“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. “
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: yogashivaya.com.