The true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but is one who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect to anticipate the words that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and, when he is “answered,” it is not so much by a world that bursts into his silence. It is by silence itself, suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a world of great power, full of the voice of God.
–Thomas Merton, “Dialogues with Silence,” (and quoted in the “Silence” issue of Parabola, which is available in our online store).
Answers come in the silence. But this also means being quiet inside, so that the sensation of being present is allowed to blossom into a special kind of feeling—a feeling of being on this earth. I like to walk outside early whenever I can. This can be difficult, especially in the winter (and in the grey months before and after winter). Often I am absorbed in my own thoughts, my own misery, trudging along, for a long time. Yet there comes a moment when it dawns on me that I am outside. I suddenly realize how different it feels to be outside rather than to inside, to be exposed to the air and sky, to be in a big world instead of my own world.
A feeling of gratitude can arise, a feeling that I am being given a chance to be out in nature (and this feeling is not dependent on living outside of cities, I felt it equally walking early in Brooklyn, witnessing the life of the city, human nature, waking up). Sometimes a more delicate feeling arises—a fleeting sense that it doesn’t matter if I’m bad at life (which is often what I start out thinking about) because we aren’t here to be successful but to be receptive. It dawns on me for a moment that there is a higher Truth, and that I might be part of it.
There is a quality of feeling that is different than our ordinary emotional reactions, different from registering everything that touches us in relation to ourselves, as pleasant, unpleasant, neutral. As my friend and Parabola cohort Lee Van Laer recently wrote in a blog post (remembering our mutual teacher Paul Reynard) there is a kind of feeling that is actually a means of perceiving of perceiving something true and fine. This feeling, which flowers from the sensation of being here, perceives and draws us towards the good.
This wish or longing, this special feeling for to the good is our way of aligning with a Truth that cannot be thought. Sitting or praying can lead to the same feeling. The sensation in the body of being here can flower in that special feeling which allows us to perceive the goodness in life (no matter what).
I remember being taken skiing at a local sky hill one afternoon when I was a child. All morning, I played indoors, playing fantasy games that revolved around my incredible powers–as a mind-reader of animals, a teleporting sorceress, an international spy. And then I was outside in the cold, riding a chair lift, swooshing downhill. I loved the solitude built in to the act of skiing, the way it allowed me to be alone with the mountain (or hill). Even though I followed a trail many before me had followed, I had to carve it anew. I had to make my own way. I used to love to rest on my ski poles on top of the hill. I loved looking down, savoring the feeling of being outdoors in a big world. It would have the feeling that there were things to be known, efforts to be made—that being in this big world asks something of us. Sometimes, there would be that brief pang of a feeling…a love and wish to align myself with the good.