What Can Happen When We’re Still

The Freedom Tower was the last place I wanted to go.  For me, years of words and posturing and war had stolen over the place. As my young friend and I walked towards it, I secretly feared that we would get caught in a negative force field that would keep us from anything real. And my young friend from India was so open and she was only going to be in Manhattan for a day.  But she wanted to visit and walk there, so we left the warm café. She explained that she didn’t get to walk like a New Yorker in Delhi, striding along fast and free, everyone going everywhere without fear, or so it seemed.

“You don’t need Google Earth to find the way?” I explained there was no need. The tower was 1776 feet high in honor of the Declaration of Independence, and soon we would see it looming up in the distance, guiding us downtown, the same way the Trade Towers were landmarks. It was so disorienting when they were gone. “We were all so scared when it happened,” she said simply. “We thought that it happened here it could happen to us.” And it did happen there, in Mumbai in 2008.

Naturally, my experience of the place was nothing like my thoughts and fears about the place. We lingered at the National September 11 Memorial, watching the water spill down into the two huge fountain pools the fill the footprints of the twin towers. The pools themselves are dark and still and seemingly bottomless, so that it feels as if the water is spilling down into mystery, into stillness. We stand still for a time. “Now they are all together,” says Gitanjali, opening her fingers in a gesture of release. I think of something I heard at the Gandhi Ashram, where I first met her. As we learn to practice selflessness, we become empty in a way that is full of life. “We go from emptiness to oneness.”

When we sit down to meditate sometimes, we can be afraid of what we will feel. We can get caught up in a force field of thinking and inner posturing and reactivity. It can feel as if our ego is defending us to the death.   I once heard that karma literally means deed or action, and sometimes it’s easy to see this—there can be a big sense of urgency, a panicky sense that we need to do something—anything—to get off the spot.   We think important thoughts, engage in impassioned inner arguments, we picture ourselves engaged in urgent tasks. What is it we so desperately don’t want to feel? Vulnerable, perhaps, or helpless or unseen or something without words.

Yet when we dare to be still and let the feelings come, even if we fear they will pounce on us like panthers, we find something surprising.   Karma means movement, and sometimes it’s easy to see that we are almost always in movement—almost always moving away from what is, always planning, improving, even trying to make what is stay.   When we dare to be still, we stop our karma. What does this mean? It means we aren’t sentenced to live out the same old thoughts and fears. We discover that there is a force of love and compassion comes with feeling the pain we fear in the same way a hand flies up to cradle a bumped head. And we discover that things are not as we fear, that we are not alone, that awareness and stillness and compassion are not just a words but forces, that we are held.

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