Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stumbling Awake

A few months ago, I was spending a long weekend doing what I find myself quite often doing: hanging out in silence. I was at the Garrison Institute, a beautifully restored former Capuchin monastery on the Hudson River, just across from West Point. Two teachers in the tradition of Vipassana Buddhism were holding a four-day retreat during which a group of about 150 of us walked and ate and learned and sat in silence.

I told a Zen monk friend of mine once that I call myself a meditation floozy. He chuckled, but the next week when he asked me to stand in as jiki jitsu, or meditation leader for that week's sitting, he asked that I refrain from sharing that particular tidbit. I love silence, just about anybody's brand or flavor. This may come as news to some people who know me professionally or socially. I actually have quite the cocktail party flair. You're a little lonely for some company? You definitely want to sit next to me on a plane. But I'm just as useful to the seatmate who wants total privacy in their 16 inches of real estate. I am a meditator. I sit quietly when given half a chance, doing what meditators do.

What DO meditators do? A question for the ages. For now, let's say they sit still, keep quiet and take what comes.

But I digress. As I was navigating the fourth floor of the Garrison Institute, I had the most interesting experience of free fall. The fourth floor is where you wind up when you register very late, way past when there should have been space left in this popular retreat. On the fourth floor, there are tiny rooms for what must have previously been the very short monks, I guess, plus strange raised bathrooms one step up from the rest of the floor.  And here's where the falling happened. I was exiting the bathroom. Now a very clear-minded meditator, one who has truly mastered the depths of consciousness, would probably have skillfully and permanently imprinted the step up and down to the bathroom the first time it was negotiated. No such luck for the meditation floozy. I stepped out of the bathroom and enjoyed free fall.

This brings me to another experience I had recently. I went sky-diving for the first time last summer with my 18-year-old daughter, as her high school graduation present. After hard body and mind training over about 8 hours, I was granted the gift of 60 seconds of free fall with two instructors falling next to me, ready at any time to pull my pilot chute for me and get me down the newbie's way. I made it through the entire solo fall, I'm proud to report, and pulled my own chute. And I only say this when my husband is not around, so don't tell him, but it was one of the most heightened physical experiences I have ever had.

Which brings me back to the Garrison Institute. Four months later I found myself free-falling for a glorious 1.5 seconds or so. What was cool about it was that I loved it and felt it and knew it to be exactly the same type of experience. And for this way of experiencing the world, I thank the practice of meditation. So on this day, as I stumbled down the bathroom step, I really appreciated the freedom of the body falling unsupported and unworried through space. Somehow, the legs knew perfectly to flex, reach toward gravity and brace for impact. Meanwhile, the torso, head and arms soured and flew. At the end of the fall I landed perfectly safely, with euphoria perhaps even greater than my planned fall last summer, since it came without the trappings of training and equipment. Just very simply:  Aaah...  wow!

I think back on the many times I've stumbled, crumpled and downright fallen. The experience seems to usually involve an immediate addition of one or more mind constructs, or stories. I'm embarrassed, and look around to see who witnessed the blunder; I'm annoyed and look back to find the imperfection in the walking surface that I can blame; I straighten up quickly, and put on the act of nothing having happened. But not on this day. For this fall, there was just... falling. Falling, as it turns out, involves a big rush of hormones experienced in the body that can be interpreted any number of ways, none of them particularly true. But to feel the body itself enjoying flight and to purely feel the rush of hormones signaling excitement and requesting insistently that great attention be paid in order to ensure wisest action and survival, well that is something wonderful indeed. 

I want to add than any effect that results from meditation that can be described or spoken of like this must be acknowledged as a side effect. I think many meditators take up the practice itself for different practical reasons, and many of them succeed at improving things such as concentration or their understanding of the workings of the human mind/body. The practice of meditation has granted to me, as one of it's side benefits, the sometimes unusually clear ability to see the workings of the world, as they arise in my body itself and near me, in front of my eyes and around my ears, hands and feet. What I teach about is really not about the side effect, or even the act of meditation, or the stalwart commitment to the practice of sitting still and ... being. It's about waking up to life itself, however it presents itself. The momentary experiences here and there are just snapshots, illustrations from points in time to help orient anyone interested in this way of being with life. If you are interested in looking for this quality of clarity and direct experience through your own eyes and experiences, let's look into that together. 

Anyway, I imagine I'll continue stumbling awake in my own way, tripping and falling and laughing through this life. So join me, if you like!

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