I’m finding that what I’m needing’s often within me, just hidden, like a vine covered well.
A kind of ignorance sets me chasing outside treasures before considering what I possess. Just last week I scavenged three stores and two internet sites for the perfect cotton socks, only to find after my purchase three nice unwrapped sets stored in the back of my drawer since Christmas.
So too, beliefs and impulses influencing me remain concealed.
That’s why I meditate — to take stock of myself lest I overlook what’s present.
Slipping off my shoes, I step into a daylong retreat on Lido Key. Ed turns from the bookcase and waves, sipping water from a blue and white porcelain cup. Fran smiles and picks up her colorful meditation scarf as I place my purse on the couch.
After our greetings, I gingerly enter the Japanese style zendo, inhaling a palpable peace gathered over many dedicated sessions. Light streams from high windows to the left onto the cork floor. Buddha sits on an altar ahead beside freshly picked mangoes and soon to be lit incense. Ish, eyes closed, settles into his favorite cushioned chair. Michael nods, tucking his white cotton shirt into loose white pants. Our host, Estelle, enters and thanks us.
“Why thank us?” I ask.
“Because, when we meditate together, we encourage each other’s practice, “she says. “And as we face ourselves just as we are, without judging, our compassion naturally arises and benefits everyone.”
Legs crossed on my mat, I glance at others evenly spaced along opposite white walls. I bow in gratitude, as they quietly adjust wooden stools, straighten backs and clasp hands preparing to go within. Together, we slip into silence each Sunday afternoon and once a month for this Saturday retreat.
During five silent hours, we sit, walk and eat, tending to breath, observing thoughts, perceiving sensations. Fears and desires for our future, tendencies and memories of our past arise and dissipate.
I let suggestions waft by: “A piece of chocolate would be nice,” “I’ll be penniless without this awful job.” I focus on the present, bearing a peace in which I come to dwell. Free from the sway of ideas and feelings, I navigate my way into awareness.
I used to think meditation was mysterious; I now see it as inner housekeeping.
Many plain folks known as Quakers who settled our country did too. Last week, my friend JoAnn visited from Cross Creek bringing a pamphlet called “Light to Live By” by contemporary Quaker Rex Amber.
“You’ve gotta read this,” she says. “It’s what I want to do. Hopefully, Friends in my Quaker Meeting will too!”
Eagerly absorbing each line, I learn how early Americans gathered in silence bringing Inner Light to their consciences. “For with the Light,” Quaker founder George Fox said, “man sees himself.”
Together, Friends quaked and sweated, confronting demons, unveiling deceit and disengaging from temptation, until minds grew clear and hearts peaceful. With attitudes and intentions aligned with reality, they saw we all share the same Inner Light and acted accordingly. Many boldly stood to shelter Negroes seeking freedom through the underground railway. Women like Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul spoke out and won women rights.
The light within is brilliant. Who knows what we’ll see and do if we look with our inner lanterns?
Ten years ago, seeking solace during a hectic holiday trip on Long Island, I visited a Quaker Meeting in Manhasset. Driving to the end of Shelter Rock Road, I approached a light allowing me to turn left or right, but not continue straight into the parking lot of the Meeting House. Amongst the bustle of luxurious stores like Lord and Taylor, Gucci and Ralph Loren, this quiet 18th century Quaker building had no acknowledged entrance. Driving off the blacktop path, I stole forward from traffic onto an empty gravel parking lot. Leaving my car, I strolled upon bare earth, inhaling silent vestiges of simpler days — towering oaks, thick wooden paned windows and sun-bleached porch boards. As I entered the dimly lit structure, a smiling middle aged woman greeted me. Alma, one of three remaining members, came each Sunday for worship, in case a visitor arrived.
We stepped into a spacious wooden beamed room, as light trickled in from all sides and quietly sat on bare benches near a back window. Eyes closed, I felt soothed by a serene presence. At the end of a peaceful hour of silence, as if a tender hearted elder whispered in my thoughts, I heard, “Don’t get caught up in what’s wrong with the world. Focus on the inner light of truth. Bring it to all you do.”
My soul grew alight in a radiance that remained with me for months. After Alma and I toured the grounds and said our goodbyes, I meandered back onto Shelter Rock Road, among darting SUVs, with an inner stillness. Driving past elegant, glittering store windows, I remembered many to my young mind senseless shopping sprees with my mom to these neighboring sites for turtleneck sweaters and corduroy slacks, and thought how better satisfied I would have been to simply sit on that hard bench in the Meetinghouse, had I known it was there.
Forsaking shopping for nobler pursuits has bought much social good. Mahatma Gandhi sat quietly, deciding how to respond to Britain’s might so as to undermine its aggression. While in jail, Nelson Mandela faced his fear and rage, purging and strengthening himself to later lead his people to sovereignty. Both directed boycotts dismantling destructive power structures.
We sit in silence to take hold of ourselves and the world.
Accelerating to converge with the hurried stream of motion on the Long Island Expressway, I consider how, as a teacher, the definition I most often hear of ‘noun’ is “person, place or thing” and ‘verb’, “action”, as in ‘boy hit ball’ or ‘girl bought dress.’ We’re captivated by this world of concrete nouns and action verbs. Little do we value abstract nouns indicating ‘ideas, qualities and feelings’ and linking verbs telling ‘state of being’, as in “I am a citizen” and “I am contributing.” Yet, these name our conditions of existence and bear the seeds of creation.
I think of the Oriental saying on my friend Andrew’s wall hanging, “Thoughts become Actions, Actions become Habits, Habits become Character and Character becomes fate. “
The thoughts we hold affect our lives more than the objects we possess.
Slowing to exit at Sunnyside Boulevard, I glance at somber, bare trees and grey ground – a lifeless winter scene. Yet, I’ve learned from my compost pile that activity quietly brews below. Orange squash and purple eggplant peels are broken down into brilliant black soil nourishing new life.
Without inner activity, no outer work can be done.
Like my students, however, I’m culturally geared to completing tasks. I busy myself daily with a litany of chores – wash sheets, water tomatoes, check on Barbara, buy coconut oil – as on a treadmill of endless doing. I can easily forge ahead without considering what’s driving me: “Why am I checking my email again?” “Do I really need to go to another holiday event?”
I tend to think solutions mean changing things, not seeing them more clearly. Kahlil Gibran reminds us in The Prophet, “Let us not be too quick to call (something) evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?” Rather than reacting, I can ask myself, “Why is Susie scribbling instead of practicing the ‘silent e’ rule?” “What might the confederate flag on his license plate mean to the young guy across the street?”
I’m noticing looking deeper and acting thoughtfully is what brings peace and joy.
So, I try to leave space between activities, interspersing inner and outer work. I let last minute texts from parents to reschedule sessions sit and settle, so I can consider what’s best. Saddened by news of national guards pelleting peaceful protestors at Standing Rock, I sit in my car before entering Ace Hardware to buy canning lids.
Situations need to be digested to make good use of them.
To do so, I sit with sordid circumstances I’ve borne, observing tightened muscles, tangled emotions, and disheveled thoughts. In time, I spot mistaken beliefs leading me astray. “It’s not my place to change my parents’ political views.” Humbly, I repent – think again — and act more respectfully.
I’m practicing to make this rhythmic dance my pattern.
One day, perhaps, mine and others’ souls will naturally flow, like breath, between inner and outer realms, in light and endless renewal.