Playing At Meditation

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens,” wrote Carl Jung.

To look into the heart means to remember how we perceived and felt about the world when we were children.  On this first day of spring, it seems especially fitting to remember that.  In the course of my last silent retreat, it became clear to me that right effort towards awakening is like blooming–a gentle movement of allowing ourselves to open up and be exactly as we are.  It is a movement of stilling the pool  of the mind so that what is in the depths of us can be seen.

On the third day, I woke up utterly tired of maintaining my separation, tired of the stories about myself that I carry around like Marley’s chains.  Children can be selfish, but they aren’t haunted by self like adults are.  It’s as if a crust of protective stories form over our molten experience of life over the years.   On retreat it is easy to see how thinking protects us from direct experience, lifting us above it, extracting us by abstracting us.   But as we see how thin and repetitive the thoughts are, we inevitably drift back and become like children again.

It’s not a grand shift, like penetrating to the meaning of emptiness, just that my thinking and my fearful reactivity becomes less dense, a mist I can see through rather than a thick fog that blinds.  The attention becomes free to investigate life rather than being an indentured servant of the self, constantly called back to think about what the self thinks about this or that.  One morning, I tasted a local egg from a local farm that tasted so wild—I swear I could taste the chicken in the egg.   This doesn’t sound like much in this super exciting world, but it was really something to notice—the life inside life.   This is the kind of impression that kids take in all the time–the impressions that come with stillness.  Here is a fragment of a letter Rilke wrote to a young poet:

“And when you realize that their [the adults around you] activities are shabby, that their vocations are petrified and no longer connected with life, why not then continue to look upon it all as a child would, as if you were looking at something unfamiliar, out of the depths of your own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation? Why should you want to give up a child’s wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn, since not-understanding is, after all, a way of being alone, whereas defensiveness and scorn are participation in precisely what, by these means, you want to separate yourself from.

Think, dear Sir, of the world that you carry inside you, and call this thinking whatever you want to: a remembering of your own childhood or a yearning toward a future of your own — only be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything you perceive around you. What is happening on your innermost self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it….”

During the retreat, we rose before dawn to bow and chant to Guan Yin, the female Buddha of Compassion.  Head to the floor, arms extended with hands up in a gesture of surrender and supplication, I practiced sacrificing my separate self to a greater consciousness and force of compassion.   Raised as a white Anglo Saxon Protestant in America, I found this gesture exotic, a trip to a remote part of my own humanity.  But there was also a sense of homecoming in it.  I remembered being a child engaged in a kind of serious play.  I remembered playing outside and creeping over the living room furniture pretending to move carefully through the jungle, entering a hidden kingdom, practicing being awake and aware in my whole body and mind.  I remembered how delicious it was to be alone and unseen,  sensing that I was capable of more than the adults around me guessed as I climbed trees and couches, that I was capable of courage and grace.   I go on retreat to remember what it is like to be a child.  It is not that children are unselfish, they can be fiercely selfish.  But they are not haunted by all kinds of ideas about the self, all kinds of limits about who we are and who we are not.

The teachers who led the retreat urged us to see that our understanding of “sati” really didn’t need to be limited to “mindfulness.”  It could also be called “heartfulness” or “bodyfulness” because it points towards a collected state where mind, heart, and body touch.  As I was able to drop from the head into that place, I began to perceive the impulses under the thoughts.   I began to perceive energies, not just objects.  This is not an abstract realm.  Children perceive this way and so do animals, sensing the emotional weather around them and all manner of changes, sensing trouble and danger approaching like a storm.

In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, the word for effort is “viriya.”  It comes from a Sanskrit word called “vīrya,“ which literally means “state of a strong man.” In Vedic literature the term is often associated with heroism and virility.  The Buddha expanded the definition to refer to a practitioner’s energy or vigor or persistence or exertion–necessary qualities for liberation.   But the effort required isn’t  necessarily the outwardly effortful  striving way we usually think of it—that’s often a way to run away from our experience, to purge ourselves of what we don’t want to see.  The effort we need to make to awaken is a gentle effort of allowing—and a child’s willingness to be alone.   Can you think of meditation that way?  As a form of serious play?

Here is Rilke again:  “What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours — that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grown-ups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn’t understand a thing about what they were doing. “

Happy spring.

If you live in the area, please consider coming to sit with me on Sunday evenings from 7-9, at Yoga Shivaya in Tarrytown, New York:

10 thoughts on “Playing At Meditation

  1. I love this~ “The attention becomes free to investigate life rather than being an indentured servant of the self, constantly called back to think about what the self thinks about this or that.” I will keep this metaphor in mind. You write beautifully.

