Last time, I wrote about practice as a way of return, of recollection, of remembering—coming down out of our thoughts and memories and dreams to experience of being in a living, breathing body here and now. I wrote about how this movement of return can feel like a last resort, something we turn to when all our thinking and distractions fail.
This week the universe taught me a deeper lesson. On Saturday, I taught a meditation workshop at New York Insight in Manhattan. A wonderful big group turned out and it was a wonderful experience. Afterwards, I practically sprinted to Grand Central Station (and those of you who know me well enough to know that my childhood nickname was “Pokey” know how rare an event this is). I was so happy! I felt so blessed to be able to share the wonderful art of meditation, the art of return, to a big, diverse group of people. I felt with life, in perfect agreement with it.
I took my seat on Metro North, and realized I had been pickpocketed! The envelope with all the money that had come to me in that beautiful spirit of dana was gone! In an instant I felt bereft. The city had been beautiful and full of light and now it was all in darkness. Hurt battled with rage and even embarrassment. Decades before, I had been pick pocketed (twice) which spurred me to write a story for New York Magazine about pickpockets that involved following around a N.Y.P.D. pickpocket squad. I felt like a friend’s mother who once shouted on a subway after she discovered she was robbed: “I’m a life long New Yorker!” As though only tourists deserve to be robbed.
Then hurt and self-pity took over. All that effort, only to have the dana snatched from me! I began to tell my story about how unfair it was, how cursed I was….Wait…what was I say to myself? The awareness seeped in that I had been teaching all day—all week—about the way spiritual practice allows you to be with life as it arises, about the way it allows you to find a freedom and happiness that isn’t welded to what is happening.
Practice opens up the space between stimulus and response—from the minute level of the stimulus that is constantly streaming in, car horns, sirens, indigestion to the macro level of robberies, floods, Academy Award nominations or bad reviews. The movement of return, of recollection, of breathing and sensation helps us remember that we have a choice. I realized that I couldn’t change what happened—life is quite surprising, in spite of our best efforts. Yet I didn’t have to go into a story about it. I could choose not to believe I was cursed or assign blame or any of the rest of it I did not have to make an identity out of it. I could simply relate to it as something that happened. Before it happened, I had been soaring along, with life. Was I not still with life?
Whoosh, in flowed a vibrancy and light and freedom. I saw that things happen. I once had the strangely unique experience of having my wallet stolen during a Family Week at the Insight Meditation Society. Reporting the theft to a State Trooper back home so I could get a new driver’s license, I mused to him that what was strange was that the theft happened at a place where nothing bad ever happened. He looked at me as if I had just dropped in from Mars. Good and bad things happen everywhere. Life goes up and down. The gift of spiritual practice is that our deeper peace and happiness, our sense of connectedness to a greater whole, doesn’t depend on what happens. It gives us a capacity to open to a deeper truth, a greater whole.
Later, I looked up the word “bereft,” and discovered it comes from a root that literally means to be robbed or have something snatched from you–not just money or property but deeper qualities like dignity, freedom, happiness. This is what injustice feels like, I realized. This is what many beings feel every day. Bereft. I also realized that the feeling among the group of us—the feeling of mutual dana or generosity—could not be stolen. This is not hippy delusion. If we are a little bit more free inside, we can see more.
When something shocking or upsetting happens, when loss or blame –or wild good fortune happens—where do you turn? If you are like me, there are favorite stories you can slip into like old sweaters, cozy but ugly, stories about being unlucky or unloved or cursed. And what is it like not to put on the sweater of failure? What would it be like to dwell in the space between praise and blame, stimulus and response. To listen to the silence instead of the old stories?