Monkey-mind, I heard someone once call the mind’s resistance to meditation. In my case, I am thinking, monkey-mind doesn't quite do it. It’s like the monkeys have invited their friends the lemurs and the flamingos and possibly even the giraffes to swing from the branches with them. I have zoo mind.
There’s no one in this borrowed house except for me. I am acquainted with no one on the small island and even if I were, I doubt they would welcome a visit in the middle of the night. I’m all alone and I have zoo mind.
Casting around, I find a book that a friend sent along with me on this retreat. He earnestly pressed it into my hands, saying that he had gotten a lot out of it, and maybe I would too. I open it and read the first line, “We are built for contemplation.”* I close it again with a sigh. Obviously “we” means everyone in the world but me.
I wander around from room to room, looking at the art. It’s mostly local scenery, and I wonder, not for the first time, why beach houses so often have beach art on the walls. I mean, you can just look out the window to see the same thing. There is one picture that's different, though, a mother kneeling near a child, and I pause in front of it for a moment. It’s called “Adoration of Christ” and to my insomnia-addled brain, it seems to me that Adoration has for some reason replaced the word “Mother” in the title. Adoration is smooth and sweet and serene, her hands held away from the baby at an improbable angle. After a while, I lie down to stare at the ceiling and watch the zoo in my mind until the roosters outside crow to announce the not-yet-visible dawn.
Well, there’s no sense staying in the house all day. I get in the borrowed car, and end up following a road that promises an overlook of the ocean. When I get to the top and open the car door, I’m surprised by the coolness of the air. I can’t quite identify a sharp, invigorating scent. The view is astonishing, but even a really terrific view for someone in the throes of zoo mind is a distraction only for a short time. I decide to walk up a trail that promises a visit to a sacred rock.
The path to the sacred rock is lined with other rocks, too smooth and flat and regularly placed to be accidental. Each one is as long as I am. A sign explains that these are most likely birthing stones, beds where laboring women gathered in ages past.
A quick sudden rush of wind sends that sharp scent past me again and I finally recognize it as eucalyptus. I reach out my hand to touch one of the birthing stones, then close my eyes and shiver as a little shock of electricity goes up my arm.
I did not give birth to my son on a rock. He was born in a hospital far from this place. In my mind’s eye, I am there with all the people and machines that supported us during the birth. Friends who drove us to the hospital, an iv standing by, a doula, a soft bed with warm blankets, a midwife, a bedpan, a CD of carefully curated music and a strap around my huge belly with a device on it that measured the baby’s heartbeat even though I kept saying, “He’s fine, he’s fine, the baby’s fine.”
The baby, as it happened, was not fine. After birth, he was whisked to the infant ICU with my husband, where he would stay for ten more days before coming home to grow, in spite of predictions, into an active and sturdy toddler. I do not think of that time, though. I think instead of the beginning, of pacing up and down the hospital hallway to start the labor. I think of the contractions that could be eased only by standing in a shower. Of how I muttered the baby’s name over and over and over, urging him to help me help him be born. I think of the veins in my eyelids that all popped in a fine little web from the effort of pushing. I think of the slippery slide of the baby’s body crowning and borning. I think of blood and water and slime. I think of how fierce we both were, the baby and me, how powerful and beautiful. I think of how I was never further from zoo mind than I was for those twelve hours.
I am breathing eucalyptus and touching a birthing stone, and for the first time since I arrived on the island, the monkeys and all their animal friends have stopped jumping through the trees. Babies were born here, and although the setting could not have been more different, they were born just like my baby was born. Just like Mary’s baby, I suddenly realize, was born. Of course Adoration wasn’t smooth and sweet and serene. She was a mess. Adoration pushed until the veins around her eyes popped. She squeezed her fists and shouted. Her mind and her body labored and strained and heaved, and she muttered the name of the Baby, pleading with him to help her help him come forth. She was fierce and powerful and beautiful. Adoration was complete surrender, absolute concentration.
When I was fretting about something in the early days of pregnancy, a friend reassured me. “Look around you,” she declared waving out the window at the busy street below, “everyone you see was born.” Each circumstance is different, but being born of Adoration is the first birthright, a gift of surrender and concentration we carry with us always. Somewhere along the way, we get distracted, seeing only the monkeys and the rest of the zoo, and ignoring the rustling, aromatic trees which have been there all along.
I drive slowly back down the hill to the borrowed house. I open the book my friend gave me and read the first line: “We are built for contemplation.” I read the next line, and the next. And I keep reading, all the way to the end.
*From Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation
(I was talking with someone about mindfulness meditation recently, and it reminded me of this piece that I wrote awhile back. I had hoped it would find a home in Weavings, but they sadly closed up shop before it could be considered. This is published here with gratitude and in honor of decades of inspiration from the writers in those pages.)