Last Sunday, a group of us talked about how meditation is like Halloween. This was understandable since we were sitting in a yoga studio that happens to be just up the street from the legendary cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, now ablaze with jack-o-lanterns. But no matter where you are autumn and Halloween in particular brings a shiver of anticipation—a sense of the presence of unknown.
Halloween is typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-an or sow-in), celebrating the end of the lighter half of the year and the beginning of the darker half. This is how it can feel to enter the stillness of meditation. We can sit down not knowing what to expect—and often not expecting much. Slowly and often very reluctantly, we let go of our usual thinking and drop into the sensation of being present in a body, breathing. Sometimes dropping into the body can feel like dropping into a vast cave to be explored with the light of the attention.
The ancient Celts believe that the border between this world and unknown worlds became very thin at this time of year, allowing other presences to pass through. Ancestors were honored and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off, often by the wearing of costumes and masks (think of times when you have dressed up and put on a special face to ward off danger). Bonfires played a huge part in Samhain festivities—and there is beautiful symbolism here. In some places, all individual fires were put out (imagine how that looked in a world lit by fire). The hearth in each home was rekindled from a great common bonfire. When we sit and allow ourselves to be still, especially when we sit with others, we may notice something similar. The fear is that it we will be plunged into darkness if we give up our thinking, as if our thinking is our internet connection and without it all our screens will go dark.
And yet…there is light. As we relax, sitting still or being in nature, there can be the feeling of coming out of the isolation of our thinking to be warmed by the light of a greater awareness—not great thinking, mind you, but a light to see by and the warmth of life, of literally feeling that we are alive and connected to a greater life. It’s strange to think that we could ever forget this but we do. This awareness allows us to engage directly with life in the moment, life in the body, the way we did when we were little kids. But it is an unselfish awareness, an awareness from a source greater or deeper or other than our usual commentary.
A great teacher of mine once wrote that to know life “we need to die to the known and enter the unknown.” As a culture and on a daily basis we tend to think that we know most everything, and it’s astonishing to remember that we don’t. Often it takes a great shock—a personal or major catastrophe or a scientific discovery that turns everything upside down.
Yet we can also enter the unknown by entering the present moment fully. To enter the moment fully means to be still, without striving or seeking or running away in any way. In such a moment we know very directly what life is—and what love is. And by love, too, I mean a state we surrender to, let go or give ourselves up to. Sometimes (especially n the midst of great pain) it can be an enormous comfort to go away and be still, to walk in nature or be alone in our own stillness. In these are moments when we die to the known–dying because a person or a relationship or a dream of ourselves turns out to be impermanent–we discover the real scale and value of the present moment. And we discover that we are not alone in this unknown but met there by a greater awareness that is not separate from love and compassion–an awareness that lends us light and warmth from a greater source.
The Beauty issue of Parabola featured an Inuit tale of Skeleton Woman. An Inuit fisherman pulls up a horrifying mass of bones in his net. He wants to fling this frightening catch away, who wouldn’t ? But his humanity gets the better of him. He take the bones to his house and sets them aright, handling this tortured and broken mess with great care. Responding to this loving attention, the bones knit themselves overnight into a beautiful woman. When we dare to sit down and face the unknown we discover that awareness itself can heal and transform, bringing light and life to the darkest places.