“After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” writes Emily Dickinson. “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.”
After a great shock or loss or change, a stillness comes. We sit still and receive life without leaning forward to grasp at it or commenting on it—think of the way a king or queen receives visitors. We have moments of this noble repose when we sit down to meditate, leaving the bustling little kingdom our thoughts to attend to our own breathing. This may the smallest action we can take to return to nature, following the breath, remembering that we live in a body that is open to vast forces outside itself.
“You are held within the web of life, within flows of energy far exceeding your own,” writes Joanna Macy in the current “Intelligence” issue of Parabola. When we first learn about mindfulness meditation, the practice can seem a little, well, mindless. We’re instructed to just sit there and observe what arises moment after moment without attaching the usual commentary—how is this not idiotic and artificial, a kind of willful amnesia.
Yet it turns out that observing with acceptance and without the usual commentary can lead sometimes to making deeper connections. These deeper connections are not just thoughts but fresh observations, moments of seeing a deeper truth or lawfulness overlooked before. Often these impressions (they do literally impress or mark us in a deeper way) give rise to a deeper feeling–not more passionate and dramatic than our ordinary emotions. What appears is a wish and a willingness to be still and know more—to know something beyond the kingdom of self, to know a greater web, to be part of it and serve it.
This deeper feeling for something greater than ourselves is always here like the breathing, just overlooked in ordinary times, the way candlelight and firelight seem like no big deal with the lights on. We notice their power in the dark—not just how far the light can be seen but how it warms us and reminds us of that web of life. After great pain, the emotions we usually have can seem not to have been true feelings at all but dust kicked up over nothing, reactions flowing from thoughts inside the head and fueling them in turn, endless drama, liking and not liking people, places, and events, all in relation to the self. Yet sometimes we discover that under all that thinking and striving and emotional reacting, there is good will, gentleness–a willingness to let go of all that thinking and emoting to receive what is constantly being offered.
“Intelligence communicates simultaneously with intelligence,” writes Anthony Blake in the “Intelligence” issue. We can discover this also in small moments in ordinary life, walking in nature, seeing ducks glide across a lake, hearing bird song. At those moments, it can be easy to let life in. At other times, not so easy, yet those are the times that reveal the true power of seemingly soft actions and feelings, love, acceptance, the wish to be part of something greater.
Consider times of pain or shock or loss. Once, for example, I learned that a loved one betrayed me. I was plunged into disbelief. Every cell in my body wanted to shut out this unwelcome news. It was like being in a car crash—the body and mind shut down instantly, as if we are conditioned not to take in too much reality. I watched every cell in my body wordlessly scream “I do not want this experience, close the gates!” Yet the experience rushed in, overcoming all my defenses. There came a feeling of immense vulnerability, and as much as I was conditioned to defend against this, I knew on some level that this was a moment of extraordinary opportunity, of opening of the body and mind. It’s important to note here that the thinking mind and the emotional reactions that come it will try to come back.
The thinking mind can be as relentless as Seal Team Six, tracking and taking aim, ready to kill or be killed in the effort to protect us from our true vulnerability. At first after I the shock of betrayal, after I went cold, I started thinking and thinking and talking and talking about this news, as if words and theories could shoot before I was pierced through by the true wildness of reality. A great teacher of mine once said the ego can never be killed because it was never really alive—meaning it is a constellation of habits and conditioning, especially the habit of being a particular self.
Yet there are deeper ways of knowing and feeling and sometimes—often when reality is so strong it overcomes all our defensive efforts—we remember this. Finally, the pain of betrayal and loss settled in. In the middle of the night, I had the sensation of being pulled from sleep by a strange new (or maybe very old) sensation in my body. I felt very still inside. There were no thoughts, just the physical sensation of being alive and the sense that I was radiating an energy. I thought of Mary Oliver’s beautiful phrase about “the soft animal of the body.” It was clear that the only thing to be done was to be still and allow my body to feel this energy—a more pure, direct form of attention than the thinking part of the mind can know. I grew more and more quiet, allowing the shy animal of the body to open more and more. I kept holding this energy that wasn’t separate from wisdom and compassion until the thoughts slowly came back.
It was clear to me that night that spiritual practices are meant to cultivate such an energy—that faith, love, understanding are not concepts to be learned but actions to be performed. Prayer and meditation and contemplation is a way of opening the heart and mind to hold these energies—to literally behold the life in us and offered to us. I realized that if I grew quiet enough, my heart–shut tight against hurt–might also open.
I thought of the Buddha touching the earth when he was confronted with the terrifying armies of the demon Mara. By connecting with the earth of the body, we can keep from being swept away by thoughts and emotional reactions, we can be still and allow the shy animals to appear. With a very quiet shock, I realized that I was not just comprised of my outer thinking mind and reacting heart and body, that there are also subtle energies, bodies–that this is not a mystical or poetic metaphor but real.
There are initiations you can’t sign up for (and who would want to?) Yet from time to time, we must dare to go beyond thought. We must be still and open to the darkness of the unknown. We must sit ceremonious, like Tombs, allowing new kinds of feelings to come.
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sweet use of adversity
where the light enters you