Last night at New York Insight, we practiced Meditation 101, in the midst of a great protest. We took our seats, spines straight, feet planted firmly on the ground, affirming our right to take up space in the world in the midst of chants and shouts and the sound of more and more news and police helicopters hovering low like huge mechanical hawks, tracking the protesters who marched up Fifth Avenue from Union Square.
Whup, whup, whup, the predatory sound grew louder than the big bell that called us to mindfulness. 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.
“A riot is the language of the unheard,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. Last night, we sat together in conditions that showed us how this happens inside our own bodies, hearts, and minds. Rioting can happen when we judge or exclude certain thoughts or feeling or impressions or when we feel excluded. As the shouts and the sirens and (most of all) the whupping of the overseer helicopters grew louder and louder, we kept sitting. I wondered if we could notice how what we are hearing conditions consciousness, giving rise to fear or anger or to compassion. I told them to notice that no feeling is final.
After I rang the big bell and we stopped sitting, I quoted some more lines from the poet Rilke: “I want to unfold. I don’t want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie.” The Buddha’s word for mindfulness was “sati,” which means to remember or more weirdly and interestingly “memory of the present.”
After a very long time of practicing and now teaching mindfulness meditation, it dawns on me that this practice aims to remember us—re-connecting or re-membering us with the body, with sensations and feelings that have been forgotten, granting us the animal innocence we had as young children, when we were free to feel our way into this world. Rilke said that children look at the world from the depth of their own solitude. Meditating I remember that this depth of solitude comes from being in the body as children are, full of the fluid sensation of being alive, changing as everything changes, playing with what arises. Imagination doesn’t just mean pretending to be a jungle princess or spy (although I did plenty of that). J.K . Rowling famously said that imagination “is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
Last night at New York Insight, imagination meant being in the body in the midst of everything that was happening, feeling or empathizing with there was to see and hear inside and outside. Last night, the practice was the gentle, repeated action of returning to the body, the sensation and feelings–and also non-resistance. We practiced bearing witness to what was happening, holding presence. knowing that no feeling was final, that more would be revealed.