One night at New York Insight, a meditation center in downtown Manhattan, I taught meditation in the midst of a protest against injustice. I taught people to take their seats, spines straight, feet planted firmly on the ground, affirming their right to take up space in the world, people in the streets below were chanting and shouting for justice. We sat still as more and more police helicopters showed up, hovering low like huge mechanical hawks, tracking the protesters who marched up Fifth Avenue from Union Square.
Whup, whup, whup, the predatory sound of the choppers was louder than the big bell that called us to mindfulness. I told my students that taking time to be still does not mean inaction. We must all do all we can to end injustice in all forms. Being still is learning to listen and see and sense inside as well as outside so that we can hear and see and act in a way that helps instead of merely reacting.
In the midst of the shouts and the sirens and the whupping of the helicopters grew louder and louder, we sat. This is not because we didn’t care, but because we need to know how to care.
Mindfulness meditation is a way to remember our own deepest values—re-connecting us with sensations and feelings that get drowned out in all our thinking. Sitting is a way to ground ourselves in a sense of the basic goodness of life, a way of remembering our own innate responsiveness or compassion.
“If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence, we could rise up rooted, like trees,” wrote the poet Rilke. Faced by images of terrible armies conjured by the devil Mara, the Buddha reached down and touched the earth, rooting himself in the knowing that most children have: we belong to life. We are more alike than different.
Great change begins by going back to the beginning, forgetting what we thought we knew as adults, uncovering what is essential. Returning to where we started, we remember that there is a responsiveness in us that is as natural as breathing. As children, we innately know how to take in impressions, not stopping them with judgments and commentary. Children know that imagination isn’t just entertainment and distraction but a way of understanding what is happening. J.K . Rowling famously said that imagination “is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
In times when you don’t know what to do, times that call for action, be still for a time. Go back to where you started and know the place for the first time. Recollect yourself, remembering body, heart, and mind. Act from there.