This is Holy Week, commemorating a great drama that included betrayal and death and new life. It is also Passover, celebrating the passing over of destructive forces and liberation from captivity. Why bring up these holidays to meditators? Some of us fled the traditions of our childhood, seeking fresh and real, something other than all that stuff we grew up with, chocolate bunnies be damned. And yet it is interesting to look again at the great stories, to consider that they may carry truths that we can experience here and now.
When we sit down to meditate, allowing awareness to appear, we escape from the captivity of our thinking. In the space of a single sitting, we escape from bondage–from dark predictions and certain doom–again and again. We can even discover what the Buddhists call the deathless. As utterly far out as this sounds, it just may be something very close. As we watch worlds of thought arise and fall, we sometimes notice that there is an awareness present that is just there, watching. Free.
If you took a picture of a group of people meditating from the outside, it would look as if they were all shut down. Yet the great paradox of meditation is that sitting there with eyes shut is not a locked in state but the opposite; bringing the attention home to the present moment is a way of opening up to the life inside and outside. Again, a paradox, but sitting in meditation is way of practicing the solitude of childhood, letting go of the usual mental busyness and distraction to commune with life.
In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, “sati” or mindfulness literally means to remember the present moment. Remembering the present moment can be something very small, noticing the warmth of our hands around the coffee mug. But it can also be cosmic and profound, suddenly remembering that we are on the Earth and under the Sun, and that our being here at all is miraculous. Our usual state is forgetfulness and longing. We long for status or money or the love of a certain someone. We long to be away somewhere, to have different conditions, so be in a state of ease or relaxation. Yet when we meditate, we sometimes remember that we don’t deep down want to be anywhere but here: really and truly here. In the stillness of meditation or in other times of open system solitude, we may realize that our particular lives are tiny and brief but also part of the cosmos. When we sit down, it can feel as if we are basking in the sunlight of an awareness that is greater than our self-enclosed thinking. Emerging into the present moment, we remember that our deepest wordless wish, the wish under our myriad desires and strivings, is to be here, to be part of life, fully accepted and acceptable.
Here is a fragment of a letter Rilke wrote to a young poet, urging him not to try to be a busy, successful adult:
“And when you realize that their activities are shabby, that their vocations are petrified and no longer connected with life, why not then continue to look upon it all as a child would, as if you were looking at something unfamiliar, out of the depths of your own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation? Why should you want to give up a child’s wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn….”
Remembering this state is a way to be liberated from the bondage of our conditioning, our habit energy, the repetitive rounds of our thought. The way to awaken from this sleep is not up but down into embodied experience. Jesus taught his followers to be like children. The Buddha based his enlightenment on a memory from childhood. I find it so very helpful to remember this: the Buddha’s awakening began in midst of what failure. He came to point where he realized that all his might efforts and sacrifice had come to nothing. He had given up so much, wife and child and status, and had attained the highest yogic states only to find that the liberation he was seeking was…missing.
The man who would be Buddha split off from his fellow ascetics, collapsing by a riverbank, broken and despairing. A young woman riding an ox (or a big riding animal of some kind) observed him and took pity. In a spontaneous gesture of compassion, she offered him food. Touching food, especially from the hands of a woman, was forbidden to him as an ascetic, but he was outside all that now. He was free to be in the moment. He was starving, so he took food and ate.
When you are really, really hungry, taking food feels like rebirth and renewal. It feels like end of pain and more: it feels like being held and supported by the great benevolent forces of life, like deliverance from the wilderness. It feels like love. Into this beautiful clearing, this state of letting go and being held and fed by life, there bubbled up a memory from childhood. The Buddha remembered being a young child, sitting alone under a tree, watching his father and the other men from the village plowing the fields in a spring festival. He pretended to be asleep, so his nannies (he was a prince so he had several) went off a little ways to watch the festivities.
The boy who would be Buddha had the delicious feeling of being by himself in nature on a pretty spring day. He was alone yet not alone. He secluded in the liberating way that children can secluded. He was unselfconscious, realizing a deep communion with life. According to the myth, the child who would awaken saw some insects whose homes were being torn up by the plowing. His heart opened to them. Secluded yet deeply connected to life, limited yet feeling unlimited, connected to the earth and the stars, he embodied the state of peacefully abiding inside and outside at the same time, the attitude the Buddha took under the Bodhi tree to reach full awakening.
It wasn’t an easy night, heaven knows. The devil Mara launched assaults of terror and desire, trying to unseat him—visions of beautiful women, of glorious high status and wealth, of terrifying armies and dire outcomes. Yet the Buddha didn’t bolt or armor himself and fight back. He slowly reached down and touched the Earth, affirming his right to go on sitting there—affirming that he was part of life, that he had a place at the table.
I remember being a child on one particular Good Friday. It was a beautiful spring day, and I was lying outside in the grass, inside a circle of big purple and white lilac bushes. Who knows why, but I was singing “Thumbelina,” a big hit of the time. I remember the warmth of the sun and the scent of lilacs and the beauty of the sky and the clouds and the budding trees that arched above me. I remember feeling suffused with a love of life and an extraordinary sense of hope. I remember feeling the life calling me to my possible future, to take my place in a vast and magical life.
My mother called me to come in the house and be still. Why on such a beautiful afternoon? I was told there were particular hours in the afternoon for being still to honor something awful in the ancient sense of awe-full, and that I shouldn’t be outside singing to the lilac bushes. Reluctantly, I went in and sat on the couch, not at all sure what I was actually supposed to be doing. My mother wasn’t much for explanations especially about religion, but she had a sense of decorum. She ordered me to sit down and stop talking and eventually understanding would come…or not. In retrospect, this approach had a Zen-like simplicity: just sit. So I sat there, assuming a child’s posture of not-knowing, marveling that I had just felt a connection to the future, and now I was being invited to feel a connection with an extraordinary event from the past.
I knew the basic story of Good Friday, of course, and I thought of as a child. I thought of him being alone and in pain and facing the darkness of the unknown. I thought of the great forces of love and compassion that came to support him. I thought of him looking at the sky and the people below him. I wasn’t sure if any of the things I was thinking about were correct in any adult sense. I just knew I had to wait there and be open and hope that something would come until I was released.