Less is More, Except When It Isn’t

A famous poet studied in Japan with a Zen master who spoke so softly that hardly anyone could hear his talks unless they were sitting at the front of the hall. Many years after the teacher had died, when the poet visited the monastery, one of the old monks said, “You know those talks that our teacher used to give, I’m just beginning to hear them now.”

A friend who was a schoolteacher in Juneau, Alaska, travelled north one summer to an Inuit village on the Arctic coast. One day she went to visit the family of a colleague who had grown up there. She arrived early and spent the day at the family home. Hardly a word was spoken. Lunch was prepared and served. In the afternoon everyone walked together in silence along the arctic shoreline. When it came time to leave, the family thanked my friend effusively for the visit, telling her with great warmth and affection how much they had enjoyed getting to know her.

Many years ago we had two friends who were close students of a Sufi Master, then living in London. They met with him once a year at his apartment. Over tea and cakes, he would tell them a story. Every year they would return, and he would tell them a new story. There were no other instructions. The story was never discussed or explained.

Once I had a dream about Miles Davis. I would have forgotten the dream, except I happened to tell it to a friend who was staying with us to finish his biography of Miles. My dream reappeared in the introduction to the book. My friend told me he thought that it expressed something of the mythology surrounding Miles. I had dreamed that he had released a new album, but that he didn’t play a single note on it. Other’s were playing. There were many cues for him to come in. I could feel his presence behind his silence, standing there, trumpet in hand. He chose to listen; ready, attentive, and silent.

Marina Abramovic wrote of the time she spent with an aborigine community in Australia. The language barrier made normal communication impossible. She tells how, after several weeks, she began to understand what they were saying. She could clearly see that they were not speaking. Their lips were not moving, but she could hear them, in her own native language, fluently recounting stories of their people and the land.

Once, during a long meditation retreat, I was walking in the snow. I turned around and was startled, shocked, by the footprints leading right up to the place where I was standing. A moment later I recognized them as my own. For a moment I had lost myself altogether.

Things are not always as they seem. Silence, an inflection, a moment of seeing the world with a new perspective can change everything. We draw conclusions based on old information. It can take years, half a lifetime, to create the groundwork for your new vision. Once it’s there, further change can be instantaneous and ongoing. The Zen student, the Sufi, Miles Davis, Marina Abramovic: all of them, through the work of a lifetime, developed the capacity to perform the miraculous.

When I was teaching meditation I used to tell my students to try it out .. for ten years. See how it goes. Give it a try. Then decide if you want to pursue it seriously. I would also tell them to focus very intently on this moment, this breath, this experience, and notice what changes in the space of the next three seconds.

Ice breaks from the Antarctic shelf, releasing air bubbles captured in the ice for millions of years. Perhaps the air from those times will have some unlikely effect, and teach us to remember the promise of a forgotten past. Perhaps it will teach us to hear the language of oceans and clouds. Perhaps we will remember a story about how everything is connected, about how anything is possible.