The day is young and dark. Every minute or so a wind stirs up outside that has no discernible direction. A sharp, forceful billowing emerges for a few seconds and then subsides. I have no way of guessing when the next gust will emerge. The house holds its ground but you can feel the walls bristle as the force momentarily engulfs it.
Weather teaches a lesson in chaos. Perhaps that’s why people – especially here in Ireland – love talking about it.
We enjoy talking about things we don’t understand. Like weather, religious mystery generates enough human breath to form its own mighty wind. No wonder that nature was humankind’s first religion. When we began to understand the physics behind natural phenomena, however, we banished the gods to a realm of physics that more effectively defies understanding. So that humanity could relish the dizzying high of ignorance once more.
I am nearly two weeks into the Waking Up course, a series of guided meditations by author and neuroscientist Sam Harris. I have wanted to develop a practice of mindfulness meditation for quite a while now but have failed to do so. It’s one thing to complete a task. Developing a regular discipline requires far more effort and the combination of the ease of the app and my prior affection for Harris created just enough anticipation to push me out of my inaction.
The common theme I have discovered so far is the repeated challenge, in each new moment, to sit with impermanence. Each new thought that emerges, each sensation in the body, each sound you hear will arise and then pass away. You did nothing to occasion any of these phenomena, and there is no way to pin them down. My practice is to simply observe them arise and then let them dissolve from consciousness without judgment.
My tendency is to cling. To become lost and tangled in such thoughts, to mentally bow like a branch in whatever direction the blast of wind pushes. To meditate, I am learning, is to be this very house in which I am sitting cross-legged, to note the existence and insensibility of wind and weather and yet remain still.
Though I meditate in silence, sitting on a cushioned ledge my office with legs crossed and spine erect, I am now on my feet at my standing desk, music playing. The band is Hammock. Soundscapes ebb and flow, swell in volume and then recede, steadily like ocean waves, no punctuations of silence in between. Like massaging hands on the back, maintaining a connection of touch. The hands most frequently slide to their next location but when one hand is forced to break connection, the other hand lingers on the back to preserve the continuity. No distinct boundaries as long as the experience persists. Like waves on a shore, overlapping.
If you asked me to hum a melody from a Hammock song, I could not. Melody is too distinct, too ordered. So much of life is the same. We get hypnotised by the ebb and flow of experience. We forget to pay attention. The voice coming from my phone speaker during the guided meditation reminds me to pay attention – to the breath, to sounds, to sensations in the body, to the present moment. When I inevitably become lost in thought, Harris’ voice gently, non-judgmentally calls me back to the present moment. A minute before the guided session ends, he invites me to start over.
As long as I remain focused on the present moment I am not fretting about the future, I am not regretting or stewing on the past.
Impermanence. A beautiful-sounding word yet so often a bitter thought. My fledgling meditation practice assures me it needn’t be accompanied by suffering. The people that have come into my life and gone almost as quickly as a breeze, or a torrent of harsh weather. My aging parents who will die, probably before I do but not necessarily.
My mind returns to a colour meditation I heard on the “Sex Ed” episode of the Radiolab podcast. The father in the story shares an example of the sort of guided meditation he’d use to help his daughter weather the excruciating menstrual cramps she experiences as a result of endometriosis. The degree of pain we experience, just as with pleasure, heightens with expectation. By focussing on the present moment and accepting its impermanence, we can let go of unnecessary suffering. Not all of it, but some portion.
Think of the sea, think of the clouds, think of blue
Consider the vastness of the ocean
It goes on and on
And waves come and waves go
And nothing stays and nothing is permanent
It all seems very real
And yet it is gone
And waves come and waves go...
One day my existence, all memory of me, will be erased. And I’m OK with that. No future loss can wrest from my hands – open as they are – this present, already-disappearing moment.