“At difficult times in my writing life, I tell myself certain stories to remind myself of things I mustn’t forget, information which can only be encoded in story form or it won’t get where it’s going,” writes the great Latina writer Julia Alvarez in an essay written for the latest issue of Parabola. “That place I used to call the heart, and which I now call my soul, the heart you earn as you grow older.”
I always associated the soul with the awareness–the implicit understanding–that dwells in body, so I feels very right to me that the story Alvarez writes of turning to for guidance is that of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades:
“It is a story of death, and rebirth in a life and on earth. Young Persephone is carried away by Hades, the king of the underworld; her mother, Demeter, goddess of agriculture and the earth’s fertility, is bereft. In a fury of self-destructiveness, she punishes her own kingdom with plagues and droughts. Plants, creatures, humans begin to die off. Alarmed, the king of the gods, Zeus, orders that Persephone be returned, provided she hasn’t eaten anything in the underworld. But to ensure her stay, Hades has tricked Persephone into eating seven pomegranate seeds. Zeus’s compromise: Persephone will spend spring and summer and fall with her mother on earth and then descend to the underworld to be with her husband for the rest of the year.”
Alvarez writes of those times when the “beginner’s mind” of Persephone is not enough. At times we must be as bereft as Demeter, even as dark as Hades. Alvarez writes about being a writer. But I find that the great myth of Demeter descending into the underworld applies to spiritual practice as well. To know reality– to be free–we die to thought and descend into the underworld of the body.
Bucking against a powerful inclination to be cozy and bask in the glow of one screen or another, I went out to meditate at the local sangha of my friend and mentor, Gina Sharpe, one cold night last week. There had been no sangha for weeks due to the power outages and other havoc caused by the great storm. Entering the little yoga studio was like entering a sheltering cave. I sat down on my zafu full of thought, consumed by the looming prospect of loss, of my father, of a dear friend, of certain illusions. As the quiet of meditation deepened, I kept thinking, feeling like a ghost, hovering above the ground of my own being.
It sparked my curiosity, to see how much I wanted to stay up in the attic, hovering above full embodiment, but I knew it had to do with the fear of going under, of losing control. In her book My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor explains that the natural life span of an emotion—the time it takes to sweep through the body—is only a minute and a half. After that, repeating thoughts keep the emotion alive. In the face of loss, we tend to go over and over old ground, as if we could make life stay.
In the Buddha’s great teaching on the practice of meditation, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the second foundation is feeling. It is known in Pali as vedana, which is derived from a verb which means both “to feel” and “to know.” (Not to geek out on words too much, but think of the ancient Sanskrit word veda, as in Rig Veda, a way of knowing that must also be felt). Vedana comprises both bodily feelings and mental feelings, but it is not emotion as we usually think of it. Feeling tone is the instantaneous valuation we stamp on the basic physical experience of being alive that wafts in through the sense doors. Without even noticing it, we judge every sensation, sound, and sight that touches us pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
When I was able to bring my attention to this curious tendency, this need to stamp the constantly changing flow of our experience with a personal value judgment, I discovered something extraordinary: What we think we experience is not our true moment-by-moment flow of experience. Within states we call “sadness” or “happiness” there are shimmering beats of pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, air on the skin. There is a whole world of experience that opens up when we just sit and breathe.
I felt like Demeter, abandoning the surface of life, the known world of thought, to descend into the underworld of the body. I was seeking the lost child of my own experience. To put it in contemporary terms: science is seeking to find ways to measure the difference between subconscious versus conscious knowing, implicit versus explicit knowing. As we open to the unconscious via meditation and prayer, a vast field of knowing opens. May we learn to let go and receive the gifts that are constantly being offered.