A group of us are going to sit down and meditate together this coming Easter Sunday. It feels like an especially auspicious time to be still together, awaiting a miracle. This week will also include Passover, celebrating liberation from bondage. Both of these great stories offer a dramatic resolution to the strange tension that haunts most of our lives—that life is inexpressibly precious and also crushingly disappointing and meaningless. Easter and Passover offer us parts in a much greater story, allowing us to see how our little lives might be part of a cosmic movement.
But what is so miraculous about just sitting together? Buddhists have their own cosmic stories, their own faith in a grand evolutionary scheme. But practicing mindfulness in itself is so resolutely simple and down-to-earth. I think of it as a way of practicing what the poet Rilke called the “solitude of childhood.” But this is actually a way of escaping the bondage of our isolation and emerging into a life that is vast and full of possibility.
It is such a small movement, coming back to the sensation of the body and breath. And yet this is the key to the kingdom. This is worth repeating: In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, “sati,” a word used for 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 (or the lusciousness of a bite of dark chocolate. But remembering the present can also be profound and vast. Suddenly remembering that we are alive on the earth and under a sun and part of a cosmos. The whole of our lives, everything that has every happened to us, is contained in the present moment, and we see that our being here at all is suddenly revealed to be miraculous.
Our usual state is forgetfulness punctuated with pain and pleasure and sometimes pangs of longing for something we can’t name, a wish to be at ease and part of a shared world. In our usual state, we long for the outer things: achievement, better health or more money, to lose five or ten pounds. We long to fix ourselves or our outer conditions so that we can finally relax. But sometimes, right in the thick of the messiest conditions, we long just to be. We want to peacefully abide in Being. For a moment or two, we realize that everything really is fleeting. And deep inside, there is a longing to know how it feels to be here, not just be swept along passively.
Meditation is way of practicing being here, which is what the poet Rilke called the solitude of childhood. Here is a fragment of a letter he wrote to a young poet, urging him not to strive to become a busy, successful adult:
“And when you realize that [the adults] 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….”
It can take a long time to trust this wise not- understanding or being-like-a-child. Can something so simple really be a way out of torment and conflict and all kinds of suffering? But it is true. Coming back to the breath and the sensation of being in a body is a way of becoming free of the punishing repetition of our thinking and the horrible illusion of our separation from each other and the rest of life. Jesus taught his followers to be like children. The Buddha based his enlightenment on a memory from childhood: sitting under a rose apple tree, open and at peace with the world around him. Jesus and Buddha were not telling us to regress. They were teaching us to surrender the barren known world for a new and unknown life. This new world is being offered to us as a gift one moment at a time.
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” – Mary Oliver