“If we could surrender to Earth’s intelligence, we would rise up rooted, like trees.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke
One day recently I woke up with no voice, just a breathy whisper. This is challenging under ordinary circumstances but on this particular day it felt like catastrophe. I was scheduled to teach mindfulness meditation and give a talk at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan. Still under the covers I tried talking. Nothing, just air rushing out, no matter how hard I pushed to make my vocal chords work.
Terrible images flashed before my eyes; faces looking up at me with dismay and incomprehension, people stampeding for the exits. Fear has a mind of its own. I am shy under the best of circumstances. Preparing for public speaking can feel like suiting up for battle. But in recent years, I have also developed spasmodic dysphonia, a rare voice disorder that can make my voice wax and wane. On good days this can give my voice an interesting, husky quality. The last time I led meditation at the Rubin, someone said I sounded like the sultry movie star Anne Bancroft.
People have actually asked how long it took me to develop this gravelly, smoky voice, finding it soothing for meditation, maybe picturing lots of whisky and cigarettes. Yet on bad days, just before and after treatment, the voice is breathy and strangled. It is as if you are in one of those movies where you can see and hear people but they can’t see or hear you, as if you are a ghost or a captive whose shouts can’t be heard. In a culture in which words are everything, to be voiceless is also to be invisible. I also felt strangely defenseless.
“I can’t go on,” writes Samuel Beckett. “I’ll go on.” Naturally, I thought of cancelling. But the Rubin Museum event was long scheduled, and it was about something more than my sitting up on a stage talking and being entertaining. The weekly mindfulness meditation sessions at the Rubin offer people a chance to sit and meditate surrounded by sacred art in the middle of the big city. Who was I to cancel? Besides, I was supposed to be talking about determination and perseverance. I decided I had show up. Even if I couldn’t be heard at all, I would show determination.
When most of us think of determination, we think first of imposing our will on the world, insisting on a particular outcome, our vision. Yet real determination appears when we keep going, surrendering what the ego wants, which is always to look good, to sound good, to win. Real perseverance is willingness, not will. Really determined people are willing to give up what the ego wants and to go on, no matter what is going on around them. Persevering does not mean being rigid and fixed, but flowing like water, willing to meet the conditions at hand yet never giving up.
I boarded the train, headed for a true unknown. Naturally, at times I was gripped with uncertainty. In those moments, I discovered how fear narrows the focus. When I shifted my attention away from my thoughts and projections about others to my own experience in the moment, my tunnel vision broadened and softened. My view became more generous. By myself on the train, practicing without witnesses, I experienced how giving space and acceptance to my fear brought courage and grounded me.
Things happen all the time in this world that can make you feel as if the ground is giving way beneath your feet. Things that you think are solid and unchanging are not. The body that seemed so reliable, the relationship you thought would last for life, the narrative about your life you took to be reality, everything is subject to change. What can we trust in such a world? It turns out we can trust our deeper wish to wake up and see just this. It turns out that under the ego there is an earthier essence that wishes to be part of a larger world. Touching this earth allows us to open and be more aware.
At the Rubin I was met by kindness. Someone fetched me a cup of tea. Another provided a powerful hand microphone rather than the lapel microphone I usually use. After the introduction, I mounted the steps to the stage and took my seat, focusing on my actual moment by moment experience, not my thoughts. I accepted the fearful images that flitted through, nothing coming out of my mouth, Anne Boleyn treading softly to her execution, whispering prayers as the blade came down. I once heard that generosity is best practiced in private. Determined to show up and give what I could, I became generous with my own experience, not identifying with my fears but embracing them as I might my child or my dog. I discovered the courage of being with what was happening without fighting or freezing or running away.
I encouraged people to use my breathy voice to listen as if the speaker was on her deathbed and about to impart the secret of life. The secret wasn’t in me but in the listening. The more closely we listen, the more we hear, especially the wordless aspiration and knowing in ourselves. All but one person stayed. Afterwards, more than one person assured me they could hear me very clearly. Partly, this was the excellent sound system. But it was also because of the way they listened. More than one person told me they were more touched by my willingness to show up than by anything I might have said about determination under other circumstances.
In the great myth of the Buddha’s journey, there comes a point when he is completely overwhelmed. As he sits meditating under the Bodhi tree, the devil Mara sends temptations to distract him from the wish of his deepest essence. Mara flashes images of the Buddha as a great leader, as a huge success in business with mountains of money, surrounded by beautiful women. He shows the Buddha that he can make India great again if he would just give up his quest to awaken, and get up and do something. The Buddha will not move.
When temptation doesn’t work, Mara tries fear, conjuring visions of terrible armies howling for his blood. These armies are external and also internal, legions of anxieties and fears. But the Buddha does not flinch. Slowly, he reaches down and touches the earth. The classical explanation is that he is asking the Earth itself to bear witness to his many life times of effort. Not his blinding brilliance or his unique talent, mind you, but his effort, his perseverance, his willingness to show up no matter what. His willingness to fail and fail again. “Ever tried. Ever failed,” writes Beckett. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The Buddha understood what the Christian author G.K. Chesterton meant when he wrote, “Everything worth doing is worth doing badly. “
Touching the Earth symbolizes humility, coming down out of our thoughts, out of the busy hive of ego, to join the rest of life. The Latin word humus, the rich living earth, is related to the word humility. When difficulty arises, it creates a clearing in the deadening trance of habit. We remember that what really matters is not the list of worries and desires we spend so much time thinking about every day. What matters is much more essential. Being alive, for example. Taking part in life, having a chance to give and receive in the most elemental ways, taking in the beauty of the world and giving back where we can.
At moments when the ground gives way beneath our feet, it’s good to remember the power of touching the earth, descending from our racing thoughts and fears to an awareness of the present moment. When words fail, we can sometimes discover a new voice and a new kind of determination. We can rise up rooted, like trees.