In the depths of February, I spent a week at a Buddhist retreat center in the wilds of Massachusetts. For a week, I practiced solitude in the company of others. For a week, I was a nun. I vowed to be silent and practice the gentle act of renunciation that is mindfulness. Withdrawing from the world of grasping, I gave my attention to the present moment, receiving what is given without judgment or fear. This was not the solitude of Jesus in the desert or in the garden on the night before he died. This was not the solitude of the Buddha sitting under tree on the night before his enlightenment. In different ways, both of those beings were seeking something new, something unknown by other humans. I practiced the solitude of childhood.
In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, “sati” or mindfulness literally means to remember. I went on retreat to remember. For months before I went away, on the train or on the phone or on the laptop, I longed for something I longed to away somewhere where I could remember something I had forgotten. During the first meditation, I realized I didn’t really want to be elsewhere, but here, really here. In the stillness of the meditation hall I remembered suddenly and with great force that the kingdom of heaven was within.
I went on retreat because I wanted to remember what it was like to be inside myself as well as without, to have my life be my life. I went away to sink down under the layers of my conditioning, my rusty, clanking armor, and touch the unconditioned. I was glad not to speak because it suddenly seemed to me that most , no all, of the words I spoke were lies, all tethered to memories and images, bits of things I saw and read, all of it in the past, none of it connected to life. On retreat, I had the kinds of impression that kids take in all the time–the impressions that bubble up from the depths of stillness.
Here is a fragment of a letter Rilke wrote to a young poet, urging him not to try to be a busy, successful adult:
“And when you realize that their 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….”
Jesus taught his followers to be like children. The Buddha built his enlightenment on a memory from childhood. Separated from his fellow ascetics, the Buddha lay alone near a river, broken and despairing, too weak to stand from years his fasting and self mortification. Like any ordinary human, he took in the dismal facts of his situation and declared himself a failure. He gave up utterly. An in that magic clearing that can appear when we give up all hope, all grasping, there appeared a memory from childhood. He remembered being a young child, sitting alone under a tree, watching a plowing festival. As the legend goes, his nannies (he was a prince so he probably had several) thought he was asleep so they went off a little ways to watch the festivities.
Realizing he was alone, the little Buddha sat up. He was in seclusion in the liberating way that children can be in seclusion. Do you remember? I remember being a spy in deep and secret communion with animals and with the whole of life. According to some versions of the legend, the child who would awaken saw some insects whose homes were being torn up by the plowing. He felt a burst of compassion, secluded yet connected to life, limited, particular yet unlimited, unbound by the need to plow the fields or pay the mortgage or put food on the table. This is solitude of retreat. This is the platform or attitude—present yet withdrawn, attention inside and outside at the same time—the Buddha used to reach full awakening. It wasn’t a peaceful night, heaven knows–he had to fend off the armies of Mara—he was a warrior. But he didn’t suit up in armor and zap Mara with weapons of mass destruction or withering cynicism or educated scorn. But he defeated the devil of temptation and fear grounded (he literally touched the earth) in childlike solitude.
I remember being a child on a Good Friday many years ago. It was a beautiful spring day, and I was lying outside in the grass, near a stand of lilac bushes (children like to stay grounded). Who knows why, but I was singing “Thumbelina,” a big hit of the time. My mother called me to come in the house and be still because it a very solemn time and I shouldn’t be outside singing. Reluctantly, I went in and sat on the couch, not at all sure what I was supposed to be doing. My mother wasn’t much for explanations, and I realize now that can be a blessing. I had to practice a child’s not-knowing, wondering what was going on thousands of years ago that was supposed to be so dramatic and special and grave. Dimly, I remember what it was like to aware of being small and facing the unknown.
Now I realize that Jesus was in the most profound solitude, facing the darkness of the unknown. I wonder if helped him, remembering what is was like to be a child.
6 thoughts on “Good Friday”
What a beautiful post, thank you for sharing it, Tracy. As you know, I share your childhood memory of being a spy in nature, communing with the animals and the trees, and am happy to be reminded of that on this beautiful morning. I will try to find my way back today, even if it has to be via the lower east side.
Have a wonderful Easter.
Thank you, Celia. I lived on 6th Street and Avenue A for years. Often, walking around the Lower East Side, I would have the feeling of being a child–or of remembering a wish I had as a child. Strange as it sounds, I think I always wanted to grow up and live in a really creative, wild, bad neighborhood (it was then…drumming at night, fires in trash cans)….I wanted to draw close to fire of life, life in its wild state, close to possibility. It’s like I sensed that people in places like that could hide a secret purity and intensity–they could be spies, seeking their own ways to beauty and meaning a new life.
