It feels different to be outside than to be inside. Knowing this distinction seems so basic to consciousness that doctors might ask patients coming out of a coma this question: “Do you know where you are right now? Are you inside or outside?”
And yet we forget. All the time. We forget we have been given bodies and hearts. We forget we have been given these lives. This why it is important to put ourselves in different circumstances—to go outside, to go to different places–so that we can experience ourselves in new ways. When we do, we startle awake, at least for a short time. We remember that we are not just a story in our head, urgent and dire as that story may seem. We are part of a larger story.
Sitting down to meditate, especially in a circle with other meditators, is another way to remember that we are more than our thinking minds and our individual stories. I once heard that aborigines call contemporary people the “line people”because we walk around in a trance that tells us that life moves in a straight line. We strike them as driven and narrow and often grim-looking, always straining forward and grasping for something. Sitting down in a circle is a quietly radical act. Even if we don’t consciously know what we are doing, something inside seeks to re-root ourselves in life, even if just for a moment. We want to remember our own aboriginal or essential truths. We want to stop striving and dare to be still and remember how it feels just to be here, alive on the earth. Even if it wouldn’t occur to us to use these words, we long to be part of a larger truth.
Even if nothing great seems to be happening, sitting down to be still, making the effort, helps us cultivate a different kind of inner intention towards ourselves. It helps us let go of our endless battle with reality, trying to fix ourselves and gain something, and avoid pain. When we let ourselves stop and be still, we remember that we are part of a greater story.
I am packing for a silent retreat. Every time I do this, I think of Henry David Thoreau:“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,”he wrote about his retreat to a tiny cabin in Walden, Massachusetts. People debate about how cut off from civilization he really was. Someone once posted on Parabolasocial media that Thoreau’s mother did his laundry while he was in his cabin, and I’m pretty sure he had visators. But his intention was to simplify. He wanted to move from the surface to the depths of life, not to waste his brief time on earth“living what was not life.”
What if it is possible to have that intention in the middle of an ordinary life? Even only for a few moments every day, to sit down and be still, or walk outside, seeking to remember that we are more than we think, more than surface and distractions. We have senses and feelings and a wish to live full and deep.
I hope some of you will consider joining me on Saturday, August 24, for an afternoon of meditation and writing reflection at the Rubin Museum of Art. https://tickets.rubinmuseum.org/orders/327/tickets?eventId=5d026c19ca6afe568ed0640c&date=2019-08-24T14:00:00-04:00&cart=true