Just past dawn, I went outside into the silence of falling snow. Suddenly, I realized how fresh snow fall changes the order of things. Usually, I turn inward to seek stillness. I sit down on my meditation cushion in a secluded corner. When it snows, I am drawn outside into the world, seeking a greater silence. A friend wrote me this week, saying how much she loves going on silent meditation retreats in the snowy, silent depths of winter. I understand. Inner stillness touches outer stillness. Questions like “Why am I here?” and “What’s next?” reverberate to heaven.
I co-lead a meditation sangha that meets in a yoga studio in Tarrytown, New York, on Sunday evenings. Last Sunday was bitter cold, but a hearty eight of us gathered. Sitting on chairs and cushions, some of us wrapped in yoga blankets,sitting in a semi-circle before a glowing candle, there was something primal about gathering on such a cold night. I really felt what the great Zen sage Dogen meant when he said that practice draws us into a circle, that when we sit down to seek stillness and enduring truth, we join all people in all times who have sought stillness and enduring truth. And because it was such a cold night, I spoke about the ordeal of the British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, which is described by Shackleton in the rich new “Suffering” issue of Parabola (which you should definitely check out!).
Shackleton’s ship Endurance was crushed in the ice in Antarctica in 1915. He and his men weathered an Antartic winter on the ship until it broke apart; then they lived on the ice; then they moved to isolated Elephant Island. After a year and facing another winter, Shackleton decided to place himself and five others in a small open boat for a perilous journey throught hurricane-swept waters to the whaling stations on South Georgia Island, nearly eight hundred miles distant. When they did hit land, which was a miracle in itself since they were navigating by stars and intuition, they hit the opposite end of the island. Near death, Shackleton and two others had to march for thirty-six hours over unnamed mountains, through freezing waterfalls. But they all made it, and all of Shackleton’s men were saved! Why tell this story in a meditation group, much less include it in the “Suffering” issue of Parabola? It illustrates that there is something besides desire, aversion, or spacing out and being oblivious. Sometimes when conditions allow, we can in Shackleton’s words “pierce the verneer of outside things.” Shackleton reported sensing another presence walking with them, and the other men later reported to the boss that they had sensed the same. Sometimes, in great stillness, we can sense this invisible accompanying presence, this greater awareness. At such moments, there can be a new possibility for us–a new spaciousness blooms inside us. We aren’t just pulled along by a desire for what is pleasant and pleasing to the ego or an aversion to pain and what is unpleasant. I’ve heard this third possibility calledthe ability to serve. It is characterized by clarity and it can descend on us like a kind of grace and allow us to fulfill even arduous obligations in a graceful, freely chosen kind of way. I think when we sit down on our meditation cushions, when we pray, when we contemplate in nature, when we lovingly fulfill our obligations even when we don’t want to–all those times when we notice what is and how we are yet go on–we are practicing allowing this kind of spaciousness to appear.
And what is the alternative? When my daughter was little and we were living in Brooklyn, she outgrew her little bicycle with training wheels and I encouraged her to leave it out on the street in front of our building so someone could take it, the way people do. She made a pretty sign that read in purple crayon “Free Bike. Please enjoy!” Wait and see what happens, I told her. Giving things away is a way to receive something else, something even greater. Alex was skeptical but curious.
The next morning, however, she threw off her covers and clattered down the ladder of her loft bed and ran to the big living room windows as if it was Christmas morning.
“The bike is gone!” Alex shouted. “Mom, come look! The bike is gone!” She looked as radiant as if it was Christmas morning.
“How wonderful!” I agreed.
We stood there beaming at each other, and I had a funny little inkling that it wasn’t this simple, instilling the notion a notion of giving without expectation, opening up wide to the unknown, trusting that something will come.
“Now when do I get something back?”
This is the way we usually are. Our lives move from hope to hope. Wanting defines us, and this is perfectly natural. This is the way nature made us. We want to be happy and safe from harm. We want our loved ones to be happy and safe from all pain. But sometimes things happen that rock our boat–or lock it in ice. Yet sometimes we are called to go beyond what we want. Sometimes we know we can serve something greater. Sometimes all it takes is the stillness of the snow.