“In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” –Dante
In the middle of a journey across the country I found myself stranded in a broken-down VW van on an empty highway in the Midwest. Just recently I told this story to friends: the shock of sudden stillness, going somewhere and then suddenly not. I felt so lost, either dreaming or uncomfortably awake. I still remember how it felt to look down that long road under an endless blue sky wondering what would come.
A few weeks after I shared this story, a global pandemic changed our world. Now we all know how it feels to have ordinary lives brought to sudden stillness. We are all looking down the road not knowing what will come. Our thinking brains crave good information. They like to plan six months ahead. But none of us can do this right now, no matter how much news we watch or however many articles we read about the virus or what to do about it.
For now, we must all stay put in an uncomfortable place of uncertainty. It is some comfort to know that wherever we are right now and whatever we may be feeling, no matter how restless and worried, we have lots of company. And this time of collective not knowing offers us another possibility as well.
“Your path is at your feet whether you realize it or not,” said the painter Agnes Martin in an interview. “That is the most important thing I will say but I will not enlarge upon it.”
This kind of statement can make a decent person feel like breaking things even in the best of times. And we’re seeing a lot of statements like this. Here we are, stranded and frightened and hoping for this situation to end, or at least a good idea about when help may come. And this is what we get? Yes.
“I know you’re tired,” wrote Rumi. “But come. This is the way.” The truth is we are all tired and stressed now. Not knowing is stressful, and so is fear, and so is not being able to do what we want to do. But this very state of no escape can be a way. A way to what? A way down out of your thinking mind into the felt experience of the body, into a deeper way of knowing. This doesn’t mean hearing actual inner voices (although this can happen). It means feeling a little nudge or quickening or a glow now and again, that something feels right.
“Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel,” wrote the poet E.E. Cummings in an article for students in a small Michigan newspaper. “Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.”
We fear turning our attention to ourselves, because we are afraid that we won’t be able to stand what we find. What if we find a roiling mess or just desert? What if we really are nothing more than that echo chamber of frantic, repetitive thoughts? But we can practice drawing close to this resistance, experiencing it as just tension in the body. Notice how it feels just to bring kind awareness to this attention, without trying to fix it or push it away. As we do this, we have moments, just flickers of sensation, when we remember that we are more than this tension. Deep down, under all the tension and momentum and little bursts of panic and impatience, we are quietly alive.
Let go and sink. This sounds so fatal, the opposite of the way we are trained to live, which is to strive and aspire. But try it, just for a moment or two. Let go of all hope of escape, all hope of things being other than they are right now. Let the attention sink down into sensation. Let everything be just as it is right now. Practice meeting everything with compassion and acceptance. Everything. Notice how this accepting attention makes space around you. You may notice a glimmer or a warm feeling now and again, a knowing that is deeper than thought.
Asked what enlightenment is, a Zen master replied, “small moments many times.” I’ve slowly come to realize that this means that we awaken over time. True realization and liberation may happen slowly, like connecting the dots in a mystery. When we can’t go out, when we don’t have clarity, we can go down. We can be open to receive small impressions, feelings, moments of knowing that may take root and grow into fresh inspiration, understanding, and a shift in perspective down the road. This practice is a way of living into the truth.
After the VW van broke down, I was stranded for many days in Mendota, Illinois. I learned that Mendota is derived from a Native American word that means “junction of two trails.” Over time, this meaning became literally pivotal because it was in that very place that I first gained an inkling of the power of sinking down. I was headed to Colorado, hoping to meet a famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher and meditation master, hoping to find my way to a more vibrant life. And then full stop.
At first sinking into the truth of the present moment felt messy and difficult. My friendship with the owner and driver of the van, a friend from college, broke down several states before the engine. Naturally, we were both part of it. But as time passed, a new awareness began to dawn. Being friendly, not appeasing but just plain kind, brought more ease. I experimented with this inside and outside. In those moments when I let my resistance soften, accepting what was happening, the more I opened and saw and learned.
While we waited for a new engine, we befriended some of the young locals that hung out at a bar café where we ate most meals. One night, we were invited to drive around with them. We literally drove around and around the town in someone’s convertible, looking up at the stars, looking out at the corn fields and prairie. The young driver indicated that this is what they did most nights, drove around in circles, despairing that they would ever find a way out. Some were defeated, some determined to go to great lengths to try.
This amazed me. It also made me uncomfortable because it reminded me of myself. There were no walls. The town was completely open to vastness, above us, the cosmos. What was stopping them from being free? What was stopping us from feeling a connection to life? This was what needed to be explored. This was junction between two trails. What I really sought to know wasn’t beyond me, in Colorado or anywhere else. It was here. The way was down.