Boats Against the Tide

It never stops being wondrous and strange. Your brain can be boiling, your heart breaking, your fate like being wrapped and locked in chains. And then you sit down, give up thinking and straining and striving, just being with the breath and the sensation of sitting there—and you discover who we were truly meant to be. Often, you do this as a last resort, when you don’t know what else to do, when you are too tired and heartsick at the way everything is going to do anything but sit quietly.

From the outside it can look as if we are just sitting there with eyes shut, as if we are zoning out, dropping out. But we’re actually dropping into life. It turns out that this body that can seem so limited and problematic, so subject to moods and illness and not looking good in clothes, can be our best friend in the whole world. It can be our anchor to the present moment, our living, breathing connection to life outside of our heads. It turns out that sitting down and breathing is a way to open up to the cosmos.

True, it takes a while for the dust to settle. You can be afraid to sit down and watch the breath and stop thinking because of all the suffering that you fear might be waiting to overtake you. This suffering can be small like a fear of restlessness or boredom—or big like a tidal wave of grief or a tribunal of judgments about all the good that was left undone and the harsh words and sloth and internet shopping that was done instead.

At first, the prospect of sitting down and being still can be like one of those movies where the hero is injected with a drug that induces her worst nightmares…until she realizes that her fears are just thoughts. As Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.”    If you sit through this, hero that you were born to be, the fears and nagging or hectoring thoughts will evaporate like mist and you will bloom and come alive.

Yet when we first start to meditate (and for a long time) all you notice is how strong the pull is to not be here.  The good news is that this tendency is not just your bad habit. Brain science reveals that when we are not turning towards present time experience we slip into the “default network” – a deep, comfortable groove made up of thoughts, images, memories from the past. We amble through this loop and apply material from the past to everything we meet. Weird but true: the desires that drive us are rooted in past thoughts, memories, impressions—and this is true not just of us but of our whole culture, including our greatest art.

In The Great Gatsby, by some accounts the great American novel, Jay Gatsby is driven his whole life by the dream of attaining Daisy, whom he first glimpsed as a young woman sitting on the porch of her beautiful house. He was young and poor and insecure and he was “overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.”

Gatsby struggled his whole life to be someone who could walk up on that porch, “he did not know it was already behind him.” Fitzgerald portrayed a man dauntless and determined and optimistic –“ tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning….”   But the great author knew that his Gatsby and all of us can never quite catch the objects of our desire because they are rooted in the past, impressions stored in the default network: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

The good news is that we stop and sit down and return our attention to our old friend the body (never above the hot struggles of the poor). We can remember the breath. For moments at a time, we can wake up.

4 thoughts on “Boats Against the Tide

  1. Thank you, Tracy Cochran, for sharing your wisdom and insights. I am sitting here at my computer, in a different inner
    state after reading this blog. Its so good to be reminded and to
    be led across the bridge to relaxation, awareness of breath and warm feeling toward life in my heart. Four minutes ago the strongest sensation was of being tied in knots trying to run fast enough to keep up will all that I was telling myself I needed to do.
    Now, I am just resting peacefully, giving thanks for this connection.
    Breathing in, wisdom, Breathing out, calm………Blessings to you

  2. Your postings are like a compass that helps us to get our bearings in the sometimes confusing jumble of our lives.
    By taking a conscious breath, our shoulders drop, our jaw relaxes, our thoughts stop chasing around like scattered leaves. A space opens inside. At that point we can choose to go back into thought and shut down, or we can welcome whatever arises, which is often resistance pretending to be something else that we really should be doing.
    As Henri Nouwen suggests, when we allow our suffering into our hearts, it washes through us like a tide, and we find peace.
    Why is it so hard to do this when it works every time! Almost.

  3. Traci,
    Thank you for your posting. I truly believe that we find strength in the breath…and an awareness of a Peace beyond our understanding..i also enjoyed the comments

  4. The Buddha left one symbol; the Bodhi Tree. Budda also left one practice; anapana. A primary Sufic view relates that all strength of the breath is paradoxical. The one great strength of the breath being like the strength of the soul; it has no strength of its own. In the body, breath is in proper relationship to the whole body, working the way it was meant to work; that is, it works ceaselessly and selflessly to give, to feed the whole body, to nourish the blood. Obviously the breath serves a higher purpose. In this sense, breath is in submission to ‘what is’, making breath, the perfect servant of the body; the perfect guide for all of us lost sheep. Rumi explains:

    The sound of the reed comes from fire, not wind
    What use is one’s life without this fire?
    It is the fire of love that brings music to the reed.
    It is the ferment of love that gives taste to the wine.
    The song of the reed soothes the pain of lost love.
    Its melody sweeps the veils from the heart.
    Can there be a poison so bitter or a sugar so sweet
    As the song of the reed?
    To hear the song of the reed
    everything you have ever known must be left behind.

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