Today, as I happily anticipate going to a dear friend’s house for a Thanksgiving feast, I find myself thinking of the classic Thanksgiving story: of pilgrims weathering a hard passage and being met by kindness—only to repay that kindness with staggering cruelty (to be historically accurate, the first pilgrims lived in peace, the cruelty came later). May the Earth and the Native people be healed from the ravages of the European infestation. Science is beginning to look at the way the brain is wired for story. In our dreams and fictions–and even in our earliest childhood play–we seek ways out of trouble, out of heartbreak, the possibility loss, the looming possibility of death. We seek meaning, healing. We seek to be part of a greater whole.
In sitting and walking meditating, we practice letting go of our thinking, of our stories. We practice sensing what is happening in the body below the thinking. Lately, I have especially loved practicing walking meditation around the lake where I live. When I realize I am thinking (which is most of the time), I redirect the attention to the endlessly changing flow of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations. I notice fresh air and sunshine and shadow pass over the skin. A feast of impressions, of glorious, mysterious life, is constantly being offered without beings asked. The first Thanksgiving gift givers were aware of this unending stream of gifts from the Creator. Our cup runneth over, and all the while most of us pilgrims don’t notice. We are too busy telling ourselves stories to ourselves, longing for better entertainment than Creation, longing for starring vehicles.
At moments, we understand that this bewildering business of embodiment is more than a simple practice of sense-feeling: it is soul-knowing. I am coming to suspect that having soul is the deep knowing of life in the body. We may have inklings about this when the road of life is smooth. We walk along noting pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations, the sensation of cool, fresh air on the face, sunlight in the eyes—and all of a sudden a door opens inside and we go deeper into life.
The body has its own way of knowing—not in words but in resonance and a need to respond to what touches us. There are gestures that want to well up from the body. Some are almost imperceptible, including the wish to be still, to bear witness. Some gestures are sweeping, the wish to embrace, to serve. Sometimes I want to open my arms to take in the beauty of the lake, to reach out to the God behind it. Sometimes I want to offer thanks, to offer myself as another potentially useful human being, another pair of hands on the bucket brigade.
At such moments, we discover that a deeper capacity for story lives in the body. This is not a head story in which we play a starring role but a story in which we are part of a greater whole. Many people find this when there is no place to go but down. We may find the deeper story–the story that always includes opening to receive and respond to gifts we have done nothing to deserve–when we have no choice, when everything else has failed.
Often it is when we are bereft, when we cannot be satisfied by simpler stories, a feast appears before us. The loaves and fishes are not just sufficient but miraculous. It is when we think we have nothing to give that the most graceful gestures become possible. People with soul know this: there is really nothing that is ours but honesty, a resonance with life, a wish to be useful and kind. The feast appears when we know our true poverty. Soulful is the body receiving and responding to the gifts of life that come like grace. Ask and it shall be given. We are made to ask…and to give thanks.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
–W.S. Merwin from “The Rain in the Trees,” 1988