There are fifty people sitting silently on poufy little pillows around the large hall. We are on a ten-day silent meditation retreat at Spirit Rock. Forty-five minutes of sitting meditation, forty-five minutes of walking meditation, all day long. Two sessions of qigong, morning and afternoon. Vegetarian meals, everything completely silent. We are surrounded by rolling hills of tall golden grass. We are settling ourselves in the big warm hall. They ring the little gong.
I breathe, relaxing into the stillness and silence. Thoughts come and go. I swim through the usual sludge, then it gets quieter, and eventually I am aware of a deep wondering. What am I? Who am I? I wonder about the essence of who I really am, the rock bottom, the whatever-it-is that doesn’t change. Surely there is something. Is it gender? Is it my values? I look at my life, my roles, my history. I go down through the list of all the things that feel important and unique about me, but it turns out to be…slippery. I can’t find anything solid.
So much has changed and keeps on changing. I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago, or even five. Physically, of course, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, as well. My beliefs have changed, my way of seeing myself and the world, my values, my goals. I think surely being a woman is part of my deep essence, but as I look back down the years my awareness slips back to another lifetime, and another, and another. Some lifetimes as a woman, others as a man. Some as a slave, and others holding the whip. Gender, race, nationality, roles, professions… One by one I look at them; at first each one feels fundamental to who I am, but then it slides away. There’s nothing to hold onto. Each lifetime making different choices and asking different questions. What would it be like to be a soldier? A beggar? A dancer? A priest? A potter? I lose all the anchors of my identity. Everything I have held onto as defining who I am fades away. None of them feels essential or eternal. There is a moment of panic, then I just let it all go.
I feel myself dissolving into mist.
After a while something else begins to emerge, a seemingly contradictory but equally true thing. I feel the clear and absolute nowness of this particular lifetime, of being born in this place, at this time, and into this family. I am this specific nationality, race, and gender. I have this kind of body and this kind of mind. I have these values, these strengths, and these challenges. I feel all this, this constellation, this soup of who and what I am right now. It has weight and substance and truth.
The two awarenesses come together in my mind. On one side I feel the solidity of being me and all that I am, in this lifetime, in this moment. On the other side there is nothing but mist. I hold them both and just sit with them.
They ring the little gong. Time to get up and walk out into the morning sunshine and the golden hills. Time to put these bare feet onto this beautiful earth.