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Girl with a Suitcase and a Dream: Tracy Cochran

--Audrey Lin, on Apr 9, 2012

Thirty years ago, she showed up in New York City. A small town girl from upstate New York, Tracy Cochran stepped out onto the bustling city streets with a suitcase and a dream. “All my life, I had secretly suspected that there was another way to know. Not just a ‘head’ way to know, but a way to know with more of ourselves and actually live the truth.”

With a conviction that comes only from the heart, Tracy’s search for a different way led her through the streets of New York City, across the worlds of movie stars and media, into a connection with the work of Gurdjieff, writings of Parabola Magazine, a Vipassana meditation practice, a run-in with death, and the liberating abandonment of aspiring to be special.

A writer and dreamer with a penetrating soul, Tracy opened our hearts last Saturday, as she shared lessons from her journey.
     

During the early days in New York, “I kind of blundered into different jobs, seeking to find a living,” she explained. One of these jobs was with a media company that covered the movie industry. Prepared to be a nobody, she viewed herself as “this fledgling young person who brought diet sodas into meetings with celebrities.” 

Yet through unexpected instances of attention, she began to notice the power of small moments. How “in a moment, another world can open up right inside the world we think we’re living in.” One day, Meryl Streep walked into the office. Tracy was struck by the kindness and attention that the actress expressed towards her:

“She came into my office, spoke very kindly, and looked me in the eye," Tracy reflected. “In that moment, without realizing it, I took in an impression that no matter what game we think we’re playing, or what role we think we’re playing, it’s possible in any given moment to grant someone our full attention. And that can change everything. That attention itself is an extraordinary gift and act of generosity.”

She shared with us some of the inspiring history and mission of Parabola magazine which is still a vital source of deep sustenance after 36 years. Parabola is the model for several other magazines that have followed, like Shambala Sun, Tricycle and others. The Buddhist monk and scholar, Bhikkhu Bodhi, told Tracy that when he first went to Sri Lanka to become a monk, he even found a copy of Parabola there!

With many little moments like these, Tracy recalled a run-in with death during her twenties that has profoundly influenced her perspective today.

While walking in a deserted neighborhood late one evening, she was jumped from behind by three men demanding money. Caught in a strangle-hold, Tracy couldn’t speak. She couldn’t move. And began to sink to the sidewalk. Yet in that moment of being attacked, Tracy found herself holding an unexpected wellspring of compassion:

I was aware of a bright light welling up inside of my whole body. And it grew brighter and brighter. I was in a situation where I was seeing beyond a doubt that the computer of the brain, the ordinary thinking mind, cannot help us in every circumstance. I was being strangled and there were two people in front of me, blocking me, and I probably weighed 110 at the time. My ability to extract myself in this situation was hopeless...
 
So I gave up in a way, I surrendered.
 
But I surrendered to this extraordinary light—this awareness that was welling up inside me, and then it went shooting out the top of my head. Then I had an out-of-body experience where I saw myself and I saw my attackers, not just from my usual perspective, but from above and behind—just like you read classic near-death experiences.
 
And I remember looking up at the side of my attacker’s face, and he had this big scar. And I remember feeling this upwelling of compassion for him...I became aware that this light that had been in me was also part of the world around me. That behind the world of ordinary appearances—and I was looking at tenant buildings, New York City buildings—behind the world of appearances, no matter what they are, there is light. There is this luminosity.
 
This light was gazing down on me. Or this very kind of grave and caring presence. I was aware that I was seen, and that I was held and cared about. It was like being weighed in a giant hand. I had a sense that my life was seen and cared about... I was aware of being searched—it was like this great gaze looking through me, and looking past all the things I normally valued: where I went to school, the things we think we are. It didn’t care about that. And it just came to rest in the center of my being, like deep in my heart. And acknowledging that I was—and somehow conveying that—everything would be all right if I just relaxed.
 
I found out later that that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in a strangle-hold. If you just drop in a very relaxed way, they have to release their grip.
 
But it’s also very good advice for life. If you just relax. So I did. And I got a ten-dollar bill out and they scooped it up and they ran off. I was unharmed.
 
At this point in the call, many of us were feeling the privilege of just bearing witness to such a deep and profound experience. And the raw humility with which Tracy described all her lessons. When asked about her experiences as a student and practitioner of meditation and mindfulness, Tracy responds with an honest acceptance: 

“One of the most liberating things that’s happened is that I’ve gotten over the aspiration to be special. The more I embrace my common, flawed humanity, the happier I am. And the more awake and aware I am.”

Then she adds, with a laugh, “I’ve discovered that I love being totally average. Even in the slow end of average. I love it. I’m so happy.”
 

Tracy Cochran is the executive editor of Parabola magazine. Her articles and book reviews have appeared in places ranging from the New York Times to Oprah Magazine to Psychology Today, and her stories have been included in anthologies including The Best Spiritual Writing series. Tracy has been a longtime student of mindfulness meditation and aspires to help make mindfulness become part of our culture and daily life.