Stepping Off the Wheel

Spinning RideThe thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways
with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.
As the shadow follows the body,
As we think, so we become.

—Guatama Buddha, Dhammapada


For a time when I was a teenager, I loved to go on the rides at the Jefferson County Fair.  I wasn’t yet old enough to realize a person could die on those rides—not just from mechanical failure of the rides but from the stress of the experience (from physical mechanical failure, if you will).  I remember one ride in particular.  You stood in a designated slot in a giant wheel.  The ride held many people, all shapes and sizes, smiling self-consciously across at each other as the slots filled up, as we were strapped in and shown how to grip the hand bars. 

Everyone tended to pull back into themselves as the ride began to turn…then lift…then tilt.  The ride turned faster and faster and lifted higher and tilted more steeply until we were spinning like a tilted ferris wheel, all of us held in place by centrifugal force.  I remember trying to lift my head, amazed at the force of it.

Our thoughts are like this, and at times we sense it.  Life will dish up a big shock and suddenly we realize that we are spending our time our life force inside a centrifugal wheel of thought, word, habit.  It may dawn on us for a moment or two that it doesn’t have to be this way.  We realize that if we learn to have the kind awareness we have when something shocking happens–the kind of awareness that takes in the whole room and our own beating heart.  We realizad if we could a certain willingness to be aware like that voluntarily we might be able to step off the wheel…at least now and then.

I loved it when that ride stopped.  I loved feeling what it was like to stop whirling, to be free from the force that held me, to be step off the wheel and touch the earth.  This is the simplest and probably most useful definition of meditation.  You sit still for a time and touch the earth.  You peel yourself away from the wheel for a time by being still, by anchoring the attention to the sensation of being in a body, breathing and sitting on the earth (and even if you are in an apartment building in a big city your are ultimately sitting on the earth).

This is a very small act but it can change the course of your life.  And remember, it is possible to spend days, years, a whole life time on the wheel.  The critic Harold Bloom describes the terrible power of the great villain Macbeth’s imagination (since I’ve been in a Shakespeare mood): “He scarcely is conscious of an ambition, desire, or wish before he sees himself on the other side or shore, already having performed the crime that equivocally fulfills ambition. “

We are all a bit like that, strapped to a great wheel of desire and fear and longing, propelled along a certain course by centrifugal force.  Great villain that he was, Macbeth was also famous for lacking a confidence and will—everything just kept happening and happening until his life was over.

But we can change our lives by doing this very small thing as often as we can—sitting down and taking a few conscious breaths. “Sati,” the Pali word for mindfulness means to remember.  For a little bit of time every day, we can sit down (or lie down) and remember we are here, in a body…on the earth…breathing.

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