“Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
When I read the news of the passing of S.N. Goenke, I felt both sorrow and gratitude.
Sorrow because it’s always sad when someone leaves this realm for wherever it is you believe they go once they leave the form you knew them in.
Gratitude for all that I learned from Mr. Goenke’s teachings. In the beginning of 1998, I attended one of S.N. Goenka’s ten-day silent Vipassana meditation retreats — no talking, no reading, no writing — just me alone with one goal: observe, but don’t react to thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.
Some people tell me that the thought of sitting in silence in a room full of other people sounds lonely. For me, it was easy. Maybe it was because I spent so much time alone as a kid. Or, maybe it was because at that point in my life, I felt lonelier when I was around people because I felt disconnected from myself.
I remember I came down with a chest cold during the retreat. That was the ultimate test. It was the first time I ever really noticed how a virus moves through the body. It changed from minute to minute with each breath. Sometimes it felt more in my head and other times more in my lungs. At times I could barely breathe, but still I sat in the meditation hall for twelve hours each day all the time fighting to get to know and be ok with who I was at that point in my life. Fighting the cold seemed so much easier.
Who I was was someone who felt very lost.
I was 25. My mom had just died, I quit my job, I had stomach ulcers so bad that I could barely eat, I was drinking too much and I had a half-completed college education. Basically, I was trying to decide “who I wanted to be when I grew up.”
This course provided me with tools to help me figure out how to listen to what I knew to be true about who I was and where I wanted to go and have the courage to take a bunch of leaps that have gotten me to where I am today. Leaps that led to the completion of not just one college degree, but two. It led to me learning self-care techniques. Mostly it was a tool that helped me figure out how to be ok with being afraid, grieving, forgiving and experiencing joy.
Self-acceptance shouldn’t be such hard work, but it is. We’re taught to compete and compare and always search for answers outside of ourselves. There are no answers “out there.” There is no “out there.” There’s just here.
There aren’t even really any answers. The answers, as Rilke reminds me in one of my favorite books, Letters to a Young Poet, lie in the questions. Those questions change as we change. That’s why living in the present is so hard. We want answers! But, really, what fun is it to never grow, learn anything new or challenge ourselves? Personally, it’s when things feel stuck that I have the hardest time.
The biggest lesson I learned from that Vipassana course? I can survive any situation or change as long as I have my breath. It’s supposed to be the one constant. But, even it changes. Sometimes it slows down, sometimes it speeds up. The trick, as Janice Galloway writes and Shirley Manson sings, is to keep breathing. Gradually, you’ll breathe your way into an answer.