“All of the troubles of man come from his not knowing how to sit still.” ~ Blaise Pascal
Sitting down to write today I found nothing that pressing, both inside and out. Last weekend was filled to the brim with entertaining a dear friend visiting from out of town. I showed her the sights of my city and we dined and walked and more or less wore our old selves out. Leading up to her arrival I cleaned and cleaned and cleaned places I didn’t know needed cleaning. With all the catch up work finally caught up, I discovered my Sunday had lapsed into a state of busy nothingness.
Busy because my mind and my body are so used to doing. Just as I was grasping the state of nothing really needing to be done, anxiety startled me as it crested over the tranquil sea of my open afternoon. It took the form of a worn row boat filled with the familiar clamoring of thoughts and perceptions of all I haven’t done, need to get done, or will never seem to find the time to get done. It nearly sank with the weight of all my non-doing.
Such is the state of this life; something is always begging us to finish this or start that, whether it’s finding a recipe to use up all that zucchini in the garden, or wondering if you should call your cousin whom you haven’t spoken to in years, or what to write in this week’s blog post. All of the gnawing to do just furthers our attachment to this realm and the inexhaustible hunger to become something or other, whether it’s a great cook or thoughtful kin or a productive writer.
Even as I write this I wonder if I have enough to say about nothing. Searching for words to state my non-case is just more posturing by the ego and the misinformed belief in a self that needs to be doing to prove its existence. Despite Descartes catchy phrase, “I think, therefore I am”, proof of a self doesn’t lay in pondering its own existence. Rather the delusion keeps shape shifting; the self we knew two hours ago may have morphed into another species with different desires and emotions. My mind searches somewhere for words and ideas that will dance with each other and then it remembers the watermelon in the refrigerator and suddenly tells my body its hungry. A few more sentences primed from the creativity pump and I sense a longing for more time to write, more spaciousness in my life and more nothing to embrace.
The tragedy of time is its culpable nature. It will collude with the doer within us in any venture we set before it. Our time at work can seem interminably long while the weekends seem to arise and pass in a matter of moments. A long to-do list never seems to be completed while no list at all feels delinquent in some odd way. As time stretches between this sun drenched summer and my last meditation retreat in the cold quiet of winter, I find my ties to worldly affairs adhering more to the template of my days. While I made time for morning and evening meditations upon my return from retreat, now I relegate my contemplation to mainly just the morning, finding temptations in this corporeal plane and at the same time aching for an end to the temptations.
The blue of the sky outside my window is as clear as the notes of a Beethoven concerto. The wind moving with the leaves of the trees along my street is content in its time and space. There are no lists, no becoming beyond its already perfect wind nature. It will move and stop, run headlong into the sea and soar through the valleys of mountains where the sky there knows the same Beethoven refrain. Nothing is a way for us to unhinge the doer and sit down with the knower, a knower that sees beyond the lists, beyond the cleaning and the contents of the refrigerator. It whispers to us to lean into that space of not thinking, not becoming anything. To let go of any sense of a self or someone in control and become like that tree or the sky or the wind. To cling to nothing, desire nothing, push nothing away but the false repositories of satisfaction living in the myth of some external thing.
As much as I recognize the trappings of this illusory self, I know the to-do lists will return. For now, I’ll sit in gratitude with the immeasurable, the unknowable, the nothing that is wider than the sea. And for this afternoon and for the warming stalks of corn still stretching into that blue sky, I say thanks…for nothing.
Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith
by Mary Oliver
I listen and look
under the sun’s brass and even
in the moonlight, but I can’t hear
anything, I can’t see anything—
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,
nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker—
green gowns lifting up in the night,
showered with silk.
And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing—
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,
the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet—
all of it
beyond all seeable proof, or hearable hum.
And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in dirt
swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn’s beautiful body
is sure to be there.
“Little Summer Poem Touching the Subject of Faith” by Mary Oliver, from West Wind. © Houghton Mifflin, 1997.