  2. I love how you connected the silent retreat with childhood ,Tracy. The true time of musing. As we move through our practice, we begin to drop into , perhaps a deeper honest self( after listening to the same “party line” over and over agian through the sittings) Then without the din of daily life we begin that rich deep listening, (free like the child, without the restraints of the adult ) during the silence of the retreat .According to Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “purposeful solitude” is a sacred place for communion and inquiry. We can really have this anywhere, I suppose . As long as we keep training the mind. Thanks and Spring blessings as the world is “waking up”.

  3. Hi Tracy

    “She actually experienced in its heartbreaking reality the distance between ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing with all one’s soul.’”- Gustave Thibon
    [from Thibon’s introduction to Gravity and Grace, by Simone Weil]

    I don’t believe this is an attribute of a child except those rare ones born with a developing soul.

    The advantage of the child I believe is that they are open to receive the richness of impressions while not clinging to defense mechanisms, preconditioned thought, and emotional responses that replace direct impressions with imagination. However this new experience of rich impressions furthers “forgetting.” and imagination.

    It does seem as you suggest that the facets of the human organism, mind, body, and spirit, can be re-membered. Do we also have a higher part, a seed of the soul, that can also begin to have a vertical remembering of what has been forgotten? Plato refers to this remembering of our higher part as anamnesis. I understand anamnesis as the attraction to the world of forms, a higher level of reality closer to the conscious source. Usually it becomes property of our personality so “knowledge” devolves into “opinion.” We seem to defend opinion through a quality of thought and corresponding emotion that excludes the necessary conscious pondering giving the illusion of objective self importance.

    Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum (I think that I think, therefore I think that I am.) — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

    Remembering for our higher parts seems to require a vertical conscious quality of the thinking function that is not the usual or necessary for ordinary life

    Click to access dusanpajin.pdf

    1. With Plato’s theory of anamnesis (remembrance, recollection) we leave aesthetics and approach epistemology, we part with poetry and drama, and enter philosophy. In the former case, remembering meant keeping in memory what has been told and retold in tradition. With Plato, remembrance and recollection refer to a special faculty and proto-history of the soul, “recollection of the things” (i.e., ideas) formerly seen by our soul when it traveled in the divine company” (Phaedrus, 249 b.). This means that the soul (psyche) has seen and known something before birth, and after birth it has forgotten this knowledge. But, why?

    There are two reasons: one is prenatal and the other postnatal. In The Republic (620) Plato explains in the myth of Er, that before the souls are reborn (incarnated) each has to drink from the River of Forgetfulness (Lethe). As they drink, they forget everything they have seen and known in the world beyond.1

    New oblivion or forgetfulness adds to this after birth……………………………..

    There are those that are attracted to remembering rather than adapting so appear odd to us. You mentioned Guan Yin and I was just pondering an article about Guan Yin that I found meaningful since it draws a distinction between compassion and karuna.

    “It is unfortunate that Buddhism’s most enduring (and universal) contribution to the world has been insufficiently translated as compassion. The original Sanskrit word is ‘karuna,’ which holds within itself traces of the fragment ‘ru,’ meaning to weep. While the Oxford dictionary describes compassion as pity bordering on the merciful, karuna is actually our ability to relate to another in so intense a measure that the plight of the other affects us as much as if it had been our own……………………”

    It is easy for compassion to turn into elitism. The save the world movement is filled with this feeling of superiority. Yet Simone speaks of a compassion I am incapable of. It isn’t a matter of consoling or helping from a position of superiority but being able to be one with another as suggested by karuna. No hearts and flowers here. This is rough.

    “Difficult as it is really to listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for him to know that compassion is listening to him.” ~ Simone Weil

    You’ll appreciate this. As I was reading this article about Kuan Yin, The Compassionate Rebel, I was amazed to read an unintentional description of Simone Weil in it: Some in France call Simone an incarnation of Joan of Arc. Who knows, Simone may eventually be looked upon as a manifestation of Kuan Yin. Anyhow, from the article.

    Additionally in China, not only had popular gods always been real people who had once lived in specific times and places, even mythical figures were turned into historical cultural heroes who were then venerated as the founding fathers of Chinese civilization. Unlike Greece, where human heroes were transformed into Olympian gods, in China the reverse held true and if a god or goddess was not perhaps originally a human being, there was often an effort to turn her or him into one. Kuan Yin thus again had to change from a goddess into a living woman, so that she could be worshipped as a Chinese goddess. Truly, the human character of Chinese deities is one of the most distinctive features of their religion, and like ordinary mortals they too have birthdays, ancestries, careers and titles. Therefore, even though Kuan Yin is not given a date of birth in any of the Buddhist sutras, her birthday is widely celebrated on the nineteenth day of the second month of the lunar calendar.

