Palo Alto Review, Vol. 10, No. 2. p. 33-34. 2001.
"We Give By Being"
I am walking to work like every other weekday afternoon, through mid-town Manhattan. Except today is different. A wondrous grace has descended upon the city. Simplicity and calm reign in the honking, clotted turmoil. It seems time has slowed down. Leisurely, I look deeply into the faces of the oncoming pedestrians. It strikes me how easy it is to see into people's hearts.
One man stands out. He elbows his way towards me through the crowd, badly out of sorts. Some annoyance eats at him. His face is angry, constricted with hatred. He has narrow scheming little eyes. Here is a man incapable of delight, unable to draw nourishment from the simplest things in the environment. He's out to get something more. He knows what he wants. I can see it in his face. But I can also see he's blind, in the sense he can't see the light all around. His actions block it out so that it doesn't get through to him. I get the feeling the things he's after will just pull him down even farther. He comes closer. I know he's no threat to me. He's a threat to himself. He passes, and is gone.
What's left is the ubiquitous rush and hassle -- the clenched faces of ordinary people pinched tight into their little worlds, hurrying here and there, with this on their mind and that. In them, I see myself. That's exactly how I usually am on this daily hike from West 21st Street, where I live, to East 40th, where I have to be sitting at my desk working at 5 P.M. There's a "me." There's a "here." There's a "there." The "me" is rushing through "here" to get "there." Only today is different. Something has happened. I can't help but notice the huge difference.
Face after face after face I encounter, strangled in its own self-definitions, like I myself usually am. Amidst all this, the occasional child glows like a dancing lantern in the dark. Today, I too am a glowing lantern. The streetlight turns red. The torrent of people pours onto the cross-walk. The streetlight turns green. The crowd amasses at the corner. I weave my way up the avenues and along the cross-streets with a rare and beautiful state that attaches me through every pore and fiber of my being to what is all around. The trucks loading and the trucks unloading, parked along the streets; the men, standing around, handling boxes. The traffic whizzing by. Yellow taxis pulling over, disgorging passengers, taking on new ones. Driving off again. The traffic lights changing; and then changing again. I walk along savoring the calm that pervades it all. I glide through the street crowds. I look deeply into a face and then the next one. The next one. The next one.
There is an expanse that feeds me with its overabundance. Everything is beautiful, orderly, and right; and seems, somehow, to be going in slow motion. Without rushing, I move between the people, cars, taxis, trucks -- with an effortlessness that is in such striking contrast to my usual way of late. I marvel at the pattern of the traffic, the flow of the city's busy metabolism; the amazing variety of mood and manner in these faces I am peering deeply into. They keep coming in a never-ending stream. The next one. The next one.
There is a slowness and a predictability and a safety to it all that I don't experience every day. Today I don't just see it. I feel I am its source and at the same time its beneficiary. I draw nourishment from it. It is a delight to me. I walk through it, dazzled. And then, when I am almost to work, crossing a street, I chance to meet one face! Yes, one single face of one single woman in the crowd! And out from that I am bathed. Her eyes turn, only momentarily. I don't even know if they take me in or are aware of me as anything apart from all the rest of it all. I drink from those eyes an enlightenment so startlingly fresh that it is like a pristine mountain stream to my lowland swamp. What ease! What joy! What freedom! What openness!
She passes in the stream going one way. I walk on in the other. But within me I carry -- yes -- I am gifted with, something new, something higher. Who knows if this woman even meditates or pursues a spiritual practice? Maybe with her it is something innate, a kind of authenticity so deep and profound that it is fed by whatever is around; and can draw sufficient nourishment from a friendship or a betrayal, a disaster or a celebration.
I am not so innately liberated. The reason today's walk to work is so special and so different, like it often used to be a couple of years ago, is that, like I always did back then, today I went through the full range of my meditative practices. Upon awakening, I wrote. And then I spent some beautiful moments in bed with my girlfriend. Afterwards, the two of us meditated together, seated cross-legged on our cushions, and then we did yoga. Next we went outdoors for tai chi and the kung fu animal forms. On this day I went through these martial arts "dances" with an attention to each minute movement. I experienced each gesture, each pause and turn and strike, with a new awareness, as if I were learning it for the first time. Afterwards, my girlfriend slapped together a delicious vegetarian meal, while I took my shower. When I finished the lovely meal, I got dressed and stepped out onto 21st Street, little expecting, hardly anticipating -- and then BOOM! I had walked all the way up to 28th Street before it hit me. "The world is beautiful. The city is peaceful. The traffic is harmonious. I am alive; really, really alive. I feel every little thing so deliciously."
A few years ago, I had an astonishing experience of personal liberation, seated up in a seven-day meditation retreat in the Catskill mountains. But experiences like that I don't think are so important really. What they bring cannot possibly be assimilated. It's inexpressible. It's like a power surge. It's like pouring a whole lake into one of those tiny cups they use for espresso coffee. The demitasse, all filled to the brim, may feel, "I've got it!", "I've got it!" but in point of fact, "What did it get?" It can't hold a lake. It's just a little cup. For an instant it felt an immensity flood past. That's all.
I'm no expert in these matters and don't claim to be. But neither do I think these are matters that should be left to experts. "Be a light unto yourself!" the Buddha said on his deathbed -- not "Go look for some authority figure to interpret your experiences for you."
What happened while walking to work today wasn't something that came in a flash and then was gone. It lasted, block after block, street by street. The little cup stayed dipped a long time in the lake and felt itself dissolve so richly before the vastness. "I want to stay!" it purrs. "I don't want to come out again. This is what it is to be alive!"
And as I walked through the streets, there were people who could see I felt that. On several separate occasions, I chanced to catch a hassled and harried individual peering curiously into my face, studying it, trying to catch something that she or he saw. Is it possible that I functioned for a handful of other individuals like that woman crossing the street did for me? That I benefited them like she did me?
It's so important to do our day right, because when we do, then we have something to give. The people who need it will see it in us and the moment they see it, it's theirs. We give by being. This is our huge wealth as human beings, that we are capable of enriching each other like this.