we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

Young Buddha leaves Home, Part-3: Awakening to Old Buddha’s Gift—the Bodymind

A short selection from Essay Twenty-Six in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice.

It is by a mathematical point only that we are wise, as the sailor or the fugitive slave keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life. We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we would preserve the true course. —Henry Thoreau [1]

It was only after eighteen more years passed in the wake of this first adult ‘opening’, years at times freighted still with such existential and phenomenological questions and yet backlit with memories of wholeness, and it was only after many promises were kept, and only after a few inevitable disappointments were accepted, that panic and despair paid their final visits as credible despots. Like many, I let them go in my own good time, with no training in formal practice. For such is the universality of an awakening human life that even Gautama didn’t lay claim to a one and only “right path”. This said, the prescription for an enduring escape from suffering was his, and to avoid the quicksand of reinventing a tradition of mindful living and detached thinking I would eventually have to ground my experience with the help of a mindfulness community.

You’ve probably heard that following the breath plays a big part in meditation. There are some good metaphysical reasons given for this, and the very practical reason that the breath is always available as an object of meditation, but my years of casual introspection, exploring the relation between my thoughts and my overt behaviours (as I said, I wasn’t yet ‘sitting’ at this time, but poetry is nothing if not an exercise in recording one’s more fleeting insights), had begun to reveal an exquisitely material reason. Tired of living in a ‘model reality’, I was finally ripe for the effects of pure method. So, in the spring of 2001, I was walking along a quiet back-road to appease an unquiet mind, when it occurred to me that feeling the air moving in my throat helped me to stay, at the same time, aware of the very subtle speech impulses taking shape in the same anatomical area. I discovered that whenever these sub-vocalizations were interrupted by a concurrent awareness of “breath just moving”, then my body, the trees, the Pepsi cans in the ditch, also “just walked”, “just rustled”, “just were”.

After thirty-five years believing that meditation was just another dubious exercise in reconditioning (an unfortunate impression left by a certain autobiography of a yogi), I finally learned how to see-conditioning. I was doing walking meditation. As any vipassana teacher might instruct, my feet and legs were “just stepping”, the pain in my neck was “just tensing”, and all these aborted speech impulses with their attendant reflections were “just arising”, “just falling away”. I could ‘see’ the verbal bars of my conceptual cage as just behaviours in my throat and mouth, no less habitual, and no more solid, than the breath moving there. I could even feel a little of what I began to call my attitudinal ‘wall-paper’, for these more pervasive body tensions were continuous with the stiffness in my neck, but much more subtle. I could see that my living reality itself, which all this thought-structure had been built to frame, was …unaffected. And the framework itself—the bars, the wallpaper—oh how insubstantial all that was! And is.

* * *

Over time (for language and the thinking mind are fundamental pieces in the human tool kit, and must be re-calibrated carefully and slowly, so they obscure as little insight as possible) I came to think of my experience on the back road as the meeting of an old friend. One who was walking with me all along, but I’d almost forgotten he was here. And so I took up my practice very deliberately, because I wanted to get to know this Friend better. I knew, beyond all the self-protecting shadows of doubt, and knowing even that these doubts would still visit me, also as ‘old friends’, that the good will of this Friend I had rediscovered can never be truly lost, or even shaken. Because it is my own.

Notes:

  1. Thoreau, Henry David. 1957 & 1960 [1854 & 1849] Sherman Paul, ed., Walden [and] Civil Disobedience. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Riverside Editions, pp. 49.

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