But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
you're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody
—Bob Dylan, "Gotta Serve Somebody"
My left knee is on fire. Breathe. The pain is intense and exquisite. Breathe. Some attention goes to the pain. I listen and breathe. I stay with the breath. Where the pain had been now becomes a charged emptiness in my leg, and I am sitting in silence, attention fully absorbed in the breath.
The last period of sitting during a day of Vipassana meditation is a portal. It is the most painful period of the day and offers strong resistance to reconcile in the crucible of practice. Sometimes I loiter at the edge of deeper stillness, unable or unwilling to let go of the persistent attachment to experience.
Sometimes I pass through the portal and enter a silence that is joyful and profound, a state in which even the most important-seeming thoughts sizzle and disappear like droplets of water on a hot woodstove. Even the notion of self goes away, absorbed into a greater totality of awareness.
Though the periods of real meditation are poignant, I have come to understand that they are not the object. There is no object. There is only the practice. Breath. Attention to breath and bodily sensation. Attention remains with the breath even as some becomes caught in a web of associations, as though the attention has a breath of its own, it moves from deep absorption to shallow dissociation in a long, slow cycle.
Every level of consciousness has its own automatism: Thoughts carry on with a will of their own; pain in the body ebbs and flows like the swing of a grandfather clock's pendulum; emotions swell to heights of joy and collapse into unfathomable depths of depression. Meanwhile, deeper experiences follow their own patterns. All without any decision of my own.
So where is choice? Is there any freedom at all in this human being?
More breath. More attention to the breath, and to sensation in the body. I see that there is choice, though not the ordinary kind; not a choice between this or that experience. The choice is where to place my attention at this moment. And its action is immediate, inseparable from the intention.
This is a fragile freedom, this inner atmosphere of voluntary engagement without grasping or rejection; freedom to engage with inner and outer experience as it is.
Home after the retreat, I find myself in the living room with family. My partner is talking about a book she finds fascinating, a fictional work imagining new uses of technology to solve the problems of the world.
My mind begins to argue with the premises of the book. "The problems proposed in the conventional view are not the real problems," it says. "They are decoys." Just as my mouth is about to open and take issue with what she is saying, something else in me remembers to practice, and I return my attention to my breath, and to her voice. She is enjoying talking, but pauses and looks at me, expecting an interjection that would fit the pattern of our conversations.
Seeing that I'm still paying attention, she continues with a deeper enthusiasm.
Again, I'm irritated by the ideas and the mind starts arguing. "Technology is not the answer to anything. Obsession with technological solutions is at the root of humanity's problem." Once again, the mouth moves to offer opinion, and again something deeper guides the attention to listening. The mouth remains still.
She continues. My mind pipes up a third time. "These ideas are so horizontal. They don't allow for the action of a higher power. In this they are limited, ignorant." My mouth tries to speak, again another authority redirects the attention.
She finishes with a smile of satisfaction at having fully expressed her line of thought. I listen to the silence and the crackling of the fire in the woodstove. Finally: "That's really interesting," comes out of my mouth. And I mean it.
The mind's arguments have passed and I feel free.