“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves,” wrote Thoreau. I think Thoreau was speaking of that descent from our heads into the center of our beings. At the first shock of loss, we are bereft, shipwrecked. We search for something of value to guide us or to hold on to and come up nothing but shabby and broken things–shards of memory, old wounds may come alive and old selves come wafting out of their graves like ghosts. But as we dive down into the wreck, down through layers of habitual postures, lost cultures and worlds, we may find our way to a stillness that is also a listening and a seeing.
Slowly we remember that we secretly knew there was more to life than thought and habit. Slowly we realize that what we need is not a striving but a quieting and letting. An attention appears that does not take sides or make demands—that is not eager to possess anything, just wishing to know. “Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer is impossible and your heart has turned to stone,” wrote Thomas Merton (who was an orphan in an English boarding school, who knew what it is to be lost).
We understand who we really are when we descend center of ourselves—when we don’t rush to identify with any habitual attitude or posture, just see and listen in the calm eye in the center of storm of our lives: “The question we need to ask ourselves is whether there is any place we can stand in ourselves where we can look at all that’s happening around us without freaking out, where we can be quiet enough to hear our predicament, and where we can begin to find ways of acting that are at least not contributing to further destabilization,” writes Ram Dass.
In my last post, I wrote about meeting Ram Dass. He told me that the stroke—and his times of being lost—acted on him like sandpaper. “Coarse or fine sandpaper?” I asked. He laughed and said both kinds. I realized that he meant that life wears you down, scratches the paint off, but it can also polish and refine you, taking away what is false, leaving something real. Ram Dass had to deal with being lost. Along the way, he was dismissed as a failure and a fool and a fraud (he was called “Rum Dum” in the press). But all the while there was another process going on (at times—in all of us, this happens in moments)—a descent into the center of himself. The ambitious academic gave way to a kind of holy child who wished to penetrate to that still place in the center of our being.
I asked him if he had any inkling when he was young that he would have such a life. “Years ago, I had a dream,” he told me. “I was in a huge amphitheater full of people all in white. There was a woman on the dais. I was standing in the back and somebody was guiding me by the elbow. The woman saw me and said, ‘Take him out, he isn’t ready.’”
“This stroke is an ego drag,” he told me. “But for soul, it got me into that room.”
We all meet in that still place.
If you happen to be in the area, consider joining me at Yoga Shivaya, in Tarrytown, New York, this Sunday, May 13, from 7 to 9 pm. We will practice the stillness of meditation together, then listen (and see!) the harmonic chant of singer, composer, and new Parabola music editor David Hykes, which renowned violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin has called “the music of the spheres.” For directions contact Yogashivaya.com. (This event is offered without charge to all mothers and those who have or had mothers, and offerings are happily accepted).