Sitting Like A Child

To paraphrase Walt Whitman:  Do I repeat myself?  Very well, I repeat myself.   I am large.  I contain multitudes…or at least second thoughts and elaborations.  We at Parabola are hard at work, pulling together an issue called Alone and Together (formerly Solitude and Community, but we have already done that in our long life). To that end, I’m expanding on some insights I had at a recent meditation retreat.

I go on retreat braced for solitude.  At first, in my solitary cell of a room, I felt like The Count of Monte Cristo, ripped from what I take to be my rightful life, my work, my talk, all means of communication and entertainment.    I was bereft.  Yet, as the days pass, I find connection and community.   The vow of silence and the solitude of the form frees up all the energy that usually goes to a false self.   My experience and what I took to be myself thawed and warmed as the days passed.  I became more fluid, more like a child.  Never have I been more aware that the simple forms of a meditation retreat can be a means of play, a means of playful, genuine discovery.

On retreat we are not as we are in life, doctors, students, professors, writers, men and women, young and not young.  Here we are fellow beings, seeking peace and freedom.  The teachers tell us the Buddha compared enlightenment to the experience of being forgiven our debts, to having a fever break, to emerging from the wilderness of loneliness and longing.  In the darkness before dawn, we gather together and bow out a new version of the Lord’s Prayer, putting down our separate burdens, seeking forgiveness of debts, asking to receive our daily bread of life, of impressions, without trespassing into future, without turning away or trampling past what is offered here and now.

After bowing, we meditated.  At times, t felt like communion, as if I was receiving the new life that is offered when we engage in the small act of renunciation that is returning to the present moment.   “Heaven and Earth give themselves,” taught the 20th century Japanese Zen master Kodo Sawaki.  “Air, water, plants, animals, and humans give themselves to each other. It is in this giving-themselves-to-each-other that we actually live.”

The Sanskrit and Pali word for enlightenment, “bodhi,” means “awaken.” Over the course of the week, I realized that awakening  is a gradual process and a perpetual practice, not a fixed and final attainment.  It is the slow process of opening like a lens to the radiance at the heart of our real lives, here and now.  It is also the practice of being with life, breathing with it, letting go and receiving.   We are enlightened as we learn to let light in, as we learn to go of longing and receive what is always being offered, always waiting to be received.

“ Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it,” taught Rumi.   In life, I come home to this truth as a last resort, in the midst of the surrender that comes a mishap or failure.   J.K. Rowling once told a Harvard graduating class that failure was the bedrock she built her creative life on, that failure granted her freedom from living up to other peoples’ expectations.  The Buddha’s awakening began with a memory from childhood.  Near death from his efforts and austerities, accepting his failure to attain liberation, he remembered being very young and sitting under a tree watching his father and the men of the village plowing the fields.  He remembered how sweet it was to see and receive life without reaching beyond what was offered.

He realized that enlightenment had to be a kind of child’s play.  He sat down under the bodhi tree and recovered the solitude of childhood.  Confronted by Mara to leave his place, to reach for more, more, more, the Buddha touched the earth, his mother.  Like any good mother, she  gave her child the feeling that he was magically powerful, that nothing bad would happen to him if he sat right there, exploring his true nature.  The retreat teachers encouraged us to see and include all the orphans of our consciousness. I pictured the Buddha confident, calm, and inquiring, fearlessly going on being his undefended self, going on seeing until he was enlightened.

Several days, I served as “practice leader,” sitting up on a stage in front of the sangha during a meditation.  I picked up a cold and as I drew in breath I swallowed my cough drop whole.  I wondered if I would be the first practice leader ever to choke.   Somehow being in this pickle, sitting up there with the big bronze bell, trying not to choke, helped me let go and open up.   We practice enlightenment in the small act of renunciation that is returning to the present moment.    Enlightenment is a process.  Sitting up there with the bell, leading the meditation, I glimpsed there is something that comes through us in spite of our thoughts, our stories.  Sitting up on the stage, I forgot about myself and felt the energy pouring in from my fellow seekers.  I noticed our expectations make a sound and when we surrender all expectations there is a very deep silence.  The question “who am I?” became “why am I here?”   I was not there to be a  someone but a seeker, an opening to a greater light and a stillness that was a search because it needs to be constantly renewed.

The English root of the word “suffer” means to hold.  When we hold our suffering—our striving, our desires, our insecurity– consciously, it can become a liberating energy, a vibrancy that opens inward, revealing deeper truths.

When I go on these silent retreats, I realize that I usually have it upside down.  It isn’t our seeming successes but our failures that are really interesting.  It isn’t when we are full of being someone but when we are no one that we are really useful.   I mean the times when we don’t know what to do, are the times when we are open. Our real strength, wisdom, and compassion are in the broken places.   Those places and those times of not knowing are where the light of that inner radiance can shine through.

