H. Ní Aódagaín
Cake or Death?
In the quiet of stretching and breathing during yoga and in the stillness of meditation, I have experienced different manifestations of what we call fear and have been humbled by its pervasiveness. Sitting in meditation one morning, silence surrounded me. The deep cold of the season had stilled most of the outside sounds, and as I sat in front of my small woodstove my mind entered a deep, unchanging quiet. After some time a car drove by, the sound of its tires on the gravel reaching into my consciousness. Immediately, I thought, “Oh, someone is coming to my door. This profound moment I’ve reached will be interrupted, and I may never reach it again."
Then, because I had been sitting with my mind in profound stillness, I was able to consciously experience the rise of fear in my body in response to my thought. My breath quickened, my stomach clenched slightly, and my attention became alert to every nuance of sound.
I was stunned by what I was comprehending. For the first time, I recognized fear as something rising out of a thought form and became aware of the accompanying physical feelings. But then, I had to ask myself, “Why, from a place of such peace and quiet, was my initial response fear? Were we hard-wired as biological entities to react with fear? Or was it my own socialization that had taught me to mistrust at such a deep level?"
The brilliant British comedian Eddie Izzard performs a famous routine in which he mocks the Anglican Church for the lack of profundity in its teachings. He invites his audience to imagine a vicar demanding that his parishioners choose between tea and cake, or death.
“Cake or death?” the vicar thunders.
“Cake, please,” a timid voice replies.
The obvious nonsense of such a request gave me insight into the struggle that has occurred within me for most of my life, and which, thirty years ago, motivated me to seek answers in spiritual practice. That struggle could be defined as the choice to act from a place of love or succumb to the fear that seems to lie at the root of many of my thoughts. What if we were to ask ourselves, like the vicar of Izzard's comedy sketch, which we preferred: “Love or fear?” Of course, we would answer, “Love." Why is it that, moving through our daily reality, it is never that simple?
Several summers ago, I chose to spend five days alone without seeing or speaking to another person. I began each day with yoga and meditation and spent the rest of the day in unbroken silence as I moved through my daily chores, tended my garden, read, and wrote. My mind deepened into an exquisite peace, furthered by the sound of a bird’s wings stroking the air above me and the breeze dancing through the trees.
Because I was, for the most part, free of thought, those that did pop up surprised me. I began to recognize those thoughts based in fear, cloaked in terms like, “What if...?” which I labeled fear of the unknown. When the question, “Did I do something wrong?” emerged, I saw how that thought was clearly based in fear of shame and failure.
I felt how alien the physical feelings of fear were, absent as they had been from my body for long stretches of time. I realized that a mind in which fear is not present, and a body free of the sensations of fear coursing through it, is the basis of physical, mental, and emotional health. Having experienced freedom from fear, I more actively noticed its return; I could choose whether or not to allow it to kidnap my emotions and take root in my body.
I felt a sense of liberation, but I still hadn’t deciphered the other half of the equation. In the absence of fear, does love become the norm?
The next summer, I spent five weeks traveling through Europe, in part to do research for a novel I was writing. I had no real agenda except to follow the trajectory of my characters, which would take me to three different countries. Before leaving, I bought train tickets and reserved hotels in the different cities I would visit, but, beyond that, I had no specific goals, and perhaps more importantly, no expectations. I promised myself I would practice my yoga and meditation and chronicle my adventures—tools that would keep me grounded. I packed my bags and set off.
What I couldn’t have imagined was the transformation that occurred in those five weeks. Even now, I search for the reasons this journey had such a profound effect on me. Was it that I traveled mostly alone and therefore wasn't obligated to take into account the wishes, needs, and reactions of another person? Or was it that, in visiting so many different “foreign” cultures, each so unlike my home on the west coast of the United States, I was forced to drop any pre-conceived notion of what I encountered?
The changes were subtle. Each day I woke alone and spent many solitary hours marveling at the ancient churches, feasting on the art-filled museums, strolling through markets. The critical, judgmental mind fell away. I found myself more and more open to what appeared before me. I became an observer, receptive to the experience unfolding in front of me. It was as if I was practicing a walking meditation through the streets of Europe. I watched my mind become quiet. My senses took over, absorbing the sights and sounds, the tastes and smells of the ancient streets I walked, the squares and plazas I sat in, the views I looked out on.
The more I dropped judgment and expectation, the more the whirring of the brain stilled, the more easily the trip unfolded. As if the doors of consciousness, like the layers of a mandala, were opening before me. I experienced a level of synchronicity I had never before known. What might have been obstacles receded, and the perfection of each moment became apparent, became all that needed to be attended to.
I stepped into a place of complete trust. I experienced the world from a place of unconditional love. I greeted each person I met with an open heart and quickly felt reciprocated. Waiters and hotel attendants became friends, rooting for me as I shared with them my daily adventures, expressing concern when I showed up late after spending the day exploring. At times I felt as if I had become part of a world community of like-minded, caring individuals, a community based on our human capacity to show love for one another. I felt hope for the future, and was deeply grateful to be alive.
On my last night in Madrid, I walked the streets, ecstatic. I was filled with the understanding that love and only love was the path, and in the shadowed heat of an August night, I committed to that path.
“Love or fear?”
H. Ní Aódagaín
I have been an active practitioner of yoga for over four decades, having been introduced to Hatha yoga in my twenties, and then exploring other forms throughout my life. In my mid-forties, I became interested in Buddhism and meditation. Writing, yoga and meditation now form my daily practice. Each separate activity instructs and influences the other two, becoming an interwoven experience. The insights I gain from meditation and yoga often become the seeds for poems, stories, and essays.
H. Ní Aódagaín's fiction, essays, and poetry celebrate feminism, aging, spirituality, and land-based living. Her work has appeared in such publications as Woman of Power, Midwifery Today, In the Heart of the Applegate, Sinister Wisdom, and the Oregon Quarterly. Two essays have recently been named finalists in New Millennium Writings' Monthly Muse Contest. She seeks publication of her novel, If Not for the Silence, which explores how the silences we inherit frame our choices and our destiny.