“After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” writes Emily Dickinson. “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.”
After a great shock, a stillness comes. We may be very busy outside, but inside we are still. The world we knew has been blasted away. And even as we go about our days, we are in a state of suspension, not knowing what is to come. We are all grieving, all of us sad and afraid. It is best sit ceremonious with that, to be quiet and kind, to give ourselves the loving attention we would give a dear friend. Allow yourself to descend into the body, into the sensation of being here on the earth. A new understanding may be taking root
Understand comes from an Old English root that means to stand in the midst of, not under as you might think but in between or within. This makes sense because there is an understanding that comes from familiarity, from being with, a knowing that appears from deep within. To comprehend this way is not a matter of words, but a feeling of recognition and remembrance of the good. Sitting helpless by a window, we may suddenly remember the warmth of the sun coming through feels good. A cup of tea is also good, and a moment when we remember to soften inside, to open to receive.
Here is a little story about this kind of understanding. During that long-ago summer quest, after being stranded in a place I never expected to be, I did finally make it to Boulder, Colorado. The original plan was to meet a famous meditation master and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. The original hope was to learn something really cool and special, something that would grant me an ability to skip a lot of pain and uncertainty, at the very least. But the strangest thing happened.
Arriving in Boulder, I insisted on stopping in a place called the New York Deli. I remember sitting there, prepared to be disappointed by the bagel I ordered (New Yorkers are typically disappointed by bagels not from New York), when I happened to overhear a couple of people at the next table talking about Trungpa, the lama I hoped to meet. The remarks were innocuous (the great scandals hadn’t yet broken), something about how to market the teacher and his Naropa Institute. But just like that, I remembered what I had come to understand while I waited in the cornfields and the prairies. What I was really seeking wasn’t “out there,” special conditions apart from ordinary life. What I sought were more moments like those in Illinois: moments of letting go and sinking down and being with. I never would have asked for that wreck, but I remembered it as a kind of initiation.
At moments like these, as grave as they are, it can be easy to let the gifts of life in: a moment of warmth, a sip of tea, a smile. These are the times that reveal the power of the smallest actions: a movement of return to sensation, of opening and compassion. This is a time of great pain and change. This is a time for sitting ceremonious at moments, taking root and being with, quiet and kind. Understanding will come.