“Let the grass grow through you; cherish the wild inside you.”
— Robert McCrea Imbrie
“To study the Way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.”
Enlightenment? What is the ‘light’ in enlightenment? Is that ‘light’ in any way connected to the wildness and unpredictability of what we experience when we observe in a non-judgmental, non-striving, non-clinging way the streaming mental images, memories, mental constructions and thoughts of praise/ blame, gains/losses, success/failure, comfort/discomfort that constitute the flotsam and jetsam in the river of our mind?
“Most men,” according to Thoreau, “live lives of quiet desperation.”
Does enlightenment mean a light in the darkness of desperation and toxic feelings? Does it mean the LIGHTness of spirit, the openheartedness, the limitless love for self and all beings, the freedom from fear that meditation, in its own time and way, bestows as a grace?
Has nature given us an appropriate fear of the future? Can we transform that fear into a thrilling ride in the amusement park of the mind? We fear the future because we don’t feel safe, but a scary ride at Coney Island becomes enjoyable because we trust we are safe.
Walt Whitman once wrote: “I don’t know where I came from, and I don’t know where I am going, but I know that I came well, and I will go well.”
As a grad student I read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, under a big apricot umbrella, as rain fell all around me at the edge of Lake Mendota, the high, wide windows of the University of Wisconsin student union reflecting windwhipped waves on the breast of the lake. At that time, how could I know that my destiny—like the fictional destiny of Siddhartha– was to learn how, in my daily life, to sit by the river with a living or dead spiritual friend and calmly watch it all: the ripples of the water, the flow of the current, the waves lapping against its banks, the branches and leaves riding downstream, the sparkles of the sun, the shadows of birds on the bosom of the water, the leaping of a trout, and, in the current of one’s mind, the endless and unpredictable jump-cuts from one image to another, one memory to another, one physical sensation or emotion to another.
50,000 thoughts a day? Some persevering researchers have estimated that most people think at least half a hundred thousand thoughts a day. No wonder people yearn for a way to silence the mind, when that flotsam and jetsam– attended to unskillfully– becomes a source of unending stress, because we haven’t learned how to enjoy it. At the end of Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha the hero, finds peace by joining his life with the life of an old, wisely simple ferryboat man who lives on the bank of the river they cross many times a day. Sitting, eating and working with the ferryboat man, Siddhartha is at last, after all his spiritual and worldly adventures, able to live with joy and love, audience to the river at the foot of their hut, and an enlightened spectator of his inner spectacle, the river that runs endlessly through all human minds.
The ceaseless—and what most folks don’t realize potentially useful—flow of seemingly chaotic or repetitive thoughts, memories, mental images, plus awareness of happenings in the body and the world, can be a source of extreme stress. But the pure awareness of the very same river in the mind/body/world can be a joyous Coney Island of the mind, an amusement park that reminds me of my childhood Bronx candy store, chockablock with so many delicious little sweets, a penny a piece, that I remember with great delight.
How does that ceaseless and stressful, unstoppable flow become a source of happiness? Certainly not by forcing oneself to sit and suffer. As in yoga, you stretch, enjoying the stretch, and pull back before pain can cause damage to the body. Anyone can learn to feel absolutely safe in meditation, and to enjoy the amusement park of mind-rides, knowing that at some undetermined moment in the future, a minute, a month, a year, perhaps more, a tipping point will be reached at which our inner happiness will only rarely be diminished by outer circumstances, only rarely be diminished by blame, loss, failure, and personal discomfort.
The fear of not knowing what comes next has been taught to most of us from childhood, because our caregivers did not know how to cherish the unknown and at the same time to prepare for the future skillfully and without fear. Most of us, in school, among our peers, and in our family life, have learned to please others by knowing, knowing, knowing, exactly who we are and where we are going and what we plan to do. Not knowing, in our earliest years, for most of us, brought on a deep fear of abandonment.
When Socrates told the oracle of Delos: “I want to find and learn from the wisest person in the world, who is that person?” she replied: “YOU are!” Socrates said, “But I don’t know anything.” She answered, “You know that you don’t know.” The oracle was expressing an ancient belief: that he who does not know that he does not know is a fool to be avoided, but she who knows that she does not know is a wise woman whose company should be sought.
For thousands of years those who studied the world knew with absolute certainty, gleaned from the data of their own eyes, that the sun revolves around the earth. There lies the danger of believing that you know anything with absolute certainty. In the kitchen of our apartment, too often I react with irritability to what I think I know is in the mind of my beloved and adored wife, and quickly learn from the pain of that encounter, her pain as well as mine, the overwhelming importance of knowing I do not know. Almost always, when I think I know she is being critical, I discover again and again that she is acting out of love for me.
Through meditation we can come to realize the safety of not knowing what comes next. We can learn to stop depending on the shaky safety of all the menus, agendas, lists of keeping-busy stuff that distract us from embracing and studying our fear of the future. Eventually we can come with joy to all the interesting or boring activities of the day, whatever the Now throws our way.
In meditation, we are practicing the great skill of letting go of attachment to ideas, concepts, opinions, attitudes, and emotions. We are also experiencing our fear of not knowing what the mind and body and world will throw at us, and by studying that fear instead of fleeing from it, it becomes over time a source of insight and strength. Fear can be left behind, the unknown becomes a friend.
Without meditation, I would never have discovered the dangerous beauty of practicing many suggestions I received from my beloved teacher, friend, brother-in-law and collaborator Robert McCrea Imbrie: “Love and create, smash your consciousness, learn to love what is ugly. Follow your breathing. Put your arms around a tree. Ask the flowers to teach you. Celebrate success and celebrate failure. Make each day a work of art, make a work of art of time. Say something you never said before. Laugh, dance, praise God, thank God, love God, serve God.”