During the first meditation of my silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, I realized I didn’t really want to be away. For months–on the train, on the street in New York, on the iPhone, the iPad– caught up in “I”—I longed to be cloistered away in silence for a week, in the wilds of Massachusetts in the depths of February. Yet in the candlelit meditation hall, I realized that I never really wanted to be elsewhere, just here, fully here, inside my own life. My deepest longing was not to go out but to sink down under the layers of conditioning, to touch the unconditioned. I remembered suddenly and with great force that the kingdom of heaven was within.
“Sati,” the word for mindfulness in Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, means to remember. Sitting before a statue of the Buddha shipped to New England from Asia, surrounded by others who had travelled great distances to practice silence and simplicity, I “re-membered” or “re-collected” disparate parts of myself. And up rose that phrase from my Protestant American childhood.
“In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest in the same way,” wrote Dag Hammarskjold in his spiritual journal Markings. “Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each man a cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. The life of simplicity is simple….” Walking in the midtown of Manhattan, near where Hammarskjold lived and worked as Secretary General of the United Nations, I pictured the great peacemaker finding that stillness in the midst of crisis.
Have you ever noticed we tend to find this point of rest in the grip of big trouble? Losing a job and not knowing what will come next, the shocking death of a loved one, a grim diagnosis–peace can descend in the wake of such news like grace. We can glimpse that there is a force of love and compassion that shines on everything equally, the way the sun shines. Everything was reevealed to be marvelous– every tree and person equally evidence of the mystery of life. And everything glowed with that light, nothing was separate from it, not even I. But that was a glimpse, and the price had been.
“Do everything with a mind that lets go,” taught Ajahn Chah, a great Buddhist teacher in the Thai Forest Tradition, a founder of Theravada Buddhism in the West. “Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else. If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.”
To paraphrase Mao, spiritual power can come with the barrel of a gun. But does it have to take so much? Certainly a little urgency helps. As Samuel Johnson famously said, knowing you are to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully well. I lived in New York in the wild and wooly 70’s and 80’s, when brushes with death and squalor were all but inevitable for adventurous souls. Ajahn Chah wandered alone through Asian forests where he could be eaten by tigers or heaven knows what. I walked alone in Hell’s Kitchen late at night. There is no comparison between the saintly monk and I–except our basic humanity and our common need to learn to let go completely. According to accounts I have read, the great humble Buddhist teacher found it. How is an open question for me, how to bring the intensity of impending death into a peaceful moment, into the being with the breath and what it is arising. How can we die in each moment?