Some years ago, I did a meditation retreat with Natalie Goldberg, the Zen Buddhist teacher and writer of the bestselling Writing Down the Bones.
Goldberg said so many memorable things that week. She even called me “sweetie” when we were shooting the shit in the monastery’s office about the painter Georgia O’Keefe.
But what really has stuck with me — what’s branded on my heart — is her presence.
She was a rock, immovable, unrelenting. And she never let me off the hook.
“Keep coming back,” she would say during meditation. A command, not a suggestion.
In a word, she was solid. She’d lived a long life of waking up to the present moment. Of trying to show up as fully as she could. Of not hiding from anything. The result of all of that was palpable.
We carry inside everyone who has ever touched us
I could feel Goldberg again this morning. I was meditating on my couch, a couple thousand miles away from that monastery in Sante Fe, New Mexico. But there she was in the echo chamber that is my mind. “Keep coming back.” “Keep coming back.”
It gave me a hunch about this life of mine and yours. That we carry inside everyone who has ever touched us.
But not particular things they did or said. How they made us feel.
This morning I also felt my grandfather. He died last year after a rough few years of memory loss. With the pandemic, I haven’t really had a chance to grieve.
I never felt all that close to him. If anything, especially once I was an adult, I was often annoyed by his near constant cynicism.
“I’m still alive,” he’d sneer, when I asked him how his day was going.
There he was in my mind this morning as a presence — a trace of a feeling. His trademark cynicism colored my thoughts about the pandemic ending and life getting back to “normal.” It’ll never be normal again, and normal sucked anyway, I thought.
Mindfulness helps us get to know ourselves
I’d been meditating for a while. So I was able to see the thought as just a thought. Not reality but just some words passing through my mind.
A voice bubbled up from deeper inside: “Keep coming back.”
I let go of the thoughts about cynicism, my grandfather, writing this blog post, and came back to my breath. My lungs filled with air and my stomach softened. House finches chirped from the big oak tree out front of my house. I touched in to what was actually happening right there, right then.
This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate my grandfather. As I write this, I’m remembering how his sharp sarcasm often made me laugh.
It’s just that how people make us feel is somehow tattooed inside. There seems to be a permanence to it.
There are no such things as individuals
The consequences of this explode my heart if I pause and really take it in. We are interconnected, even if we don’t want to be. So that means everyone we cross paths with will remember how we make them feel — maybe even forever.
As spiritual teacher Stephen Jenkinson writes:
When was the last time you stood anywhere for a moment and saw that what you meant and felt and how you loved and lost and what you said and held off saying might already have become waves lapping somewhere else, washing upon a shore you’ve already passed by, where someone is standing?
He concludes: “All lives are lived in the swirls and eddies of what has gone along before them.”
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. My weekly email newsletter helps you be more mindful about work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe here.