Jan and I participate in a twice monthly quiet meditation at the First United Church Green Wood. The building has wall to wall windows that look out on a small woods which give the sensation of being surrounded by nature while being cozy and protected from the elements. The sessions run about an hour and are held on the first and third Saturday’s at 8:30 AM. They consist of about 20 minutes silent reflections, 20 minutes walking meditation and then a few moments of devotion where someone shares a reading then we each take turns reflecting on the passage.
I led a session last month and I shared was a poem by my favorite living poet, Wendell Berry. Berry works a small farm in Kentucky entirely by hand and horse team, in addition to writing poetry, essays and fiction. A few decades ago he started writing poems on the day of rest that he takes weekly. Some of these poems were collected in the volume Sabbaths (Sabbaths, North Point Press (Berkeley, CA), 1987) and more appeared in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979-1997, Counterpoint Press (Washington, DC), 1998). The poem I shared appeared as the first poem in the first of these volumes.
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.
I wanted to share this poem because it touches on some of the problems I encounter with silent devotions like meditation.
On the face of it, there’s nothing “difficult” about meditation: it doesn’t really require dexterity or strength or endurance. It doesn’t really even require patience because patience implies one is waiting for something to happen. During meditation, only meditation “happens.” What’s so hard about sitting still?
Personally, I often find many difficulties when I try to just sit still. My limbs itch or ache or sometimes a tickle emerges somewhere on my body. I’ve grown more accustomed to such distractions and I can notice them, hold them at arm’s length so to speak and, at least sometimes, I thus gain the ability to choose how I respond. Berry’s image of circles on water, gradually smoothing themselves out is a great encapsulation of this feeling.
The hardest part for me of just sitting still is being alone with myself. I generally meditate for about a half hour a day, a practice I’ve observed for the last couple years or so but, though regular, meditation has not become easy, not exactly, or at least not yet. The consolation I take is that there’s not really a wrong way to meditate. I frequently joke that meditation has allowed me to realize how lonely and unhappy I really am — but also to realize that it is okay to feel lonely and unhappy.
Berry describes this process with deceptive ease. The arrival of “what is afraid of me” could be a timid squirrel running through the leaves, but it reminds me of the regrets I dredge up, the past events where I have failed to act with grace and dignity. In my everyday life, I would likely try to warn off such feelings, to send them skittering away from my consciousness. But meditation allows me to live for a moment in the presence of those regrets, those opportunities past and lost, allows me to both acknowledge the sensation and to let it go. I feel like I might be able to notice such opportunities to extend grace in the future.
I am also plagued by worries, by fears of future interactions and conditions, the oppression of daily to-do list to my concerns about the direction of the world. Big thoughts come that threaten to crush me. I am afraid of many things, I find. Berry describes this sensation too. When I read his poem, I imagine a bear shuffling through the autumn leaves, its massive limbs and coarse hair. But the poet carefully omits any physical description of “what I am afraid of.” It refers equally well to the phantom worries I conjure when I’m just trying to sit still. Again, though, meditation allows me to “live awhile in its sight,” to savor the feeling and to gradually let it go.
The final stanza makes the poem come alive to me. During meditation, many unpleasant memories and imaginings often parade by me. Why would I ever want to endure that or allow them audience. Because through meditation, I gain an appreciation for even these fears. Berry puts it as hearing their song, the inner truth of even unpleasant sensations. Ultimately — though I confess infrequently — I am also able to hear my own song. Berry’s subtle turn is both witty but true. Though I sit quiet and still for those moments of contemplation, there is a kind of music, a kind of fittingness that emerges. Despite its difficulty, meditation does allow me to hear my own song.
Let me tell my “joke” again: meditation has allowed me to realize how lonely and unhappy I really am — but also to realize that it is okay to feel lonely and unhappy. When I own my fears and regrets, when I hear my own song, I think I’m perhaps able to be more responsive to new opportunities as they arise.