As you are, in your studio.
Happy Easter, Celia!
You gave me goose bumps reading this piece, another way to say this, is that it is a “quickening of the flesh,” or even “a quickening of the spirit.” I like that one better I think. It is closer to the truth.
This is a holy time, a Holy Week, for most Christians around the world, but what do we mean by holy? I would say that holiness is simply a return to wholeness within the self. Ultimately this is the message of Easter, resurrection, renewal, redemption, rebirth.
It is a message of unity and union with the Divine Mystery. I prefer this mystery over the absolute if that makes sense. I can live an play within the mystery, rejoice in it even. Where with the absolute I feel more judged than loved and forgiven, if that makes any kind of sense to anyone. If I may please, I’d like to share the following lines, which will more appropriate on Sunday morning than today. But, today is today, this is the moment when it has come to mind. It’s an Easter poem about Mary Magdalene going to the tomb early that morning, one I wrote a few years ago. You might call her the first disciple among all of them, certainly the first to know and to the first to proclaim the resurrection of Christ. She’s a fascinating and important part of the Easter story. Peace – Ron
On the Third Morning – John 20: 1-18 & Luke 24:1-12
On the third morning
The women came first,
Somehow knowing in their wisdom
As women often do!
Anxious with sorrow,
Walking in the stillness of night
Just Before dawn
And the movement of day.
Looking for their Lord.
Where they found the stone turned,
Rolled from His tomb.
Their Lord’s body gone,
Two disciples came later, to learn
That this was more than an “idle tale,”
Of women, unbelieved.
When entering the tomb, they too saw
The linens that once wrapped His body,
Lying where he was laid. Then
Returned home in amazement,
Not recalling the scriptures
Or the words of Jesus,
Even the one whom he most loved.
While Mary stayed, weeping outside, to
See angels sitting in the tomb
Where once her Lord’s body lay.
Jesus speaks, calling Mary by name after asking;
“Woman, why do you weep?
Whom do you seek?
The living are not
Among the dead.”
She sees him now, Rabbouni, her teacher,
Moving to embrace him, at last knowing his face and voice.
He says; “Hold me not, for I must ascend to my Father.
Go, and tell my brothers, what you have seen and heard.”
He has Risen, He has Risen!
He has risen from the places of the dead and dying,
He has risen from the solitude of the tomb.
He has Risen, to his Father and our Father.
He has Risen, to his God and our God.
Hallelujah, Christ is Risen!
Let us rise as well, above the noises and distractions of life
to understand that God calls us too to death and resurrection.
Calling us to die immeasurable times;
To die daily in ourselves.
Let there be a death to our egos and selfishness,
A death to our poverty of spirit and faithlessness,
A death to doubt, hopelessness, and sorrow,
A death to grief where grief can no longer be borne,
A death to intolerance and “the wish to kill,”
A death to violence and war, and fearful hearts,
A death to abused and unloved hearts.
Let there be a death to it all!
Let the illusion and suffering of life be washed away
by the Passion of Christ, creating in us the mind of Christ!
So that we me may join with Him
In many Resurrections,
Let there be Resurrections upon Resurrections
One after another and another,
Let there be Resurrections without end.
I just came across this description of the women who were directly involved in the burial or who discovered the empty tomb following the resurrection of Jesus, the Myrrhbearers. If you follow this link, you will see why it captured my imagination. It may capture your’s as well. Peace – Ron
Thank you, Ron. May you be embraced by Mystery this Easter. Peace, Tracy
“Now I realize that Jesus was in the most profound solitude, facing the darkness of the unknown. I wonder if helped him, remembering what is was like to be a child.”
I doubt it. I’ve come to believe that the Crucifixion was a conscious drama. This means that Jesus experienced the event consciously. He created the void between the world’s denial manifesting within him and the will to consciously experience it from a conscious perspective . It was through this effort and the void created that the Holy spirit could enable the Resurrection.
A child has no need for this. They are open to receive impressions until burdened with conditioned pre-conceptions. They have no need yet to be aware that they are aware. Conscious attention is only available for the few who are open to its impartial objective value.
Jesus experienced NOW. There was no reason to seek consolation in remembering the past.