Slowing Down and Filling Up

This week, doing a TSK exercise (“Going without Going”–modified to allow the ‘goer’ to remain seated, instead of walking very slowly, which for me has always invoked a struggle with balance as one foot lifts and moves through space more and more slowly). But, remaining in a comfortable seated position, I noticed an absence of the familiar tension between body and mind that is required to maintain balance while standing on one leg. This tension, a source of frustration, was something I experienced regularly during the ten years I studied Tai Chi Chuan at the Chinese Cultural Center in the 70’s and early 80’s. Also, doing yoga here and there during retreats, I dreaded the move when you put your foot on the other knee and stand there like a palm tree on the coast of Florida during the landfall of a Category 2 hurricane.

However, remaining seated, with one hand on one knee and the other hand resting on a cheek, then very slowly raising the lower hand up toward a cheek and lowering the upper hand down toward a knee–the movement becoming slower and slower–I was surprised that a single cycle up and down could effortlessly occupy 20 minutes. And during this time, a sense of movement through space and time kept continuously flowing without pause (as happens in Nature with the shifting of tectonic plates and with new growth each spring at the tips of oak branches).

A spirit of slow evolution took over my body. However, my mind—freed from the tasks of physical coordination–felt unoccupied. Unused to its role as mere spectator, feeling like a ‘backseat driver’, my mind came up with a “TSK” metaphor. Free to drift, I imagined a sailboat, sometimes running free and sometimes tacking into the wind. My hands, passing one another in space, felt like a center board and rudder cutting through open space (as they used to cut through the water of the Saint Lawrence River that flows around the Island of Montreal, where I grew up); time was the wind filling the mainsail of the 14 foot Aykroyd dingy I used to sail back then. (An interesting aspect of sailing is that your boat can either ‘run free’, in the direction the wind is blowing, or ‘tack into the wind”, when the prevailing breeze pushes against the sail and the rudder and centerboard, anchored in the water, make that windward direction the only way forward.)

In life it seems that time sometimes pushes and sometimes pulls us. Although we may often feel that time is compelling us along just one track, there are times when we feel free to sail in various directions, as we respond to and embody time’s dynamic energy. And since space allows us to dig in with our intentions and engagements, we are also free to notice the waves lapping against the hull as we glide along in an afternoon’s breeze.

With the help of a bit of knowledge, with one hand on the tiller and the other on the mainsheet, making small adjustment to both (to assure that the sails are not luffing and thereby stalling our boat in the middle of the wind and water), I glide along with the mainsail as full and rounded as a teacup brimming with wind. At such times there is not even the illusion that I am in control of these forces of nature as they flow across the face of our world. I imagine a rider might feel this integration and intimacy atop his favorite horse (although my own adventures in riding, in the 70’s on Alberta ranches in the Rocky Mountain foothills, never rose to that level of harmony and comfort); as the horse’s free-running exuberance allows his rider to feel the wind in his face, the creak of the saddle and the warmth of the galloping giant beneath him.

I remember one morning, during my final winter living in Montreal (around 1975), getting out of bed and, prompted by some impulse I can no longer bring to mind, I kept my eyes closed. I walked across the floor on bare feet and went through the start of my usual daily routine, which included making a glass of orange juice from a packet of Tang (invented for astronauts in space) and pouring water from the kitchen tap. It was then that I decided to open my eyes. There on the counter, I saw the glass of orange juice, full to within a small fraction of an inch from the top, with not a single drop on the counter. The message that rings down to me now, in present time, is that, even with my eyes closed, time and space have my back.

And here we are riding on the back of Planet Earth galloping through canyons of starlight—in bodies, I have heard, that have been gathered together from the minerals of exploding Super Nova’s across the farthest reaches of the cosmos. What on earth has possessed us to toss our empties and fast food wrappers into the sage brush and pinon trees on the edges of this trail that is carrying us through these beautiful hillsides?

This morning I tried this same practice again and this time came armed with a question. Could my ‘unemployed mind” sink into the apparent ease with which my body was able to slow down, with arms floating in space—more a drifting than a directed journey, content to go nowhere in particular, yet always heading toward the next docking place (one toward the knee below, the other toward the cheek above), so that the usual purposeful, automatic heading from one station to the next (like a subway train on which the engineer is doing a Sudoku puzzle between stops, before easing the throttle, coming to a full stop, opening the doors, focusing on each oft-repeated task—perhaps scratching his head while he waits for the passengers inside to exit and the ones on the platform to step inside.

My arms drifting through space, time slows down until the in-breath and out-breath are the fastest game in town. The ticking of the clock, the occasional shift in my eyes seeing unexpected reflections, a passing plane overhead, a reflection in the sun room windows of the interior of the house, not visible from where I sit, surprising me–all appearing before my mind. It’s enough for my mind to feel occupied with a role of sorts. As my arms continue to sail through space, I wonder about the role of ‘knowing’ in all these passing appearances,

Now a raven is cawing as I write this and it occurs to me that ‘knowing’ spreads out and covers a wide realm of life, in so far as my mind relinquishes its need to insert its own agendas into the spontaneous arising of appearance. Not that agendas are irrelevant; agendas will always show up—returning to their home base in mind—wagging their tails behind them.

Another memory showed up during this morning’s exercise, which felt at the time like a pleasant metaphor for how I am always moving through space, carried along in a flow of time, while ‘knowing’ knows its way through every juncture. It was a memory of working on a barge that carried shift buses and ore trucks back and forth across Lake Babine, where an open pit copper mine had its operations. My job as deckhand involved standing at the front of the barge and—once docked– attaching ropes to the pylons and removing chocks from under wheels so that the vehicles could drive onto shore. For several months, my friend Paul (with whom I had arrived at the mine, barely making it up the final hill through falling snow, on balding, summer tires) was the tug boat operator. He was the one who had to ease off the throttle, throw the engine into reverse to slow the momentum of the heavily laden barge, and then–sensing the first touch against the edges of the slopped sides that guided the barge into dock–adjusting, responding, noticing, and engaging the various ways of ‘knowing’ needed to guide physical relationships within space and to harness the dynamic energies unfolding in time.

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