As I sit on the stoep, sewing a button on my shorts, I am reminded of the Zen poem that touched me in the midst of our hard lockdown: “Master, how can I face isolation?” It speaks so beautifully of the benefit of retreat, away from our familiar social interactions and identity. I was grateful for the meditation practices I have learnt that allow me to face my inner dragons with compassion, and felt prepared for the time. More, though, it highlighted for me, the mirror-like relationship between our inner and outer worlds. When we care for one with intentionality, the other is cared for too.
"Master, how can I face isolation?
Clean your house. Deep down! In every corner. Even the ones that you never felt the courage and patience to clean up. Make your home bright and well cared for. Remove dust, spider webs, impurities. Even in the most hidden place. Your home represents yourself: take care of it, too.
Master, but time is long. After taking care of myself and my home, how can I live the isolation?
Fix what can be fixed and remove what you don’t need anymore. Dedicate yourself to the patchwork quilt, sew the start of the pants, sew the worn edges of the dresses, restore a piece of furniture, fix everything that is worth repairing. The rest, throw it away. With gratitude. And with the consciousness that your cycle is over. Fixing and removing what’s outside of you allows you to correct or remove what’s inside.
Master and then what? What can I do all the time by myself?
Sow! Even a small seed in a vase. Take care of a plant, water it every day, talk to it, give it a name, remove the dry leaves and the weeds that can choke it and steal precious life energy. It’s a way to take care of your inner seeds, your desires, your intentions, your ideals.
Master what if the void comes to visit me? If the fear of sickness and death comes?
Talk to them. Prepare the table for them, too, reserve a place for each of your fears. Invite them to dinner with you. And ask them why they came so far to your house. What message they want to bring you. What they want to communicate to you.
Master, I don’t think I can do that…
Your question is not to isolate the problems, but the fear of facing your internal dragons, the ones you always wanted to get away from you. Now you can’t run away. Look in their eyes, listen and you’ll find out that they put you against the wall. They isolated you so they could talk to you, like the seeds that can only sprout if they are alone.
I’ve always thought of our inner and outer worlds, or our body and mind, as opposites, but my current experience is teaching me otherwise. They feel like two aspects of the same whole, bridged by intention and consciousness. They may appear as different dimensions, yet more and more I see them woven together – the warp and weft of our experience.
As I clean out the basement, I clear away unskilful habits; as I water the herbs, I wish for an abundant harvest in Southern Africa. On days when I feel energetic and community oriented, I head to our local park to weed out the blackjacks or to plant succulents and ferns; on other days, when I yearn for stillness and solitude, I sit in meditation, weeding out judgements, and planting appreciation. We can transform the world from the inside out, and transform ourselves from the outside in.
I remember noticing the same relationship between body and mind on a mediation retreat. I'd always found it easier to meditate after yoga, when my body was settled, but on this retreat, there were no movement practices. I was frustrated and assumed my body would soon seize up completely. Yet after the time it took to accept the situation, I found the opposite to be true. The more my mind relaxed, the old places of physical tension relaxed too. Having sat in stillness for a few days, I tried some yoga. Lo and behold, my legs went behind my head, where they had not visited for a while! So, body and mind, inner and outer worlds, are no longer opposites for me, but just different starting points from which to experience a place of integration and wholeness.
This New Year 2021, I am advising myself to keep things simple. I've always preferred being out and about, actively planning and engaged in projects, but I'm learning to work differently. I'll now focus on whatever calls for attention – a button, a wilting plant, a grieving friend, a research proposal. 2020 gave us such a clear teaching about our interconnectedness. Now I hope to use that wisely. Instead of getting overwhelmed by all the structures and systems I don't seem able to change, I'll remind myself that caring for whatever is in front of me is caring for the whole world.