    The legend describing how Kuan Yin was once a woman gives a fascinating insight into the working of the Chinese genius and the process by which she was given a distinctively local flavor and absorbed into their pantheon:

    It is said that in the past, there once lived a king under whose rule the people led a peaceful existence governed by Confucian ethics. He had three daughters; the eldest two having already married the grooms of their father’s choice. The youngest offspring however, was unlike any other normal child. Firstly, when she was born, her body glowed with an almost unearthly light so much so that the palace seemed on fire. She was thus befittingly named Miao Shan (Wonderful Goodness).

    Secondly, as she grew up, she wore only dirty clothes and never did display any urge to adorn herself. Further, she would subsist on only a single meal every day. In her conversations she would talk about the impermanence of material things and how human beings suffer because of their attachment to such objects. Naturally worried about their daughter’s detached inclinations, her parents proposed that (as per the Confucian ideals of filial piety) she too marry a husband of their choice. To this she replied:

    “I would never, for the sake of one lifetime of enjoyment, plunge into aeons of misery. I have pondered on this matter and deeply detest this earthly union (marriage).” Nevertheless, when her parents insisted, she agreed to comply with their wishes if only her future mate would save her from the following three misfortunes:

    1). When people are young, their face is as fair as the jade-like moon, but when they grow old, the hair turns white and faces become wrinkled; whether walking, resting, sitting, or lying down, they are in every way worse off than when they were young.

    2). Similarly, when our limbs are strong and vigorous one may walk as if flying through air, but when we suddenly becomes sick, we are confined to the bed.

    3). A person may have a large group of relatives and be surrounded by his flesh and blood, but when death comes, even such close kin as father and son cannot take the person’s place.

    Finally she concluded: “If indeed my future husband can ensure my deliverance against these misfortunes, I will gladly marry him. Otherwise, I vow to remain a spinster all my life. People all over the world are mired in these kinds of suffering. If one desires to be free of them, the only option is to leave the secular world and enter the gate of Buddhism.”…………………………………..


    Simone of course didn’t hide away. She was active in the cause of the fallen human condition. But like Kuan Yin, Simone was in the world but not of it with a pure dedication to remembering. She ate little, appeared odd, and was not touched by vanity. Gustave Thibon remarked that when first meeting Simone her oddity made a weak impression. After a while he awakened to her rare inner beauty. This was opposite of his usual experiences where first impressions are attractive but lead to disappointment. It would be the same with Kuan Yin

    “… Every time that I think of the crucifixion of Christ, I commit the sin of envy.” Simone Weil …

    Kuan yin’s sacrifice described in the article almost seems repulsive as does Simone’s envy from our normal egoism. But suppose their appreciation of the emptiness of life in the world is accurate and its meaning must be “remembered”, then they are acting rationally regardless of how it appears to the world.

    One thing for sure. Remembering is a very large idea. It can be pondered on many levels even leading to the possibility of the higher parts of our being actually remembering.

    1. Hi Nick, Rich stuff. But I think of compassion as com-passion, with passion, really being with someone else’s experience.

  4. For those interested in Simone Weil, I just received this email

    I note for anyone in the metropolitan New York area, or for those with friends in the area, that Julia Haslett’s film An Encounter with Simone Weil will be playing in its first public theater venue in New York City. It can be seen at The Quad, 34 W.13th St. (at Sixth Avenue). It is opening this Friday, and will run for a week, with a possibility of an additional week. There are several screenings during the day and evening. Check with the theater for times, or go to the link for the film from
    Here is a link to the Quad. Scroll down to see who will be speaking at various showings:

  5. No wonder I feel so centered when I am with the children in my creative writing course. Their unfettered way of being, minus contrived thought, informs and then uniforms my adult self, allowing me to detach again and be free. Beautiful essay…and thoughtful returned comments.

    1. Thank for this beautiful comment, Britton. Thank you especially for that arresting phrase–to be informed and uniformed…that can happen.

  6. Hi All
    I’d like to post this while it is fresh in my mind.

    I just returned from the Quad theater in Manhattan where I saw “An Encounter with Simone Weil”

    It is well worth experiencing by all here concerned with compassion in the world. Julia’s film is the result of her life experiences that have included a lot of suffering in her family. When a person experiences this and sees it in the world as well, it is reasonable for a sensitive person to ask why from deeper parts of themselves. Somehow she discovered Simone or perhaps Simone found Julia. But that is another matter.

    The movie doesn’t really discuss Simone’s mysticism but centers around her social activism and need to experience the truth of the human condition and why it continues as is. Simone’s compassion was active and on a level difficult to endure for most.

    Simone attracts different types. Normally I would have nothing in common with Michael Moore. Yet “An Encounter with Simone Weil” won Michael Moore’s Special founders Prize Travers City Film Festival 2011. Typical Simone. Thanks Michael Moore. Her being transcends superficial distinctions.

    It is well worth seeing if you are in NY. I think Parabola readers will appreciate it. It raises a lot of worthwhile questions for us all to ponder in relation to our connection with compassion.

    Julia told me that if the movie does well this week in the Quad, it may get extended another week

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