It likely goes without saying that I was a quiet child – one pulled as if by some magnetic force to places of solitude and solemnity that were not always easy to find. You see, my father was a young school teacher with a growing family at the time, and our house was of a modest size. That and the fact that entrance to my older sister’s bedroom required passage straight through mine meant that I had no quiet space to call my own. I had to find it. I sought it out.
For this reason, too, the Nursery was my refuge from the moment I was old enough to venture out beyond the garden gate. I could be alone there whenever I wanted to be alone. I could enjoy silence there whenever I needed it – weather permitting, of course. Perhaps that is another reason why Mark Patrick’s tiny room seemed so appealing to me – sparse as a monk’s quarters though it was. Sure, his half-brother, Joe, was around for at least some of the time, but things must be different with a brother, I likely reasoned.
Notwithstanding the tight home quarters growing up, I still managed to find some time and space in which to be alone. One such place was in my parents’ bedroom during the day. No, we weren’t allowed to play there, but enjoying silence wasn’t play as far as I was concerned. Thus, I must have felt that I was well within the rules whenever I stealthily slipped inside for the sole purpose of being alone.
My parents kept a clock radio on one of the shelves of their headboard. It was a 1950s model that they’d received as a wedding present, with a pink plastic case that had ridges molded into it around the clock face and over the speaker next to it. I got to know that clock well. I climbed atop the bed and lay in front of it with my elbows on the pillows and my face propped up in my hands. I liked to swipe my fingernail across the plastic ridges covering the speaker. It made a sound like a tiny plastic xylophone due to the varying lengths of the ridges over the circular speaker opening. Above all, though, I liked to listen to the drone of the clock motor as the second hand traced out minute after minute after minute.
The electric motor hummed steadily as the second hand fell past the five and the ten and down toward the thirty. Errrrrrrrrrr… As the motor lifted it from thirty to sixty, however, it had to work a little harder. Err, rerr, rerr, rerr… And so the minutes had a rhythm to them. The motor lifted up the hand and let it fall again. One minute. It lifted up the hand and let it fall again. Two minutes. Err, rerr, rerr, rerr…, errrrrrrrrrr… Three minutes. Err, rerr, rerr, rerr…, errrrrrrrrrr… Four minutes. The motor lifted up the hand and let it fall again. Five minutes.
I became fascinated with the workings of my body and the passage of time. My heartbeats came too quickly for me to measure, like the seconds slipping past. My breath, on the other hand, was much more easily quantified. It took thus and such time to go from inhalation to exhalation and back again, but the longer I lay there, the deeper I settled into stillness, and the more drawn out my breathing became. It was quite natural that I eventually took to seeing how long I could hold my breath.
Now, anyone who’s ever tried to see how long they could hold their breath quickly realizes how it’s done. You breathe deeply and quickly for a number of breaths, culminating with one big inhalation right before you begin watching the clock. Something begins to happen, however, as soon as you actually hold your breath. Your awareness recedes from the outside world and becomes much more focused on the workings of the body. The beating of your heart begins to slow. Your thoughts, too, begin to slow. You become aware of every gurgle in your tummy and ringing in your ears. You notice the changing colors and flashes of light that play across your field of closed-eyed “vision.”
Thus, like a stone sinking to the bottom of a lake, I went down…, down…, down…; there to settle on the bottom, immersed in glorious stillness. Err, rerr, rerr, rerr…, errrrrrrrrrr… The motor lifted up the second hand and let it fall again. It strained and then relaxed. My heart pounded in my ears. It did its double thump and then relaxed. It double-thumped and then relaxed. My mind became the motor lifting up the second hand and letting it fall again. My mind became my pounding heart – slow and solid... Boom…, boom…, boom… My mind became still…
After not too long, though, my mind became the urge – increasingly insistent – to take another breath. It became the sensation of wanting to take a breath... It became the sensation of needing to take a breath... It became the work to keep from taking a breath... And then it became that next breath – glorious…, expansive…, fresh…, life-giving…, rejuvenating.
Children are expert at such things as this. They wonder and they watch. They pay attention. No, it might not be what adults want them to pay attention to, but they do! And so it was that it made perfect sense to me when I first encountered the teaching of a Zen meditation master who said that the body and the mind are not two. It made perfect sense to me when he said that we do not become enlightened with the mind. We become enlightened with the body. It made perfect sense to me because I knew it already. I’d known it when I was a child, but then I forgot!
To be continued...
This post is a retelling of a childhood event.
It is meant to be illustrative of the non-duality of body and mind.
It is not meant to advocate any meditations that involve the holding of the breath.
Antique Radio by Joe Haupt via
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:
Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank