A few days into every silent meditation retreat I start feeling like Scheherazade of the Thousand and One Nights. Married to Persian King Shahryan, Scheherazade told a captivating tale to the king each night because her life literally depended on it. Scarred by the infidelity of his first wife, the king had developed the bitter habit of having his brides executed after a single wedding night so none would live to betray him. Dire necessity is the mother of invention. Scheherazade learned to leave each tale she told dangling so that murderous husband would let her live the next day to hear how it came out.
On a silent retreat, a person can’t help but notice that the mind is perpetually telling stories about who we am–endlessly updating them with every fresh blip of experience, every insight. The process is clearly mechanical–ideas keep arising in the brain the way the heart keeps pumping blood. Being in silence day after day among others, we also see how we cling to our thoughts, our stories about ourselves, as if our very existence depended on them. Otherwise…we would just be…no one….just, well, someone sitting here…or drinking tea…or helping wash the dishes…or a floor sweeper…just whatever we happen to be doing here and now. (A friend recently wrote in his own blog that Thomas Szasz observed in The Second Sin that the law of survival isn’t kill or be killed, it is define or be defined. )
Yet, after four or five days of desperately carrying around all this endlessly updated interior chatter meant to save me from dissolving into the nowness of it all, I find myself just dropping it. Just like that. My attention drops down from my head to my heart and I discover a different voice, a different brain. I begin to be able to actually embrace the present moment, to become aware of how I feel. Not my opinions. Not my emotional reactions. But how it feels to be here, right now.
Years ago I interviewed Mitch Albom about his first novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Literary people didn’t like the book (and it really wasn’t in any sense an artfully written book). But it stayed in my mind because it attempted to show that everybody matters, even Eddie, a rough maintainance man at an amusement park. Albom attempted to show people that living a life that has meaning doesn’t have anything to do with great achievements as we ususally think of them–even spiritual achievement. It has to do with those moments when we’re all here, connected to life, when, in the case of Eddie who rushes in to save a little girl, we have a passion to serve life. Interviewing this “popular” novelist, I began to wonder if certain deeper stories might not be innate in human beings, a kind of hidden legacy of wisdom we discover when we stop the noise that keeps us bound up in isolation. When we are quiet, we discover a capacity to know our interconnection with life, our yearning to serve.