“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on,” wrote Robert Frost
In three words I can sum up the aim of mindfulness meditation. Being with change.
“See that sign for the David Barton Gym?” asked the woman walking ahead of me on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. “What a sacrilege.” She addressed this to the teenage children walking on each side of her. A group of us stopped together for a moment, waiting for the light to change. She gestured to an old stone church on the corner of West 20th Street.“ This was The Limelight. It was a famous nightclub. I used to come here all the time.” The light turned green and the children surged ahead without giving the church a glance. I guessed they were her children, attractive, well cared for, benignly indifferent. Her nightclub days were clearly behind her. I turned left to go the Parabola office and they walked on.
What seemed a sacrilege to her, I thought, was the passing of a place of memories that were vivid and deep. Once I had the chance to ask the great Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn why people seem to cling to their suffering, defining themselves by it. People cling to their strongest impressions, he told me. Slowly I have come to realize that the art of life and aim of spiritual practice has to do with making good impressions, moments of feeling peaceful and open to life, as alluring and powerful as painful impressions. I pictured the woman on the street 20 years ago, dancing at The Limelight, feeling as if anything was possible. Maybe she was in love or hoped to be. The trick is that the more sublime something is, the more painful it can be when it goes.
Today, the church that was formerly a nightclub called The Limelight is not just a gym but also Grimaldi’s pizza, a warren of expensive little shops, and the upscale Chinese restaurant Jue Lan. The Limelight nightclub shut down for drug selling in 1995. What a sacrilege it seemed to people then, turning a house of prayer into a gigantic den of drugs and debauchery. Once I went to a lavish party there, thrown by the publisher of a magazine I once wrote for. I remember wandering through dark and cavernous rooms, marveling that a place of stillness and the sacred was now full of music and bars and hipster children. The publisher host wore a tuxedo and a smug smile. Dark and gleaming, surrounded by dry ice fog, he looked like a New York Caligula. I wondered if being invited to the party meant that I was getting somewhere, but it felt like I was a little speck swirling in a storm. Now he and the magazine and the club and its air of hellish glamour and my reactions to it are all gone, given way to new life. Nothing stays the same.
The Buddha taught that the existence of all ordinary sentient beings is marked by impermanence. Change is constant everywhere, but New York City is a particularly easy place to observe it. The night of the party at The Limelight, I lived in an artsy neighborhood in the East Village. After I married and my daughter was born, I moved to a big apartment with soaring ceilings in a mostly Italian neighborhood that was beginning to see an influx of artsy young people from Manhattan. In the blink of an eye, that neighborhood was fashionable and very expensive. Two members of the Gambino Family who owned the building we rented came and told us that it was time to move, that it was nothing personal but the building was being sold to a Wall Street man and his young wife. The Gambino brothers spoke the truth. Change is not personal but universal.
Now, I commute down to New York on a Metro North train from leafy Northern Westchester. The streets of New York are what I imagine the Ganges to be, a holy river. Walking there I see every state of human life pass, joy, sorrow, love, hate, wealth, homelessness, fame, misfortune. I remember that no state or feeling is final. Blocks away from The Limelight stood Barney’s, a downtown department store that sold party clothes, maybe even to the woman I walked behind on the street the other day. And now it is the Rubin Museum of Art, offering sacred art and places for people to sit and be still in the midst of change.
“Love says ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says ‘I am nothing.‘ Between the two, my life flows,” taught the great spiritual teacher Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. “My life flows” is the key statement. Science and reason tell us we are limited, yet we don’t feel limited. In the face of all the evidence to the contrary, we feel as if we are connected to everything. We overflow the banks of our own small lives and embrace the whole known world and all that is unknown beyond. How can this be?
This is how. There is a power in us that that is not limited to us. I don’t mean this in a misty mystical sense. I mean “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” to quote the poet Dylan Thomas. I mean the force that creates and pervades life, and destroys and creates. We remember this great power in the spring, when everything is bursting into bloom. There is often a tinge of sadness in spring, because in the midst of all that beauty, we can help but remember other springs that included people and relationships and times that are gone. In the plants and trees and the forward rushing life of the city, there is a reminder that we must, as the saying goes, let go or be dragged. We must find a way to be with life.
The Buddha described the state called “dukkha,” which is usually translated as “suffering” but which is closer to “unreliable” and “stressful.” I once heard this pervasive state compared to the pain that comes from rubbing naked skin on a brick wall. It may not hurt much at first, but after a time it is a torment. This is the way things go, taught the Buddha. Nothing goes as smoothly as it does in our thoughts and dreams. Reality is rough, and we have a way of making it rougher. We brood about ourselves because nothing is exactly the way we want it to be, nothing goes smoothly or stays fixed. We cling to memories and ideas about ourselves even when they are painful because we want something to stay. Little rough patches begin to bleed.
Yet we can find peace and equanimity. In places like the Rubin and on our own (or even walking down the street in New York) we can learn to be with the endless ebb and flow of life. Mindfulness meditation is self-observation with compassion. It is the practice of returning home to the moment-by-moment sensory experience of being in a body, breathing in and out, open to all that arises. It is a simple practice, if not easy. It goes against the stream of life, and it is always an act of devotion.
“The heart can think of no devotion/Greater than being shore to the ocean./Holding the curve of one position,/Counting an endless repetition.” –Robert Frost