Stillness & Tea
I sip my tea, running my heart’s fingers over the contours of compassion. This wet, cool morning intensifies pain in my hips and pelvis. With the pain, my stillness intensifies. I am unable to escape so I stay. After months of pain, my mind is worn down with ‘weather report’ remarks to itself, as if today’s alarm bell of pain is an emergency. It isn’t. It is just there. It is time to move on inside myself. As long as I sit still, I am free. This situation allows me, finally, to explore through the world of physical quietude what courses beneath.
Stillness & Silence
Stillness and silence are traditional routes in spiritual traditions to the union-communion all humans naturally crave. In ‘Freedom from the Self: Sufism, Meditation, Psychotherapy‘, Mohammad Shafii postulates that language, though appearing to be a device which bridges the separation between people actually creates or reinforces the sense of separation by cementing the subject/object experience. Conversely, when two or more people share silence, particularly an intentional silence, they grow close, intimate. In meditation traditions, community silence full of side-by-side solitude and privacy, brings the greatest intimacy. Right now for me, sipping tea alone in my room, stillness invites silence, and together they open me to intimacy with light, space, sound, existence. They intensify both self-encounter and Union.
I sit. I don’t write, until later. I learn a lot. Stillness in particular contains my childish discomfort. I meet my early years of powerless captivity in conversations that were, perhaps, intellectually rich but emotionally fraught with the message of my vulnerable inferiority. This is the general condition of children; nothing specific to me. Growing up is not a perfect process. In any case, the actions and activities in which I was encouraged became the feverish pursuits of my adult life—dance and ‘being good’, both of which amounted to a silencing. (Not to be confused with silence.) By miraculous good fortune, I found a Spiritual Guide and Path that opened self -inquiry without having to abandon dance or being good; I could keep my core stability, no matter how unreal, while the Path ate away at it, replacing it with something truer and more robust.
I’ve identified this drive in myself fully and repeatedly, but a few tears is not enough, a bit of insight is not enough. To integrate an aspect of self, we need to live in it, steep in it, suffer it. As I sit now, it isn’t the typical child’s reality that I note, but rather the way it has run me around. Even when occupying stillness, I have avoided my experience of it. Even when occupying silence, I have avoided my experience of it. It is difficult to experience our experience, to come close to ourselves, to integrate and become unified, and then to finally stop achieving long enough to move beyond self into Union. It doesn’t matter whether our practice is still or moving, quiet or noisy. What matters is that we not avoid doing practice and not avoid ourselves in the doing.
My emerging question to myself is “Why did I escape, avoid? Why not savor?” Escape, or avoidance, and distraction are the sleight of hand seducing us away from what is really happening. I savored so many aspects of my early life—the ocean, the summer sun, reading a book on my bed through long, dark winter afternoons. What kept me from sipping all moments fully? Capacity? Flavor? Do we only like sweet, not savory or bitter?
I don’t remember hearing the word ‘compassion’, or having an idea that compassion is an endeavor, a life work, something all humans have to consciously cultivate. I had adults or pets that modeled compassion. My father was tender with wild animals, and often with me. My dog was the soul of compassion, coming over when I was sad, circling then thumping down beside me with a sigh, letting me bury my face in her fur. And I noted she did this with anyone needing comfort. Modeling was a good beginning teaching, but a word or two would have been helpful.
I sit in my still silence, my silent stillness, the guards of pain walking my borders and bow because they have brought me this gift—observation of my experience of compassion. This is a surprise. I didn’t think I would discover this. I didn’t know that compassion—an attribute I’ve chanted about and given lipservice to—and which, frankly, I’ve judged as not fulfilling or important enough, would be the very thing I’ve so longed for and been so lost without. Caring for my darling dying father fueled my internal sparks of love into strong, sustained fire. It was beautiful to burn with him. I had to have the hospice social worker tell me that what I did for my father was indeed compassion. I didn’t even recognize it. I thought it was love. Yes, she said, it is love, and that selfless love is compassion. Everything that has to do with the heart, which is everything, is up for me. A time, a place, a situation to steep as, every morning, the tea leaves steep into tea.
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