On a More Personal Note
There was a time in my life, a long time ago now, when I just couldn't enjoy much of anything. The world, it seemed to me, stood at arm's length, frozen, out of reach. Nothing touched me, really.
I remember a moment, for instance, sitting on a beach on the west coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, where I was living at the time. The sun was setting. The colors of the sky - red, orange, blazing yellow - danced on the silvery sweep of the incoming tide.
"This is beautiful," I told myself. "This is beautiful."
But it didn't matter. Because it didn't feel beautiful. And beauty, of course, is something that either touches us or doesn't. No amount of willpower opens the heart to a sunset.
Back then, I was meditating already, and had been for some time. For me, though, the effects of meditation came in stages. Waves, really. I learned to focus first, and my grades went through the roof. But social anxiety still plagued me. (I once spent an hour sitting alone at the bottom of a coat closet as a college party raged.) And the problem of feeling somehow outside of myself, separate from beauty, and pleasure, and other people, continued.
These subtler dynamics - the way alienation feels, or what it's like to be melted by a sunset - are something that a discussion of the meditation research simply can't reach. Science itself can't reach these experiences, riding as it does on an objectivist epistemology.
Still, I remember when the world began to break in through this frozenness. I was living at the Zen monastery. It began to happen in meditation. And then it began to happen as I walked between buildings. A feeling like ice melting. A gradual sense of being touched, something like communion.
Dogen, the 13th century Zen master, speaks of mountains walking. We lived on Crestone Mountain, and that mountain walked for me. I walked with the mountain. Sometimes these days, the whole world walks, or there is no world, there is only walking.
I was back in Hawaii a couple weeks ago, sitting on the beach. Such sweetness, to sit on warm sand, watching waves, letting the sun set. I don't know anything about enlightenment, but I do know the joy of body and mind touched by salt air, sunset, shades of red. And for that joy, so hard won for me, I am grateful.