Flash Flood Sutra
March 7, 2011 § 5 Comments
Sometimes life can unfold like a teaching. This is what happened to me last night. I lead a meditation at Yoga Shivaya in Tarrytown. I had a few qualms about going and if anyone would come out because of the heavy weather and the storms that were predicted later. But it was wonderful to sit with others and listen to the rain. After the sitting and walking meditation, I spoke a bit about the reflexive tendency to judge our experience all the time, and about the deeper tendency to see things in terms of I, me, and mine. I read a poem by W.S. Merwin, “To the Face in the Mirror,” about how, well, strange it seems sometimes to be to try to find a permanent self: “Because you keep turning toward me/ what I suppose must be/my own features only/ backward it seems to me/that you are able to see me only by looking back from somewhere….”
I spoke of those rare and liberating moments when we are filled or accompanied by a finer awareness, an awareness that may be with us in suffering as well as exultation. True compassion can blossom at such times, when we are between judgements, between “yes” and “no,” when we are more in the present.
Most people seemed to find the talk somewhat beneficial, but not everyone. A man spoke up and said that the practice itself was so simple, just letting go. Why had I put all of these words on top of that utter simplicity? He added that he just couldn’t get his mind around the words I was saying (He kept gesturing like he was raking in a bounty, only clearly not). His reaction filled me with a deeper question. Is it possible to be really present? Even if we clear away the obvious obstacles, fear, anger, delusion. Is presence possible?
This is the paradox that really hits you on a long silent retreat. You watch the workings of the mind. You watch how layered your defense against the present moment really is: “There are experimental studies that suggest that we do not become consciously aware of a sensory stimulus until about a half a second after its onset,” writes Christian Wertenbaker in the “Imagination” issue of Parabola. Since many of our reactions occur more quickly than this, it can be argued that our conscious choices are illusory, after-the-fact rationalizations, and in many circumstances this can be clearly shown. So ‘free will’ does not exist. But this does not take into account the power of the imagination. We can anticipate various possible reactions to a stimulus, and prepare the brain to react in one way rather than another…..One can observe in oneself a constant interplay between perception of and reaction to external phenomena, and imaginative anticipation and prediction.”
This is what made Wertenbaker’s interesting article thrilling to come upon after a hair-raising drive home on flooded roads last night: “In Gurdjieff’s Movements, or sacred dances, one is asked to maintain a constant awareness of bodily sensation and at the same to visualize the next position to be taken. Thus the present comes into existence.” Most of the time we are lost in the distant past or the possible future, but there are certain conditions like the Movements that act like a Zen koan, confounding us and pushing into a more vibrant, embodied state of awareness, pushing us towards presence: “One can speculate that the constant interplay between the immediate past and the immediate future that occurs when the present is consciously attended is also a vibration, serving a mysterious role in the self awareness of the universe, and made possible by the proper use of imagination.”
Imagine that! Most of the time we are constantly predicting the immediate future, suppressing its unpredictability or incorporating the unexpected into our self story: I knew it would happen that way. But last night driving home from the Tarrytown Sangha, the rain became so heavy, the Sawmill Parkway was closed because of flooding. Almost home, my car was overwhelmed with water. No visibility, no traction, I sat gripping the wheel and sensing my body, grateful no one else was on that patch of road, imagining what would come next. Visibility cleared, I watched myself begin to tell a story about the immediate past–Boy, that was close!–only the story was cut short because something similar happened again. A great wave of water splashed up over the windshield, then another way, then the tires losing traction. I sat sensing myself sitting and breathing and trying to imagine what would come next. Even as I type this, I can remember the stillness in that moment, the clarity of being between sensing what was and predicting what would come. There was the attentive state of not knowing with great vigilence, there was waiting, there was knowing the unknown, knowing that certainty that that safety and control is mostly an illusion. Knowing that what we call presence is open to Mystery.