I awoke in panic. Something as heavy as a large snake was slithering over my face. My eyes snapped open and my mind tried to make sense of such an inconceivable horror. Then I recognized my own hands, made heavy by the weight of completely numb arms, sliding down the front of my body. With great relief, I was back in my own room, anchored in a stream of time in which, a few hours earlier, I had dozed off leaning against the head board with my fingers laced behind my head. My arms, asleep from having lost circulation and therefore delivering no messages to my brain, felt like some alien creature, utterly unconnected to the rest of my body.
Oliver Sacks (Neurologist and author of “Awakenings”), shares in his book, “A Leg to Stand On”, his personal experience of an accident that did far more than badly injure his leg. He was left dealing with a part of his body which his mind no longer recognized. As a neurologist, this condition was familiar to him through the screams of a patient who, during hospital rounds, he had witnessed trying to throw his leg off the bed. Now he had to deal with his own alien appendage that not only returned no sensation, but had been exiled from an inner mapping that defined his body. Interestingly, it was with the help of a favorite piece of classical music, played during his physical therapy, that he was able to gradually reintegrate this prodigal leg. Perhaps proof that we ourselves are ripples in the stream of life, waves running across the face of an unfathomed ocean of Being.
I wonder if we can extrapolate from this kind of physical discontinuity, something comparable in our psychological make up. Our determination to locate a particular ‘me’ within the rhythmic waves, passing around and through us, leaves out of account anything that has not been mapped out beforehand. We seem to view ourselves as an existential rock standing in the surf, sometimes high and dry and sometimes submerged, but always at the center of a pre-defined reality.
Who is this self–that indispensable protagonist in our daily drama? Who is this familiar “I”–standing at the helm and separating what is real from what is not, what is near from what is far? Who is this familiar ‘me’–bearing the brunt of both the welcome and the unwelcome, of both good and bad fortune? And what about this “mine’ who, like a friendly tax collector, siphons off as much as he can get away with for himself?
What are the edges of this ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’? What if the edges we perceive are not real, but a projection born of wanting to hold some things inside and to keep other things outside? What if in mapping out a personal terrain, and then attempting to defend and colonize it, we are perpetuating a way of being that is inherently limited and confining, in which anything new and wonderful is kept at bay?
Perhaps the problem is not that we view ourselves as residing at the center of our experience, and thus at the center of the world we experience. Perhaps the source of our confusion and alienation is that we view ourselves as being stuck in a private, walled-in preserve whose borders we zealously defend. If instead we viewed ourselves as having a ringside seat in a mysterious, undiscovered openness–and learned to appreciate its living, rippling intimacy—then a richer kind of experience could infiltrate our dreary reruns.
We live in a society that is infatuated with a certain kind of “mindfulness”: an “applied” mindfulness that may improve performance in whatever we are already doing, without much concern for the benefit or harm that may flow from those “doings”. There is another kind of mindfulness, a being present within an open field that has no pre-established boundaries. We can discover ourselves at the center of a rhythmic, rippling confluence of being, without needing to claim ownership, without mapping what is mine from everything else, without needing to winnow the useful from the irrelevant.
It’s as if we are swimming in the center of an oceanic wholeness and by relaxing mindfully we find ourselves bobbing in unison with the waves that pass around and through us. Following each ripple and each rhythmic overture as they arise, we discover ourselves free to explore inconceivable vastness and to find there our intimate, welcoming, and natural home.