The Buddha called this state “dukkha,” which is usually translated as “suffering” but which is closer to “unreliable” or “stressful.” The root of the word means something akin to “dirty wheel,” referring to the gunky oil that builds up in the hub of a wheel making the turning wobbly.  Dukkha has also been compared to the pain that comes from rubbing naked skin on a brick wall.  It may not hurt much at first, but after a time it is a torment. This is the way things it goes, taught the Buddha. Things are not stable and reliable, not really solid.  Nothing goes as smoothly as it does in our thoughts and dreams.  Reality is rough.  “I hate this.”  I think.  “I love this.”  But this grasping and those frozen images of life and self that I carry around is not the same as that more fluid knowing,  that deeper seeing that appears in the solitude of retreat

11 thoughts on “Sitting Like A Child

  1. Once again Tracy, thank you. You have articulated the unfolding of a priceless week. It does go this way and that way, often within minutes.You have matched and expressed my feelings so well, I sent off the piece to some of my associates who ask about an 8 day silent retreat, “why,? what for,? really, no talking?, no journeling?..okay, call me when you’re talking again.” So much investigation and information coming up and through in this spring season following the retreat. let’s keep watching for more growth and transformation.
    best, Judy G

    1. May you experience continuing transformation and growth this spring, Judy. We humans are all very similar, aren’t we? As separate as we can feel. Peace, Tracy

  2. Thomas Merton; once said that we do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another. A writer friend of mine added to this by saying, “we are made for mutuality; loving another is our ultimate destiny as human beings. While our need for human connection may find its fulfillment in an individual or an entire community, what is important is that our spiritual journey is shared with those beyond ourselves.”

    I don’t think any one of us can do this alone, we all need community as much as we need food, water, and air to breathe. A silent meditation is a conspiracy of silence, one where we conspire with and inspire each other together, breathe together as one, dwelling with one another in one breath. The Quakers sit together in such a stillness and silence that captures our imaginations, you can feel it within these words.

    “The first that enters into the place of your meeting. . . turn in thy mind to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were present but the Lord; and here thou art strong. Then the next that comes in, let them in simplicity of heart sit down and turn in to the same light, and wait in the spirit; and so all the rest coming in, in the fear of the Lord, sit down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light . . . . Those who are brought to a pure still waiting upon God in the spirit, are come nearer to the Lord than words are; for God is a spirit, and in the spirit is he worshiped. . . . In such a meeting there will be an unwillingness to part asunder, being ready to say in yourselves, it is good to be here; and this is the end of all words and writings—to bring people to the eternal living Word.”

    Taken from a Quaker invocation written by Alexander Parker, in 1660, quoted from an article that appeared in the Spring 2008 edition of Parabola magazine.

    Listening for the Voice of God: Silence in Quaker Worship – Tom Rothschild

    1. Hi Ron

      I would agree that the majority need community. Yet community without knowing it needs these strange people we can only appreciate as exiles

      “Pity them my children, they are far from home and no one knows them. Let those in quest of God be careful lest appearances deceive them in these people who are peculiar and hard to place; no one rightly knows them but those in whom the same light shines” Meister Eckhart

      Why is it there is this increasing interest in a woman who doesn’t belong in community and never tried to be a part of a community? IMO community does so now because she supplies something community cannot offer through its own means but feels a craving for. I was reading a reply by someone named Steve in a discussion on Julia Haslett’s documentary. He wrote:

      “If you read her works, you must beware – you may fall in love with her as I did.
      You reach out
      from 1943
      and in the holy mirror
      our fingertips touch.”

      This is what happens to some spiritual men I know when first exposed to a woman of intellectual brilliance and emotional purity capable of the courage and need to experientially “understand.” Some are drawn to its value in a world that is not.

      We need community but I believe we need these exiles even more.

    2. We do need others on the path, Ron. We do conspire together–literally breathe together–on silent meditation retreats. Thank you for including this marvelous passage from a 2008 Parabola article on the Quakers. Peace, Tracy

  3. Hi Tracy.

    I’ve never been on a silent retreat but from your description it seems to me that by not indulging in the usual vocal expression, you had to be open to different impressions to compensate.

    It seems that human life should be the process of taking in impressions and expressing their energy into the world

    Modern life has dulled our senses. To make matters worse we are controlled by negative emotions and thoughts that express these emotions. So our lives seem to be the socially acceptable process of taking in limited impressions and the expressions of negative emotion.

    Gurdjieff taught the value of the non-expression of negative emotions. Experience them without expressing them. Did silence offer you the possibility to try that.

    1. Silence–even just the silence of a brief meditation–does grant you the space to not express negative emotions. Surprising, what you can find when you try that. Now, if I could only manage to practice it more in the thick of life.

      1. I know you know it Tracy but I feel I must add this for those reading my last post.

        When I wrote of the non-expression of negative emotions, I wsn’t referring to suppression but rather consciously experiencing them without expression.

        It is hard but I’ve done this for short periods. The experience of the difference between anger within me as opposed to my being angry and suppressing it has been very enlightening.

        I have come to beleieve that where suppression can be psychologically damaging, the conscious experience of non-expression of negative emotions can be very beneficial.

      2. A very important point, Nick. We don’t mean suppression of negative or painful emotions–we mean not acting out. Suppression can be damaging but feeling them without being owned by them can be liberating. So important that I’m going to try to post about it this morning.

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