Five years ago, my family endured a terrible loss. My beautiful and vibrant Aunt Sarah, my mother’s youngest sister, died after fighting a ferocious battle with cancer. She was only forty-five years old. She left behind a husband, two young daughters, a large family who adored her, and countless friends. I’ve heard it said before that tragedy can do one of two things to a family 1) strengthen its bond and dissolve any underlying tension in relationships or 2) cause an irreparable rift which can ultimately lead to painful silence. Sadly, my family experienced the latter scenario. After Sarah died, my once tight knit and loving family, was suddenly scattered and distant. I always identified myself as a “we.” I was proud of my big, raucous family. I wanted to protect them and boast about them. That “we” never recovered and the very foundation upon which I planted my feet was suddenly unstable.
What does this experience have to do with meditation? It’s coming.
During the first year after Sarah’s death, I didn’t believe that my body was physically powerful enough to be a container for the magnitude of grief I carried. How was it possible that I could still move, still breathe under such oppressive sorrow? I needed to feel something else – anything else – other than what I did. I wasn’t sure if I needed to fill my heart or empty it. A very dear friend of mine told me that the worst thing to do with sadness is to let it paralyze us. He said you have to physically set your body in motion so that the sadness can change shape. It cannot do that if we let ourselves atrophy. He told me to put my sneakers on and start walking. He promised me that I would find solid ground once again. He said it didn’t matter where I went or how far. What mattered was that I just keep moving.
So I did.
I started taking epic walks throughout the city. I’d walk the the 6.1 miles of Central Park Drive sometimes more than once. I’d walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and wonder through neighborhoods until I was lost and needed to ask for directions. One day, I was sitting at the Poets House Library in Battery Park City which overlooks the Hudson River. I knew that there was a path all along the water, but I wasn’t exactly sure how long it was. I decided to find out. I also knew that the Little Red Lighthouse was on 181st St. right on the water underneath the George Washington Bridge. My plan was to get there.
That afternoon was the first of many walks along the Hudson to the lighthouse that I made and continue to make. It’s approximately 13 miles and in the beginning it took me a little over three hours. I began this walk during the summer months and the sun was overwhelming that close to the water. Odd as it may sound, I was happiest on the days when I came home with a sunburn. The sensation of the heat inside of my skin reminded me that I was very much alive, that I could indeed feel something other than the grief I had been feeling.
My mother asked me what I thought about on my walks and I answered with one word:
During my river walks, my mind was still after not having been for so very long. My body did the work for my mind as it physically worked against the thoughts that threatened to invade it. I was reduced down to nothing but my senses. I had never experienced something like that state before. I did some research and discovered that the word, anoesis, refers to a state of mind consisting of pure sensation or emotion without cognitive content.
At last Wednesday’s meditation workshop with Sharon Salzberg, I was struck by so many things she said, but a few particularly stood out to me. She mentioned that we don’t need to beat ourselves up about struggling with a sitting practice as that isn’t the only kind of meditation there is. She also spoke about allowing the body to feel, to invite contact such as holding a cold cup, tapping someone on the shoulder, acknowledging the breeze on your skin. Meditation can begin with sensation.
I felt as though she had released me from something….perhaps my fear that because I had such difficulty with a sitting practice, that I would never truly do it “right” or be “good” at it. I remembered my walks and how I transformed during those hours. Suddenly I didn’t feel like an impostor in the meditation world.
My teaching load was light on Friday and I had no afternoon classes. I had worn my sneakers to work and as I was packing up, I decided that I would walk the river. I hadn’t done it in a while. Yes, it was bitter cold and I would probably regret it. But Sharon said that moving counted as meditation and I hadn’t done my practice yet. I bundled up, crossed the Westside Highway, and found the path.
I didn’t make it all the way to the lighthouse because that would have just been bananas in that temperature. I did, though, make it about four miles. I was quickly reminded of how my mind settled as my body adjusted to and accepted each sensation. Yes, it was freezing, but I told myself to feel the wind, to almost see it pinking my cheeks. At one point, I took my hands out of my gloves so that I could touch my face and feel the cold in my skin.
I am sure this sounds insane. But here is what I’ve learned as a result:
There is a poem by Antonio Machado with this line, “Travelers, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” I think of this line when I think about meditation. I’m starting to understand that there really isn’t any right or wrong when it comes to the practice. You don’t get a gold star for sitting a certain amount of time and no one revokes your meditation privileges if you come up short. You discover your practice through practice. Your path to stillness will reveal itself to you. For some of us, the path unfolds through the metaphorical walking done as the mind winds itself into a state of quiet. For some of us, we need to put on sneakers and get a sunburn.
Either way, solace is waiting for us.
With great love,