stepping back

Christians call it the “recollected heart.” In Sanskrit it is called “smirti,” or “that which is remembered.”  “Sati,” the word for mindfulness in Pali, the ancient Sanskrit dialect of the earliest Buddhist texts, means to remember.  The great Zen sage Dogen spoke of taking a half step back inside ourselves, creating the space to allow events to arise and present themselves rather than reacting.  The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius—whom nobody could accuse of dropping out of society (he wrote in spare moments as he oversaw Rome’s campaigns on the Empire’s northern borders)—prized the ability to step back inside ourselves and remember who we really are.

Making the effort of stepping back and witnessing the workings of our mind is the only way to freedom, according to Aurelius. It is the only way to really connect with others and with society and with the Whole of Nature.

“People seek retreats for themselves in the country, by the sea, and near the mountains,” he writes (in a translation of the Mediations by John Piazza and Jacob Needleman ). “But this is a sign of ignorance, since you have the power to retire within yourself whenever you wish.”

By the time Alexandra was eleven years old she had already been on several “family retreats” at a Buddhist retreat center in Massachusetts. The kids weren’t expected to sit practice full-blown insight meditation, which involves sitting quietly for about forty-five minutes, bringing the attention back to the breath again and again, noting and releasing the thoughts and feelings and memories that arise and carry the attention away from the breathing and the present moment, then pass away.

Several times a day, the young ones were called into the dharma hall and asked to sit quietly on their cushions and shut their eyes and try to be still, as they listened to the sound of a bell as it gonged and as the gong faded away. But mostly, the retreat leaders went about scattering seeds about the power of awareness and the wisdom of compassion without clinging to the hope that they would bear fruit anytime soon.

The kids played outdoors and did crafts and put on plays and sang songs and listened to stories and toasted marshmallows around a campfire. Without even knowing it, they were practicing living the way people used to live—not just in the golden age of my youth, but in ancient times, mythical times. They vowed to practice nonviolence towards all creatures they encountered, kind speech, and not taking what wasn’t offered. Without calling attention to it, the leaders were encouraging them to live according the dharma, the law of nature—in us and around us.

As wholesome and relaxing as these weeks were for all of us, however, 11-year-old Alexandra made it clear that it wasn’t for her. This wasn’t her idea of fun or excitement, of doing something to help humanity and to be on the side of Goodness. She wanted dramatic goodness as it was depicted in The Lord of the Rings. No offense, but she didn’t have any intention of coming back to the retreat center to meditate when she grew up. She didn’t like the fake tofu hot dogs. She didn’t like seeing a bunch of middle-aged-looking people wearing hippie clothes.

I could see how we looked from her point of view, a bunch of adults sitting on cushions and, well, sitting. It must have seemed that we had thrown in the towel on great deeds, given up the dream of riding out to meet the forces of darkness. It may well have seemed that we were turning inside because the outside wasn’t looking so hot. We were making lemonade out of lemons. I didn’t even try to persuade her that what we were really doing was making an effort to open up to the Whole of Life.

Seven years later, Alexandra is about to graduate from high school. She is not sure what she wants to do with her life, except that she still wants to do some good in this world; she still wants to help humanity. This summer, before she goes off to college, Alex will attend her first young adult meditation retreat. Middle-aged hippie that I am, I gave it to her as a graduation present, wishing to give her the chance to collect herself, to get in touch with who she really is and with what really matters.

It strikes me that what the Stoic philosophers meant by living in accord with the laws of Nature is similar to what the Buddha and his followers meant by following the Dharma, the law. Marcus Aurelius shows us that we can open our minds to what is lawful no matter what is going on around us, even in the thick of battle. Now, Alexandra is 18-years-old and heading out into the world, and quite unexpectedly a Roman warrior emperor is showing me how to bridge the gap between the Middle Way and Middle Earth.

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