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Lions Roar : March 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 57 worked on a poem he was writing. That man had an abun- dant heart. His death was important, but so was a poem. Soon before the end he stayed up into the morning hours, making long-distance calls to friends to say good-bye, to ask if they needed anything, were they taken care of, should he leave them funds in his will. I tell you all this because there is a sea of possibil- ity out there. Again, I say pick up the pen and find it for yourself. Don’t begin with an idea: Begin to un- derstand your life—and death—with the point of the pen touching paper. JUST SITTING—OR DO THE NEOLA Let’s try something else, too. Drop it all—forget about the technique. Throw the anchor out the window or into the center of the Indian Ocean. Just sit for twenty minutes. Don’t worry if fifteen of the twenty are spent obsessing about your wedding dress and it turns out you’re sixty and in all likelihood you won’t marry again. Or you drifted off to a deep desire to suddenly cut your toenails, and you thought about it over and over—where you would get the clippers, how you’d bend over the tub rim. Oh, such fine detail. For the first few years, every retreat I sat I imagined mak- ing a pot roast. I’d carefully peel the onions, get out the cut- ting board. Add carrots, brown the meat. It made no sense. I never cooked one when the retreat was over—or thought about it in my daily life. This is the mind. If you were only present to the sitting for a moment in the full twenty minutes, you did not fail. There is no success or failure, no great place you are going. You are “just sitting.” To wander, to obsess, to lust—you get a flavor of the mind, a direct meeting. Without acting on any of the thoughts, you get to see how they rise up and—if you’re lucky—pass away. Sometimes we get stuck. You get to observe the nature of being stuck. But eventually with this “just sitting,” thoughts are only another thing, like snow out the window. They get your attention for a moment and then they don’t. We need to give enough space in “just sitting” for our thoughts to settle. Let the mind quiet of its own accord. It takes time to become who we are. It’s like shaking up vinegar and oil. Put down the bottle and wait for the vinegar to sink to the bottom, for the oil to become clear. Sit still and watch it happen inside you. dit n- he about it In “just sitting” you can drop any exact effort. There is a sound. You hear the sound. You feel hands on thighs. Then you might notice your breathe. Finally you are propelled into the deep unknown: open space between sound or feeling or the vagaries of your thoughts. Just here. I’d been taught just sitting in a very formal way, but it didn’t become mine until thirty years later when it seemed I gave up everything for a few months. Daily I went to a café called Bread and Chocolate and sat at a table near a big window, holding on to a tall cup of steaming water, taking an occasional sip and nibbling at a chocolate chip cookie that had to last an hour. It was then that I dropped all effort, even discur- sive thinking came and went. I wasn’t caught by anything. Maybe it was all the practice before that brought me to this place. Maybe I was finally exhausted. But you don’t need thirty years to discover it. I have a student named Neola. Isn’t that a fine name? When I first met her, I immediately started a little ditty: Roll over, Mineola . . . When nothing else seemed to work for her I suggested she go to a café and “just sit.” I created a shorthand for “just sitting”: “Do the Neola,” I told the class. Neola loved having something named after her. And when a practice is your namesake you have to get good at it. I told her to write me a postcard from one of the cafés. Then I gave her another instruction to confound her: always follow the person behind you. Ridiculous? No? Yes? You figure it out. Don’t exclude any- thing, including the dog bark, dozen roses and daylilies, the wails in Iraq, the cement, the nothing that was your life. Being right on the point, the point being there is no point. You go out between breaths. Your notebook becomes luminous. You suddenly know what to write. One of the students said, “’Do the Neola’ sounds like a dance.” Yes. A dance. The great dance. ♦ Excerpted from Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg. © 2007 by Natalie Goldberg. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc. Your notebook becomes luminous. You suddenly know what to write. MAR 52-57.indd 57 MAR 52-57.indd 57 12/19/07 2:14:35 PM 12/19/07 2:14:35 PM