why do we continue?
All photos in this article (c) Alexandra Huddleston.
I used to have a little bench -- a sturdy ottoman with a black cushion affixed to the top -- that I pulled up close to my bedroom windows every night so I could sit and meditate. I lit a big candle: green with an unidentified leaf under the first shallow layer of wax. Following in the Soto Zen tradition I had learned, I fixed my cushions, performed a gassho bow, turned clockwise to face the world, bowed again, sat down, then turned clockwise once more to face inward -- or in my case, out to the street below. The candle, the ottoman, the woven wrap I wore -- these things meant nothing to me, but it was a confluence of rituals that created some approximation of sacredness.
When I gave the ottoman with its matching chair to someone who needed it much more than I did, that was the last step away from my ritual. It had become irregular and, at times, burdensome. It is easy to commit to something fulfilling, and easy to find fulfillment in something to which you have committed. It is more difficult to commit when fulfillment is only a distant hope.
As an atheist and humanist, I do not subscribe to faith or to spirituality. In my life, these have distracted me from the realities of being alive. Instead of encouraging me to wonder, faith always kept my eyes turned upward, blinding me to that which is so essential and dear.
Meditation is intellectual exercise. It trains the mind to discern thoughts differently. More deliberately. It is also a physical exercise and an emotional exercise. It is not worship; it is purposefully self-centered. It is uniquely solitary. It is difficult.
What is it that inspires us to sit? To pilgrim? To spend days and weeks in silence? If there were a way to explain the feeling, I would say that it is like arriving home in oneself, or remembering one's existence. It is an awareness that few have the inclination or incredible amount of time to cultivate. It is a process that never ends.
That is why we continue, even after the fascination has ended and the rituals have fallen away. Because like all things worth doing, discovering oneself is arduous and rewarding, and I would expect nothing different.