I’ve written previously about not being able to shake my formative experience as a child, reveling in being outdoors and working with my hands, which lead to my first career as a stonemason.
Perhaps I needed that hands-on, physical release because, like many men of my generation, I was divorced from my feelings. I loved theories and ideas, living in my head most of the time. I needed the physical escape of lifting rocks in the here-and-now to release the pressure of countless competing thoughts, swirling in my head.
Due to occupational infirmities as I approached 50, I enrolled at Antioch New England Graduate School to learn a new trade as a psychotherapist. This experiential program discounted my 1950s-male, analytical mind in favor of opening up my body, starting the process to teach me how to feel.
It goes without saying that this was a necessary adjustment: Joining with a patient in session requires being in the here-and-now, not lost in abstracted thought.
While at Antioch, I started a meditation practice, which allowed me to see my mind in a new light, what Buddhists call “monkey mind:” A cacophony of rushing thoughts, like an overactive troupe of monkeys swinging wildly from one axon tree to another in my brain.
Chop wood, carry water, Be real. John-Paul Sartre and Joseph Campbell, among others, agree that we create meaning through our actions—not our wildly gyrating thoughts. Nietzsche, too, exalted in the active life.
Philosophy for him wasn’t something to be contemplated from an armchair but an act that sprung from physical exertion. While young, Nietzsche felt most alive trekking up mountains in the Alps, while I built stonewalls. But, with age, as is often the case, the exploration moved inward.
For me, meditation has become a crucial tool in my investigation. I look at it as an active, intentional exercise, not the passive activity popular today, where folks simply observe incoming experience. Active meditation is what the Buddha intended, according to Buddhist author and teacher, Peter Doobinin.1
“The Buddha’s mindfulness is highly proactive….we are involved in a conscious intentional effort to put our mind on an aspect of our experience. We aren’t passively noticing experience. We are making a choice about where to put the mind and following through on that choice. We are doing something, with a sense of purpose.”2
My meditation practice has changed the course of my life, despite only doing it on an irregular basis. Rarely at first and more frequently as time goes on—as I listen to my breath and keep returning to it when thoughts pop up, as they always do—it happens! A wide smile spreads across my face, beyond my control, and I feel an oceanic sense of bliss: A mystery beyond words, transporting me to a higher realm.
Since the pandemic struck, meditation has become my solid rock in a sea of unease. However, that can lead to the paradoxical situation, often encountered in Eastern thought, where the wisest action may be no action.
The Tao Te Ching, the most translated book in the world after the Bible, is about that kind of wisdom. It was written around 400 BC, during 300 years of rancorous fighting between competing petty kingdoms in China.
Whereas, now, we live in fear of our community being attacked by Covid-19, back then, the ever-present danger was marauding invaders of a different sort, intent on raping and pillaging.
The key practice of the Tao involves becoming still, like a mirrored lake. According to the Tao, taking action by doing nothing—until the time is right, which is beyond our conscious control—is the gateway to the wisdom of the universe. Or in the Master’s own words:
Do you have the patience to wait
’til your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
’til the right action arises by itself?
The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting,
She is present, and can welcome all things.3
To my way of thinking, that is good advice to follow during this pandemic: Get real. Chop wood. Carry water. Be humble. The future is not ours to foresee.
1 – https://tricycle.org/magazine/mindfulness-conscious-decision-making/
2 – ibid.
3 – The Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation: Chapter 15.