My apartment building has a wonderfully musty book-filled room in the half-basement near the laundry center. Paned windows look out on Rock Creek Park; a freight elevator groans in the hall. Cushy discard couches and chairs with a table to set your feet on. Regular time slips away in this un-clocked space.
Anonymous attempts have been made to organize the books, but the tomes seem to roam on their own volition and comforting chaos reigns. Inventory turns over with the steadiness of cookies in an untrendy neighborhood bakery. You can always find something good.
One Tuesday night, in search of something to read, I took the back steps and narrow hallway to the room and browsed until Stargirl glowed like a lightning bug from a high shelf.
In this scene, Stargirl shares her go-to slice of Arizona desert with new friend, Leo, the story’s narrator.
A minute later she stopped. “We’re here.”
I looked around. The place couldn’t have been more ordinary. The only notable presence was a tall, dilapidated saguaro, a bundle of sticks….The rest was gray scrub and tumbleweed and a few prickly pears. “I thought it might look different,” I said.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“It’s a different kind of scenery,” she said. “Shoes off.”
We pulled off our shoes.
We sat, legs crossed.
What happens next is a sweet account of stillness as a way of engaging with life, and love.
“So,” I said, “when does the enchantment start?”
We were sitting side by side, facing the mountains.
“It started when the earth was born.” Her eyes were closed. Her face was golden in the setting sun. “It never stops. It is, always. It’s just here.”
“So what do we do?”
She smiled. “That’s the secret.” Her cupped hands rested in her lap. “We do nothing. Or as close to nothing as we can.” Her face turned slowly to me, though her eyes remained closed. “Have you ever done nothing?”
I laughed. “My mother thinks I do it all the time.”
“Don’t tell her I said so, but your mother is wrong.” She turned her back to the sun. “It’s really hard to do nothing totally. Even just sitting here, like this, our bodies are churning, our minds are chattering. There’s a whole commotion going on inside us.”
“That’s bad?” I said.
“It’s bad if we want to know what’s going on outside ourselves.”
“Don’t we have eyes and ears for that?”
Leo and Stargirl are practicing mindfulness, merely regarding the landscape, watching, receiving, stepping aside from expectations and anticipations, from control.
She nodded. “They’re okay most of the time. But sometimes they just get in the way. The earth is speaking to us, but we can’t hear it because of all the racket our senses are making. Sometimes we need to erase them, erase our senses. Then–maybe–the earth will touch us. The universe will speak. The stars will whisper.”
The sun was glowing orange now, clipping the mountains’ purple crests.
In yoga, we practice pratyahara, becoming aware of sensory stimulation in order to avoid escaping into overstimulation. Judith Lasater describes pratyahara as “a tool to improve daily life. In these moments I begin to understand the difference between withdrawing and escaping….” I describe it as “leaning away.”
Leo’s experiences in the desert with his friend mirrors the haven of silence some find in pratyahara.
…I could not seem to leave myself, and the cosmos did not visit me. I could not stop wondering what time it was.
But something did happen. A small thing. I was aware of stepping over a line, of taking one step into territory new to me. It was a territory of peace, of silence. I had never experienced such utter silence before, such stillness. The commotion within me went on, but at a lower volume, as if someone had turned down my dial.
The first stanza of Patanjali’s 2,000 year old guidebook begins “now.”
Atha yoga anushasanam
Now, the teachings of yoga.
—Yoga Sutra 1.1
The simple word reminds that there’s no time like the present. If not now, when? Vow now to, like Leo, turn down your own dial in the days ahead, once in awhile. Richard Rosen suggests,
Sit with your spine straight, close your eyes, and slow your breathing. With each exhalation, say the word “now” to yourself, drawing out the “w.” Feel how the present moment becomes suspended even as time passes and transforms into another moment of now.