Truly Knowing One Self is perhaps the hardest task there is.
Mr. Babushnik always told us that to "know thyself" was the prerequisite of all spiritual quests. That in truth knowing thyself is the beginning, the end and the totality of spirituality. Yet to truly know thyself, he would say, is the most difficult task that anyone will ever face.
To know thyself was also Mr. Babushnik's favorite topic. For him, to know thyself seemed to have no limit and no end. His inquiries always took another form, another perspective, as though there were an infinite ways to know oneself. And maybe that was what his philosophy, in total, was all about.
There are many conversations about the topic that I remember well. Yet, one in particular stands out. Like all our conversations, it would begin with a question. The question I had that summer day was a recent one. It was about God. As a child, God somehow enters your system, whether it is through the way your parents talked about God, or what you were told in Sunday school or are what you heard at a religious service. Or, perhaps the idea of God is just simply something that is a part of us, as though it is some genetic substructure, the wiring between mind, body and soul.
And then one day a question arises. Perhaps it is the very first question we ask ourselves that is not just about the world. Perhaps it is the first question we ask, when we finally as young children turn our gaze not only upward but inward and begin to question the way and why of who and what we are.
R: Is there a God?
Mr. B: I thought you would never ask.
A silence followed. Yet, Mr. Babushnik's silences were different than anyone else's. If I or anyone of my friends were ever silent, even for a moment, one could see the words, the fomenting chaos of thoughts, just waiting to bubble to the surface. But, when Mr. Babushnik was silent his eyes would look directly at you, yet at the same time you sensed his gaze was directed inward into himself. It was this feeling of a simultaneity of an outward and inward viewing that lent such power to what I would call silence.
Finally, Mr. Babushnik spoke. One word:
Mr. B. Well?
I, of course, had asked the question. Now the tables were turning and I felt the peculiar feeling that the moorings of my typical world were slipping away.
R: Well… Is there a God?
Mr. B: Is that the only question you have?
R: No, I have many questions?
Mr. B: About God?
R: Yes, and many other questions as well.
Mr. B: I would like to hear a few of your other questions about God.
R: What is God?
Mr. B: Very good. You can't ask if God exists if you don't know what is God. Because if you don’t know what God is you wouldn't be able to recognize God, even if He came and tapped you on the shoulder.
And with that Mr. Babushnik lifted his cane and let ii rest for a second on top of my head.
Mr. B: And what else would you like to know about God?
R: Where is God?
B: And what is left?
I thought for a moment. There seemed to be only one more question that could be asked.
R: Why is there a God?
Mr. B: Any more?
I puzzled until at last I found one more query.
R: Whose God?
Mr. B: Excellent.
And then I pondered again wondering if there were anymore questions that could be asked about God.
R: I really can't think of anymore questions now.
Mr. B: A most excellent beginning. So let's ask a question. Where are we?
R: I am here in the park. With you.
Mr. B: Where is here? What is our address?
And then I answered as many school children do when at long last they begin to realize their place in the vast cosmos.
R: We are in a park, sitting by the bench in this city, in the United States, North America, Planet Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way, the Universe.
Mr. B: Good, you have the idea exactly. So now let’s play again.
I was quite pleased with myself having at long last answered a question correctly. For what was odd when conversing with Mr. Babushnik, that for all the questions and answers that passed between us, you usually never had a sense that you were right, though never wrong either. But this time I was gleeful that I was exactly right.
Mr. B: What is the name your parents gave you?
Mr. B: If you take a way the name, then who are you?
Immediately I almost felt a sense of panic. It was a tricky question because whenever anyone had asked me "Who are you?'' I had always replied Richard. If I wasn't a name, then who was I? My response was admittedly tentative.
R: I am a human being.
Mr. B: Which one?
Mr. B: That tells me little. So again… who are you?
