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.