Back to so-called reality after four days of silence and slow time — four largely exhausted and distracted days, this time around. But that’s all right. Sometimes the best you can say of an experience is that you didn’t give up, and I can say that at least. And a few more things…
I consider the place I return after these meditations “so-called reality” for two reasons. First, there isn’t only one reality; each of us lives in her or his own, which makes for a rich life together. And many misunderstandings too. Also, I want to challenge our common assumption that the world of jobs and relationships and errands is more real than the landscape of thoughts, feelings, and dreams.
There’s a zen story about a man waking from a dream of sipping nectar and shimmering gauzy wings: for a moment, he’s uncertain whether he’s a man who was dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly who is dreaming of being a man.
When I began intensive meditation, I was very clear on which was the real reality, and sitting seemed a vacation from it. I’m now a decade less sure. Having experienced how strongly our invisible inner world colors our experience of the visible outer one, I’m no longer willing to say which is more real. So I take the easy way out and concede they’re equally real — the trick is acknowledging this and learning to navigate gracefully between them: the narrow, winding middle way.
Which might explain why when I headed to my favorite coffee shop the morning after and sat with an espresso, listening to Yo-Yo Ma on the radio and looking out the window at snow falling diagonally, I felt I was doing exactly what I’d been doing for four days; I’d just changed the scenery.
Later in the day, feeling I needed to be “productive,” I decided to tackle my underwear emergency and managed to make it to the laundromat next door. This felt like a decisive step in the direction of the “real” world: fluorescent lights, trash overflowing its bins, sickly sweet detergent smell. I must be “Back” now. Then I caught sight of my reflection in the washer door: sitting perfectly upright on a metal folding chair amidst hyperactive brightness, watching clothes whirl around like the errant thoughts and feelings of the past days. I’d gotten nowhere again. Maybe because there isn’t anywhere to get? Because it all really is one world?
My zen teacher said once that if you’re really practicing, meditation isn’t part of your life; life is part of your meditation.
Butterfly or man?
This post resonates with me a lot as I was navigating the “inner” world of my feelings, emotions and thoughts, and the “outer” world of my doing and interactions with others. Something I know we do all the time but somehow I experienced a spiked intensity during the past two weeks. It gave me an opportunity to experience and observe.
I came to a realization that both worlds are simultaneously “real” and “unreal”. They are “real” because they are my actual experience in the moment, perhaps the best way I knew how to feel, think and act in a particular moment. At the same time, they are “unreal” as I noticed how dynamic my perception could be. Cornered in fear and self-doubt amped by the scar tissue from the past, I was compelled to act in a way where I felt alienated from myself. Driven by second-guessing and intense emotions, I felt like turbulent water and I lost clarity. That experience felt very real and it was real; however, it closed up what I could have seen in the moment – the reality was more than what I saw and experienced in that moment. In this sense, it is “unreal” as very limited perception about the reality.
I’m grateful that as human beings we have the gift of reflection. It is in reflection moments I was able to examine the turbulent water, watching how it entangled itself and observing its layers as it sedimented. I was reminded that we are always more than our emotions and thoughts. Simply because I can observe them, I am something more. This gives hope – the reality has plasticity. It expands itself from the horizon of our individual vintage point if we let it as we calm our fear.
“Maybe because there isn’t anywhere to get? Because it all really is one world?” — I want to believe so: it is just one world bears the beauty of diverse angles to experience itself. It is one and it is many; they are both real. We are just not yet certain about this since we can only experience life from our particular angles (most of the time).
Recently I’m reading the book “Proof of Heaven”, a neurosurgen’s unusual near death experience. It was quite a humbling experience for me. We are privileged being a human being with the ability to think, create and remember. However, we are also burdened by this privilege. What we are capable of experiencing about the “world” is perhaps just like a speck of dust, a drop of water, or a ray of light in the boundless “is”, something escapes the capture of any word. Meanwhile, we are incredible lucky to have the privilege to live in the world that are accessible to us, private or public. There is no need to go somewhere – we are here with the world, as a beautiful drop of water, knowing we are simultaneously vast.