My mind came to a quick halt because it seemed there was little more to go after that. Though I understood the import. Asked where was I, I could keep expanding from city to country to continent, all the way to the Universe… and even to Infinity. When it came to myself though, it seemed I did not have even a scintilla of where to go. But Mr. Babushnik was hardly finished.
Mr. B: What are you?
For a moment I felt I was on familiar ground. I am a human being. But I had already tried that route. What kind? I looked at my skin and said:
R: Is it my color?
Mr. B: Is that who you truly are. What would happen if you didn't have a foot? Would you still be you?
R: Yes, of course.
Mr. B: And a hand?
My mind spun a bit as Mr. Babushnik dismembered me. Not in a gruesome way, but in a quite light-hearted sense, for the last thing he ever would be was thoughtless about another's suffering. Finally, after we had removed arms and legs, eyes and ears, we were left with my brain and a heart.
Mr. B: Is that what you are? A brain and a heart?
Finally it dawned on me, where he must be going.
R: I am something that is awake.
Mr. B: And then what are you when you are asleep?
Since there was nothing left of me at this point I could say nothing. Of course I immediately popped back into existence when he asked me the next question.
Mr. B: Why are you? Why do you exist? Of course, we need to prove that you do exist first. But let’s deal with that later. Why do you exist?
R: To be me.
Mr. B: Is that your answer? Just to be me.
My mind began to race trying to find an answer that seemed appropriate. For a child it seemed though somewhat silly, as the realities of money, career, family were still far from my ken. Mr. Babushnik continued:
Mr. B: Who are you? Who do you really belong to?
I could only shrug my shoulders. Mr. Babushnik’s raised his eyebrows in what I could only presume was mock astonishment.
Mr. B: Always look behind a question or maybe rather into a mirror and you will find what you are always looking for when you ask a question. It is the only place that it can be. When was the last time you looked in a mirror?
And with that Mr. Babushnik slipped his hand into the side pocket of his jacket and retrieved a small hand mirror. In retrospect, of course, I realized that Mr. Babushnik had brought the mirror to the park just for this reason and was most likely planning on leading our conversation in this direction, but to a child like myself it was nothing short of miraculous.
He handed me the mirror. It was quite a small mirror with a red plastic trim, one that you might buy in a dime store. I held it though as if it were a magical treasure.
Mr. B: Look into the mirror. Think deeply what about you see there.
And with that I gazed deeply into the reflecting glass, quite convinced a magical genie would appear. It was a small mirror and only a portion of my face could fit into the frame, so what I saw was simply an eye and part of my nose. I moved the mirror about, revealing only another eye, lips, an ear or some hair depending on what angle I held the glass.
R: I don’t see anything, but myself.
Mr. B: You must look harder.
And then it happened. I began looking deeply into one eye. At first it was almost a bit frightening, as though a huge Cyclops was staring back at me. But as I looked deeper into the glistening orb, I saw a white halo surrounding a brown circle flecked with green and brown which surrounded another circle of sheer black that seemed to descend into infinity. I didn’t have any words to describe or to label what I saw. There was no face. But was it simply an eye made up of a cornea, iris and pupil? Was this me? Or? I looked again. And this time the beautiful colors that made up this eye began to blend and swirl together. It was as though the pupil became the night sky and the colors of the eye became stars in a great cosmos in which I was enveloped. The world slipped away and I felt suspended in this great star-filled world, no longer in a park, no longer of this world; yet, I was still very much aware of where I was and who I was. But this I, who I was, had no name. There were no words that could cling to its existence.
The feeling of who I was, for it was certainly was not a thought, at least in any traditional sense, began to grow, blossoming in all directions as though a lovely flower. And then there was a thought of some sort. I do not know what it was, perhaps a thought of a small boy somewhere in a park. I felt a fear and I blinked, quite reflexively. Suddenly I was a child again staring at my eye in a small pocket mirror. I turned and found Mr. Babushnik still sitting on the bench. His eyes were closed. But I thought I could catch the slightest movement on his lips. It was as though he was simply thinking the thought of a smile.