I have what a friend once called “clever feet.” I’ve always relied on them; they turn on a dime, and they’ve never let me down. I climb, I hop, I zip around; When I’m busy—I’m always busy—my feet ping from one task to another. Sometimes, I actually complete something before dashing on to the next.
I want to meditate more consistently, but I avoid the unsettling quiet. Most evenings, I experience an edgy, uncomfortable feeling in my body. It’s a bone-deep dissatisfaction with nothing I can name. I am (in theory) committed to exploring it in meditation. But that would mean I’d have to feel it. It’s much easier to distract myself, and often, that’s what I choose to do.
Daily walking in the woods is a compromise. In the surrounding presence of the forest, my mind tends toward quiet. I admire people who can lose themselves in the passage of light among trees, but I have to keep moving. In many ways this is a blessing, and I’m very grateful for a strong body. Still, exercise plays into my busy-addiction. When that edginess overtakes me, it’s much easier to hit the trail than to sit in silence for even ten minutes.
And the compromise has an uneasy quality. The promise of stillness shimmers in the green forest, but I habitually pass it by. A few weeks ago, I hit on a solution: What if I start running a few times a week? If I work the edginess out of my system, I’d give myself full permission for sit in silence. Right?
Armed with this logic, on April 25 I was trotting through the woods, keeping to clear, flat stretches, careful of my 59-year-old knees. I was meditating on the cleverness of my feet. Not five minutes before it happened, I actually remembered a friend who’d had a nasty fall that required a shoulder replacement, but I thought in response: “I don’t fall. That’s not me.” I remembered several times when I stumbled, always with a graceful finish. Yep. I was good. Confident in my self-view, I revised my plan to avoid hills. The incline I started down was clear, open and inviting.
Well. If I was writing fiction, here an editor would complain, “set up far too obvious.” Do I need to mention the rock? I barely felt it. I went flying, my arm braced. A crunching pain in my shoulder, a crazy roll, and I landed on my back at the crossroads of three paths, arms flung up in surrender. I blinked up at the watchful trees. “Okay,” I thought. “I get the message.”
Long story short—a man who happened by with his daughter offered me a ride (but his car was farther away than my house) and his cell phone (but I had no numbers memorized). A mountain bike guy had found an old inner tube in the woods, and wearing it as an improvised sling, I walked home. One foot in front of the other, after which my sister-in-law drove me to the ER, where I discovered that lively conversation with someone for whom you are extremely grateful is a fabulous painkiller.
I knew I was lucky the day of the accident, and now that I’m healing with ten screws and a steel plate in my upper arm, I know it still. Not just because my arm is recovering; not just because my social life has new dazzle due to the wonderful, helpful people in my life who can perform feats like opening jars and chopping vegetables. I’m incredibly lucky, because with a setup like the one I had, it’s been impossible to miss the point.
There was no way in hell I was going to jump off the hamster wheel without being pushed.
And here’s the thing. We all say, “I’m too hard on myself.” Or “I should relax more.” But there’s a reason why we manipulate our lives to avoid the very quiet that we long for! Being confronted with my own mind during the enforced stillness of healing has been intense…imagine a manic monkey, high on painkillers, with a talent for scripting horror shows. Over the past two weeks, I have: Diagnosed myself as mentally ill; been convinced I’m addicted to opiods; consigned myself to “failed writer;” and spiraled into 3 a.m. panics, completely out of control.
Did I mention I’ve been wanting to meditate more? Truth is, I’d been waiting for optimal conditions. But there are no optimal conditions. There is only now. When “now” is pretty damn difficult, what do you have to lose? So I began to meditate—knowing my life depended on it—in the middle of a mental hurricane.
Every hurricane has an eye, a center of poise and calm. And there’s only one way to get there. In order to travel to the quiet center, I had to experience the wild mind…allowing it to scream, accuse me, shame me, and predict doom, without shutting down, numbing, or running away.
Running away was what I’d been doing all along. But somehow I knew that falling into silence would not destroy me. So I stayed with it, stayed with the pain and the fear and the inability to sleep in more than one position, knowing that the world was not against me. I already knew I needed to stop. On the day I broke my shoulder, the world simply rose up to meet me there.
There’s nothing heroic about it. My adjustment to stillness is all about plodding. It’s seeing my cat at the window, silhouetted against the flowers, and loving what I see, rather than rushing on to the next five urgencies.
It’s about placing the attention, however tentative, on a single breath. One inhale. One exhale. Then another, then a few more. Then I feel tension in my chest. Crap, it means I’m not relaxed. I can’t do this; maybe I need more drugs. Maybe the drugs are the problem. Wait, I stopped taking them…When was that? Was it Tuesday? Thursday? Maybe meditation has nothing to do with it. Maybe I’m not meditating at all. Maybe I’m just high.
Then mindfulness spontaneously ‘wakes me up.’ I didn’t make it happen, but suddenly I’m experiencing the breath. Inhale, exhale. The chest softens. The thoughts fade. Something shifts inside. I’m shaky, vulnerable, but all I am now is breathing. I’m in this moment. Am I okay? Just breathing. Not adding anything.
I see it: I am not those thoughts. Rather, from a larger place in my mind, I experience the scenario-spinning part of my mind as a windup toy that’s trying desperately to manage the outcome of future events.
That’s all. In that half hour of meditation, this is my big revelation: the suffering mind is a windup toy, and I don’t have to buy into it. In that difficult stillness, I have touched something real. I creep downstairs to find something to eat. I still feel crappy. My arm hurts. I may not sleep tonight.
But I am happy. It’s small, but it’s huge: I can experience the workings of the mind without getting sucked into its game.
It’s a relief to know that in the same world where terrible things can hit at any moment, a mysterious grace rises up to catch us when we shatter.
It’s about taking the risk to place one foot after another without focusing on the outcome. It’s about taking one breath, then the next. It’s about accepting vulnerability… And finding great joy below the surface of things.