Can you imagine or remember a moment when simply looking, listening, or tasting was all you needed in life? When time disappeared and nothing else was desired, nothing was thought missing? Or when something was just so beautiful and unexpected, all you could do was smile or laugh?
In No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan, the poet and translator David Hinton wrote “once the mind is emptied of all content… the act of perception becomes a spiritual act.” It becomes selfless, simply a mirror reflecting what is there before it. Slow, respectful. Letting each thing be utterly itself. No violence is possible. No anger or letdown. Closer to an act of love than anything else. Just loving by sensing.
Hinton says this perceptual clarity is a way of awakening, of seeing the world and oneself in the same instant. It is a way for one being to meet another.
Wouldn’t that be something?
We experience such moments in so many ways but lose them somehow in all the bustle of our lives. We stare transfixed at a work of art or nature or hear a song that stops all thought, or we read a poem that takes us to a new world. The beauty clears us of ourselves.
When I was younger, I hitch-hiked from New York to California and stopped at the Grand Canyon. I remember standing at the edge of it, just staring, immobile, barely breathing. From behind me I vaguely remember voices of other tourists arriving but didn’t want to turn away from the canyon. A woman I didn’t know approached closely and suddenly saw what it was all about, suddenly saw what was there ⎼and maybe what wasn’t. Whatever idea she had of the Grand Canyon was inadequate or wrong. All she said, and she repeated it over and over again, was “Oh my God. Oh my God.”
Mary Oliver, in a poem titled “Mysteries, Yes”, said:
Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,
And bow their heads.
Or, in the poem “When Death Comes,” she tells us,
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
We often expect that life will be like a shove from behind, or merely a bump. Unexpected, yet not, we are surprised and turn around with clenched fists. We build in our mind a Hannibal Lecter but instead find Mr. Rogers. Or instead of a threat or an enemy, we find someone as surprised as we are. Someone who openly welcomes us with kindness. We realize the contact was an accident. And we laugh. All the tension dissolves in an instant, and butterflies fly from our mouth instead of curses. We feel delicate and open instead of iced and closed.
In his book Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida clarifies this. He ties together the breath, laughter, and insight and provides a wonderful resource for anyone interested in meditation practice. Our ego grows up in our thoughts, antagonisms, and expectations, a stockpile of nuclear weapons, a world of opposition. We might, for example, constantly compare ourselves to or compete with others, even those we love.
An internal pressure can develop and be stored not just in our thoughts but in our bodies, moving us too quickly through life to fully breathe, be touched, understand. Thus, we are always ill at ease, burdened, seeking a remedy sometimes in the worst places. But just once let this stockpile be revealed for what it is, let the expectations be exposed for how unnecessary they are, and we laugh out loud ⎼ or cry. The pressure is released. It’s an amazing moment.
Laughter, says Sekida, (mirroring theories by the philosophers Bergson and Schopenhauer) is when the impossible distance between two contradictory ideas is suddenly dissolved. Clouds part, the sun emerges⎼ what a relief. And this is all physicalized in the breath. The tension that had accumulated in the diaphragm caves in. Our bellies are tickled.
How we breathe can make what we see, read, or dance come alive. Meditation, too, comes alive as we slow or extend the breath, especially the exhalation, and let the pressure go. We extend our attention and leave mind fresh. The wall we had created of thoughts and skin, the false understanding of the world we had grasped onto, is faced with something new and undeniable, and it is shattered, replaced with a readiness to look, feel, and act. Working with the breath isn’t the only form of meditation or mindfulness practice, but all forms can help us perceive the world more objectively and clearly.
Who knew this “simple act,” this breathing, something we have engaged in each moment since conception, has such a profound relationship with a sense of humor?
Of course, not all laughter is like this. We laugh for many reasons. Instead of acknowledging and reconciling the unreconcilable, laughter can arise as we feel the doors opening and we get afraid. Maybe we’re not ready and we shut it all down. The laugh covers the pain or hurls it at others or tries to stop any understanding of itself. But oh, how beautiful is a true belly laugh.
When we turn around and allow ourselves to stop and listen, stand in awe, be present with the Grand Canyon or grand poem or grand smile or breath ⎼ the tension is released, a sort of love and laughter is born, and we step more fully into living.
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This post is republished on Medium.
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