Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

One night at New York Insight, a meditation center in downtown Manhattan, I taught meditation in the midst of a protest against injustice.   I taught people to take their seats, spines straight, feet planted firmly on the ground, affirming their right to take up space in the world, all the while people in the streets below were chanting and shouting for justice. We sat still as more and more news and police helicopters showed up, hovering low like huge mechanical hawks, tracking the protesters who marched up Fifth Avenue from Union Square.

Whup, whup, whup, the predatory sound of the choppers was louder than the big bell that called us to mindfulness.   I told my students that taking time to be still does not mean inaction. We must all do all we can to end injustice in all forms. Being still is learning to listen and see and sense inside as well as outside so that we can hear and see and act in a way that helps instead of merely reacting.

In the midst of the shouts and the sirens and (most loudly) the whupping of the overseer helicopters grew louder and louder, we sat. This is not because we didn’t care, but because we need to know how to care.

Mindfulness meditation is a way to remember our own deepest values—re-connecting us with sensations and feelings that get drowned out in all our thinking. and business. Sitting is a way to ground ourselves in a sense of the basic goodness of life, a way of remembering our own innate responsiveness or compassion.

“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence, we could rise up rooted, like trees, wrote the poet Rilke. Faced by images of terrible armies conjured by the devil Mara, the Buddha reached down and touched the earth, rooting himself in the knowing that most children have: we belong to life. We are more alike than different.

Great change begins by going back to the beginning, forgetting what we thought we knew as adults, uncovering what is essential. Returning to where we started, we remember that there is a responsiveness in us that is as natural breathing. As children, we know how to take in impressions, understanding that imagination wasn’t just entertainment and distraction but a way of understanding what is happening. J.K . Rowling famously said that imagination “is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

In times when you don’t know what to do, times that call for action, first sit down, be still, remember.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

  1. I am often blessed by Tracy Cochran’s reflections, yet this one brings up some thoughts I’d like to share. What does it mean to be still and ground in the body when your body is a target of state sanctioned violence? When it is your body that bears impact and trauma of daily interaction with systemic racism embedded into the institutions of this society? What does it mean to ground in the breath that is denied so many brothers and sisters? The protesters in the streets right now are affirming the sacredness of Black Lives in a society that desecrates them time and time again. By taking to the streets, they are affirming our right to take up space in the world in the midst of daily violence. What is non-resistance when, as Zora Neale Hurston poignantly wrote, “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” At what point does silently bearing witness become complicity? How did these teachings get carried by practitioners off the mat that night, as they walked among the protesters, past them, likely toward the comfort of their NYC apartments and into the rest of their lives? What will it ask of them? Meditation is one of my core spiritual practices, and yet I find it hard to be in many meditation spaces as my experience has been that too often teachings like these serve to invite western practitioners to breathe and relax into privilege. In this case, the privilege of white and non-black people of color to choose not have to be affected by anti-black violence and its manifestations in law enforcement, in the media, in the ways resources are allocated…etc. I am deeply nourished by the Buddhist teachings, but I wish I saw more dharma teachers inviting students to apply the teachings off the mat and in society at large.

    1. Dear Alexis, thank you (again, since I answered you on fb) for this beautiful and heartfelt response. By stillness I did not mean acquiescence–just the opposite. Being still means not being moved–stopping running away. Being still means listening and seeing and knowing more–and there’s so much that needs to be heard and seen and known. The students in the room included people of color so being still and grounding in the body also meant honoring this body and its right to take up space in the world without fear. The volunteers rushed to close the windows but I asked that they be left open, sharing that the aim of the practice isn’t isolating or escaping but being here, learning to listen and see so that we can respond instead of mindlessly react because that has lead to so much harm….and actually, I’m not sure everyone went back to their apartments that night.

  2. (Continued from before) This was a particularly beautiful section of her reflection, and I must have read it 15 times, trying to pin down the ineffable mixture of resonance and dissonance this brings up for me: “I told my students that this was the time to learn that stillness does not mean silence. It means being still, sitting down in the midst of it all, allowing everything to happen just as it is happening, being willing to listen and see and sense without clinging or contracting and pushing away. I told them that meditation is an act of non-resistance. It is the act of being still, grounding ourselves in the body and the breath, coming down out of our heads and touching the earth again, being willing to bear witness to what arises, all the things that need to be heard and seen and felt, inside and outside.” How do we hold this sacred truth and while also honoring our duty to confront injustice and build a world when we can all be at peace? The paradox embedded in this teaching asks so much of me its at times unbearable, yet learning how to live into that tension is the journey of a life worth living for me. Sorry for the long post, thanks for reading!

    1. Hi again, Alexis, Speaking just for myself, I need to be still and ground so that I can hear those who too often go unheard. I need to practice so I can see clearly what is usually speaking in me, to see who is speaking. When I see my defensiveness, my reactivity, my limitation and delusion, then more is possible for me. There is room for greater awareness–and I might be able to do something useful from there about injustice. Bowing, T

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