It was larger than a cockroach with lighter, more yellowish skin, almost the size of a small mouse. Was it a bald rodent or a giant insect? Last week, walking up the trail to the meditation hall, I passed a woman who was staring at something on the ground. I paused and looked. It was one of the most mysterious creatures I have seen.
A group gathered around at some point. Some looked away in horror, some got on their knees to try to identify it. Finally, one person broke our week of silence and whispers, “what is it?”
How do we relate to the unfamiliar? Do we get down on all fours and investigate, to name it? Do we turn our heads in horror? Do we poke at it with a stick? Do we ignore the creature in our path and keep going towards our destination? We are so used to spinning in similar loops inside, even unhappy ones. We are used to being able to name the creatures on our path, to know who to fear and who to trust.
The image of this creature stuck with me through my sitting practice that afternoon. I was sitting with my own version of this creature in my path. A few days into the retreat and I had already re-experienced every crevice of my body and mind that I was familiar with; all the pain, joy, awe, and heartache of a human life. Then one night, I was sitting by myself late, after quiet hours, something I liked to do. I was feeling the sensations of my body and breath as I had been taught, when I felt something behind my heart that was unfamiliar, unconnected to anything I had known. I could sense the feeling itself and then a cloud of fear surrounding it.
“Who are you?” I asked the feeling in my body. That week I sat with this feeling, dipping my toes into it, touching it around the edges cautiously, seeking a name or a form for it, something familiar and known, and finally I gave up and connected to it directly, I was sitting with pure energy, pure sensation. It was painful but not, unbearable. Strangely enough, I did not need a story.
I came home and played with this again when I saw my partner. “Who are you?” I asked myself. I allowed myself to not know. I did not need to superimpose twenty years of partners onto his face, just like I did not need to name the strange insect/ rodent I had seen on the meditation retreat. I did not need a story or a traumatic memory for the contraction in my heart that had begun to arise in meditation. Ultimately, just bringing a soft and loving presence to whatever was arising could allow it to melt and to heal.
Even as the memory of my retreat fades and I meet my life experience in familiar and habitual ways, I remind myself now and then to open to experiences nakedly. What is it like to not be able to name things? What is it like to not know what to expect, to meet things in the space before names to open up to whatever each moment is revealing?
Raia Manjula is a yogini and bodyworker living in the Bay Area with a deep love for joining the sacred and mundane in a practice that infuses all of life. Raia is currently working on a fictionalized memoir called “Diary of a Spiritual Party Girl.” See her website for more info on her work.