulled myself off the railing and continued my walks, moving forward.
Always moving forward…
So, why me?
Why was I gifted this preservationist streak? I can only speculate. But I think it was largely HSP (Highly Sensitive Person trait) mixed with Buddhish thought, even though I knew nothing of either at the time.
I don’t mean to retroactively recast myself as a Buddhist: I wasn’t a Buddhist then, and I barely consider myself one now (hence my use of “Buddhish”). But now that I find myself strolling down this path toward a Buddhish existence, a lot of the concepts I’m studying today make sense when applied to myself back then.
It really starts with HSP. Having HSP means I feel and I intuit. All senses are heightened in my world, and I can sense bad (and good) to come and hold out for the good. It means I ponder meaning deeply and work to change. And it means I can hold on to the long view: I can see others around me whom I think have it together (and of course, nobody ever has it together, but I digress), plug myself into what I perceive they are doing right and try to rework myself accordingly.
And this, I realize now, is Bodhicitta and Maitri.
As Pema Chödrön has written, “we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”
Leaning on the rail, staring into the Charles, my heart and spirit were softened enough to see the big picture: my family would be hurt deeply if I hurt myself. That is Bodhicitta.
And I knew that my present pain was transitory. Better things lay ahead. Unconditional friendliness toward myself: that is Maitri.
In retrospect, I carried these Buddhist concepts with me and let them guide me even then.
I think revisionist history is dangerous, and I am not trying to recast myself as some closet savant. I was what I was, and there’s nothing deeper to it than that.
But looking back and comparing and contrasting the traits I carry now that I also carried then, I can see that I at least sensed the concepts of Bodhicitta and Maitri that guide me today.
Guess I just sensed that I had a few more Smoots to go.
Editor: Dana Gornall