As I understand it, being alone is of great importance in Buddhism. When I sit quietly, following my breath as it travels through my body, holding myself upright and dignified in whatever way I am able on that given day, I am alone with myself. I am alone inside my body. When I began writing this, I had intended to write about being 35 and single and whether or not that made me “free,” but the thing about Buddhist practice is that it has helped me shift focus from the little me alone to the big me alone. In these few years of practicing meditation, the lexicon “who I am” and “what I do” has begun to wither, allowing me to be more present with the who and what of each passing moment. When I was new to Buddhism, I heard the words embodied and disembodied a lot. On my first weekend retreat I came to understand these terms a bit more.
When I am disembodied, I take myself very seriously, like when you try to learn a dance, but you can’t bring the knowledge from your brain into your legs. Situations become story banquets. If I feel hurt or angry, I expect resolution. Ironically, seeking resolution to emotional dilemmas often involves waging both an internal and external war. I have waged many wars with armies of deaf hearts. When I am embodied, I can hear something under the discord of discursive thought, sometimes it is just the sound of feet outside my window or running water. When I am embodied, I notice the piercing darts of emotion in my shaky knees or tightening chest. Rejection stabs. Jealousy slaps. Sadness seeps or pours. I observe the spread of the poison through me; the moment before it grows arms, legs, and teeth and sprints into battle. When humans are agitated, our vision narrows and our capacity for creative thought lessons. In this process of working with awareness, there are so many false starts, spears thrown, little deaths. I screw up all the time.
My understanding did not come with a poof! One thing I had to accept about a Buddhist path is that, although there is magic everywhere, inherent in all of nature, it is truly mundane, there is not one magic moment. I am delighted or bored, titillated or furious, drunk or sober, but I am, just here, occupying space. I finished the weekend retreat knowing that being embodied was the experience of my awareness resting within this flesh that I call Meredith. Disembodied, I send experience through a series of defense and offense filters, distilling it into something finite. Embodied, I just experience it. If I receive a compliment such as, “I like your writing,” I can graciously say “Thank you.” I also notice that there is awkwardness, an instinct to escape the compliment or to launch it into the pinball machine to be plundered by second-guessing. Being disembodied obstructs our ability to feel pleasure and warps our experience of pain. I was ready to learn this because I was ready to begin relaxing with myself.
That I walked away knowing the difference does not mean that suddenly I was an embodied being, graciously moving through life like a ballerina. I am a clown, a bull, a mouse, shape-shifting through these years, as I have all the others with the only difference being that I am learning how to apply non-judgmental awareness to the fire coming out of my nostrils or the venom I inhale in failed attempts at skillful action. It didn’t solve the most fundamental problem, that I am alone.
I am an expert in the little me alone. Little me alone is single. The big me alone bridges this separate self experience – the big deal feeling of loneliness – and the more general sense of aloneness that I feel in my bones. Embodiment is a practice. Being alone is a practice. So what is the experience of being embodied and alone? To begin, I feel afraid. Fear comes and I don’t have someone to hand it off to. I have often used my romantic relationships to offset the fear of being alone and mortal. Being single for the entire time I have been a Buddhist has given me the opportunity to be loved by and to love many people.
These facts are clear: my parents will die, my actions matter. I am not the center of the universe. I am, in fact, a very small particle whose implosions and explosions still tilt the scales of my immediate environment because we are interdependent, that I cannot simply take all these emotions and stuff them back inside the dart holes to protect the wounds, that the wounds are the source of my embodiment. They are my potential for joy for myself and the impetus to help others experience joy. The late David Foster Wallace said, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad of petty, unsexy ways every day.”
There is a story about a grain of sand on a beach that begins to suffer once it looks up and says, “I’m a grain of sand.” By practicing loving everyone, anyone, I find more acceptance for the fire-breathing beast that I am. We are really just beasts, you know? Beautiful beasts. The fire subsides a bit.
Meredith Arena is a writer, artist, teacher and sometimes performer from New York City, who currently resides in Seattle. She began studying Buddhism at The Interdependence Project in 2008 and completed teacher training there in 2011. She teaches meditation to willing students, sells fruit and vegetable in the Pike Place Market and works with homeless youth in Seattle.