The Pit in Your Stomach. The Stomach in Knots. The Pain in your belly that seems purely biological, but then is exacerbated by Worry. The stomach is a scene where mind and body converge.
I walked by a farmer’s market just as it was closing. I approached a booth that sold enormous portobello mushrooms. I asked how much they were and the guy said five bucks for a box. ‘But’ he said ‘because it’s the end of the day, here’s a few extra for free’ ‘Boy! Am I lucky’ I thought.
I went home and sliced two mushrooms into strips and stir-fried them in oil with garlic and onions. It was great. I took a nap. Waking up hungry, I picked out the largest mushroom and cooked it in a pan like a steak. Later that night a friend came over, so I stuffed the insides of a few more with ginger and tilapia and baked them in the oven. All in all, I ate about nine whole portobello mushrooms that day.
The next day at work I was operating the cash register when I began to feel an immense amount of pain. It felt like a ninja star was lodged in my stomach. I planted both elbows on the counter to support myself. Doubled over, groaning, I continued to receive customers’ orders. A modern hero. Usually, I am quite friendly, even if I have to fake it. But- suffering as I was- I had no energy to maintain any pretense. Customers asked me how I was and I said I felt like shit. I didn’t say Thank You. I didn’t ask if they wanted room for cream in their coffee. They were baffled, but not turned off. Strangely, the tips poured in. The more honest I was about my suffering, the less I feigned interest in them, the more money they gave away.
It got so bad that I had to ask the manager for help. She asked me what was wrong. I thought about it. Nothing like abdominal pain causes you to ask with sudden seriousness- what did I eat, and when? ‘Well’ I told her ‘yesterday I ate a lot of portobello mushrooms. I got a great deal at the Farmer’s market’ I beamed with pride, amidst the consequences. ‘Did you eat the stems?’ ‘Yes…’ ‘… Baby you shouldn’t have eaten the stems. You can’t digest those. Go in the back and try to feel better.’
I went in the back and tried to feel better. I conjured the memory of those stems. Dense and light at the same time- like cork. I imagined them being used to seal a giant bottle of wine. No corkscrew at hand, I chewed through to the opening. I sat with my head between my knees. The pain went away and I celebrated its absence, then it boomeranged and I whimpered. I prayed for the pain to end. I raised my right hand and swore to an unseen witness that I would never eat portobello stems again.
How many times have I made a similar promise? I remember getting hangovers: excruciating headache, anxiety and depression, tremors, the nervous system all nervous and no system. I would pray for it to end. In the mean time, I would promise never to drink again. Of course, once the suffering was over, I forgot my promise. But every time I got another hangover, I was right back to where I started. I felt like hell.
How does one come to keep a promise? Pain is perhaps the best mnemonic device we have. This week my sister, her husband and I were discussing our earliest memories. Mine was grabbing a white-hot rock from the fire my father had used to burn leaves. Hers was getting attacked and bitten by a dog. His was climbing up the drawers of his dresser to say Hi to his pet hamsters at the top when the dresser toppled over crushing him and killing his pets. Surely we had a lot of memories of blowing out birthday candles and spending all day outside in carefree bliss. Yet the memories that stuck were the painful ones.
But pain alone is not enough cause to keep one’s promises. One can always go back on the promise by trying to forget or suppress the pain. This is impossible, of course, because painful memories are burned into the conscience like scars. If not confronted they will return accompanied by even more pain in the forms of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. Misery grows but the lesson remains unlearned. The individual comes to believe the universe is intrinsically hostile or indifferent to their existence.
No, mere torture can’t do it. There must be another factor. IPerhaps gratitude. Gratitude that the torture has been lifted. When my stomachache finally ended, I could have not given the pain another thought. I could eat porto-stems again. This sounds stupid because it is. And while I will not eat the stems again, I go through this pattern again and again in my life with situations more nuanced than food. I enter relationships, develop habits, and repeat behaviors that are reincarnations of past self-destructive tendencies. I do this because I am not grateful that the old patterns have died off, that I am free from them. Of course, many of these patterns are invisible to me, so I can’t help but continue. Thus it is my practice to attempt to fully process past experiences (digest them) in order to let go (shit them out).
Nevertheless, some of this seems futile. As in, there’s no way out. I think my earliest memory is a non-memory: my circumcision. My consciousness was barely awoken when a knife was taken to my penis. I had no concept of self or body or world but I did have an experience of pure, total suffering. Such an experience surely left an indelible mark. But, because it was so early, I might as well be trying to rectify a situation from a past life. Some wounds can’t be healed, no matter how much or how vigorously I rub them with ointment.