It is rare among people nowadays to admit to an introspective, questing mind. Most people are not interested in questions about the basic assumptions on which we base our lives. Many are embarrassed to admit they have a “secret” world where thoughts are often unexpurgated and wild.
I struggle even today to find the words to express the richness of inner experience. I don’t think there are words for some of these thoughts! And some are not even thoughts. The brain puts forth an amazing array of content, conscious for a moment then gone like a puff of smoke.
I struggle to accept the limitations of language. It is hard enough to live with one’s thoughts but we also yearn to share this inner world with someone else. Communication when it occurs between two people goes beyond words. We listen with more than our ears; we learn to understand with more than our left brain (for those of us who are right-handed!). To me to find this level of communication with another human being is like to my idea of what heaven would be!
While we live in a glut of media, much of that is diversionary. They keep us from “tuning in” to ourselves, to those quiet voices in our heads that often tell a story different from what media say the world is like. Media by definition is intermediate. They link us to something else, like Zen’s famous “finger pointing at the moon.” Language itself is a finger pointing to what goes on in the dark, unfathomable recesses of a person’s mind. Art too. Art points at the ineffable world of forms, shapes, color, sounds, much of it ineffable stuff that inhabit an artist’s mind. It’s to an artist’s credit that he attempts to find expression for this inner world – even when he knows he fails every time!
On Fresh Air today I listened to Terry Gross talk with Judith Shulevitz, science editor at The New Republic. Towards the end of the conversation, Gross asked Shulevitz about her previous book on the Jewish Sabbath. Can she write both about science and religion? Shulevitz replied that she turns to both religion and science for hints on how to live. As example she described her own family’s observance of shabbat. She told Gross she was not slavish in her observance but the one thing they do is to create “a pause” in their lives by turning off electronic devices from sundown to sundown.
In her book on the Sabbath Shulevicz quoted Abraham Joshua Herschel who had also written about the Sabbath, calling it “a cathedral in time.” In the three monotheistic traditions of world religion there is the observance of the one day of the week, one day out of seven when people are enjoined to take a break from the onslaught of activities we get so caught up doing day in and day out. The “one day” – Friday for Muslims, Saturday for Jews, Sunday or First Day for Christians – is spent marked off from the other days.
Those of faith talk of that one day as consecrated to God but everyone can benefit from taking such a break. In many traditions, on that one day people spend the time with their families or studying teachings held sacred by the people. Religions teach us how to live. They are not always in touch with current insights and can be used to justify violence or intolerance but at their core religions provide ready-made answers to question about how to use ourselves and how to relate with each other. The proper subject of religion is what can make human beings nobler.
Every morning, upon getting out of bed, I crawl to my cushion on the floor next to my bed and sit. On cold winter mornings I unfold a soft woolen shawl I bought from a Tibetan gathering in Bloomington many years ago and drape it over my shoulders. I use a piece of Indonesian batik and a Palestinian keffiyah to cover my bare knees. For 15 to 30 minutes I sit there in the awakening light and listen to my breath. My attention does not stay there. Thoughts come, thoughts go. All the while my body stays motionless and that physical silence is to me what the ritual is about. It trains my body to be still.
Some mornings the mind too becomes still. That is the sweetest thing when it happens but that is not why I sit. It is enough that the body is quiet, a reminder that one day the body will be quiet and not know movement ever again. Somehow I feel being reminded of that moment makes every other moment more precious.
Again it is not about doing anything. For this time in the morning I sit and let purpose and reason take a pause. Let the world go on without me. Just this bit of time. And that seems to matter, this consecrated bit of the turning world, a “cathedral in time.”