Things happen. This is what the Buddha taught. Sometimes they creep up slowly, as aging does, or sometimes suddenly and without warning, out of a clear blue sky as they say(when they come you understand the meaning of these expressions). Here is an example of the latter. A few winters ago, I picked up a case of laryngitis that wouldn’t go away. I tried cough drops and tea with honey but the hoarseness persisted, so I saw a doctor and more doctors. Finally it was determined that I have a rare condition that makes my voice hoarse. It’s no big deal, really. Except that three times a year, I have a treatment that reduces my voice to a whisper for a couple of weeks.
And this is what I learned from it. When you can’t talk, you listen more—you notice more. When you leave the world of words, you notice more. Have you ever spent time in a country where you didn’t speak the language? An observing, real-time intelligence that is usually in the background springs to life. P.L. Travers, a founding editor of Parabola (and the author of Mary Poppins) wrote about this open, real-time “unknowing” intelligence in the 1985 “Body” issue: “It is not ignorance. Rather, one could say, a particular process of cognition that has little or no use of words. It is part of our heritage at birth, the infant’s first primer.” I experienced this infant awareness on Sunday, when I dared to show up at the sitting without a voice. Naturally, I felt incredibly vulnerable—words are the usual way of spinning a story, a protective shield, a self. Reduced to a whisper, I touched what Travers called in that essay a baby’s “aboriginal heart” – a wonderful term for that wordless awareness can bloom into a “cosmography of wonder.” Noticing and wondering is the opposite of ignorance. It attunes us to others and to life.
It turns out that waking up may be a slow and subtle process of noticing what is always there but not always seen. One small moment at a time, we softening and relaxing and abide peacefully in the present moment, being ourselves without fear. These moments can feel wildly daring. Returning to the image of the baby, the “good enough” mother doesn’t just hold and mirror and demonstrate kind attention. She also grants space, giving her baby the crucial gift of feeling safe to hang out with their wondering, aboriginal hearts and wondering minds. Contact without space, is like talking without listening—controlling, oppressive, even crushing.
Very few people are lucky enough to receive this kind of mothering the first time around. The good news is that this practice of meditation, this simple practice of bringing kind attention to our present time experience without judgment, giving ourselves the space to just be, is a way to mother ourselves. Given the space, given freedom from comparing and judgment, we remember the wordless way we used to wonder, the deep and sensitive aboriginal heart.