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?