I’m a doer of too much. I always have been. If everyone else has three irons in the proverbial fire, I have four, plus I tend the fire. My form of busy-ness may look different than others: I don’t serve on a million charity boards or ladle up meals at a homeless shelter. I don’t play five rounds of golf or ten sets of tennis a week. I don’t garden or knit or scrapbook. And I don’t have a demanding 60 hour a week job. Most of my overdoing takes place between my two ears. I think that’s what it’s like for most creative people. Wheels turn, ideas crest, crash and rise again. When I am writing or designing, time stops and my physical sensations hibernate while my storytelling mind goes into hyper-drive. It’s great to have a supercharged imagination when you need it for work, but as I’m sure you know, it isn’t always easy to turn down the volume on your own headspace. I often have gone through entire days with a sensation of inner spinning in my solar plexus: so much to do, so little time, so many threads to unravel and rewind in my thoughts. A simple interaction, say another driver cuts me off on the highway, can unspool a Tolstoyan yarn of vengeance, reconciliation and redemption in my mind. Before you know it, twenty precious minutes have ticked by in reverie. Which only escalates my perpetual sense of being slightly behind the eight ball, time-wise, with a just a few more projects to tick off my list than any reasonable person would expect to accomplish in the time I have. Which in turn keeps me firmly anchored in a realm of lists and details, errands and chores, piles to fold and pdfs to print and a clutter of necessary but shallow activities that remove me from much sense of Purpose.
Noticing demands presence; presence takes practice; practice invites silence. I don’t like how that line doesn’t quite integrate into the post’s flow, but it announced itself and it wants to sit here. So ok.
Meditation helps me quiet down the chatter. I can feel myself sinking like a plumbline, straight and heavy, into a deeper part of myself, and when I land there, something in me simultaneously settles and expands, like a beautiful bird spreading her wings as she sits rooted on a solid branch, her claws curled around the bark. She could take off at any moment, soar, do anything, go anywhere. But for now, she is content to stay. Because the silent weight of this place is deep and pleasurable—why would she rush away? Spending time here builds up my tolerance for stillness throughout the day, helps me look for places where I can offer a foundation of calm, rather than go rushing in with my rickshaw of words and solutions. It’s both a place of rest and sanctuary, and a spiritual workout, in that it takes self-discipline to surrender my to-do lists to this time when I am simply sitting and breathing, listening and being. I don’t manage to show up for it every day, and years have gone by when I have totally forgotten about the nourishment of meditative silence. It never goes anywhere far; I do.
I first encountered meditation when I took a TM class on Martha’s Vineyard, one summer during high school on a two-week family vacation. I was pissed at my mom and desperate for something to get me out of the house. I saw a flyer outside the Edgartown movie theater for a TM training one evening when I was just walking around town, seventeen and stewing. Something inside me craved release from my inner roiling. Our teacher was an aging, be-turbaned hippie with a Sanskit name I couldn’t pronounce who wore Sperry Topsiders, coral Bermuda shorts and Lacoste polo shirts. I remember a lot of discussion about layers of consciousness, how we live on the surface of the ocean, where the water is constantly influenced by the weather, doldrumy and stale, choppy and stormy. Neurologically and attentionally, this is our daily mind: reactive to whatever is coming at us, our central nervous systems wired through experience to respond and adapt. But as you descend further under the water, all becomes still, even though a hurricane may be raging above the surface. Meditation, my preppy guru described, is the practice of training yourself to hang out on the ocean floor. This was 1977, and as we’ve learned since, hanging out in such deep spaces has fantastic benefits for our overall well-being, our mental and physical health.
I love the New Testament story of the woman who wants to be healed, so she touches just the edge of Jesus’ cloak as he’s walking through her village. He feels the touch and turns to her, she who only grazed the hem of his garment with a fingertip. She’s mortified to have been caught, but he says to her: “your faith has made you whole.” When I meditate, I feel like I’m touching the hem of the garment of Divinity, just a little, and fleetingly. For me, it’s time spent in Unity with a higher purpose, with universal love, letting the cosmos gently touch a strand of my hair as I stand in the sun, eyes closed. It’s enough to keep me going through the firestorm of anxieties that is modern life, the flying squirrel acrobatics of my own thoughts, the emotions that blow across my landscape like time-lapse photography.
The poet Wallace Stevens, a lawyer by training who composed many of his poems while commuting by train to his job at the Hartford Insurance company, wrote beautifully about the sensation of meditation. (Speaking of finding flashes of divine among the quotidian stuff of our days.) Here’s one of my favorites:
Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze décor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands of the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled fingers dangle down.
Have a great weekend! I’m going to take some time off from blogging this weekend as I am feeling some (self-created) pressure to churn out posts simply because I said I would. I’m going to try a little less doing, a little more being, maybe let some fire-fangled fingers dangle down.