by David Wagoner
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Do you ever feel lost in your own life? In spite of the privilege, the accomplishments, the satisfaction in certain key relationships, people often tell me that they feel disoriented or confused about how they got to where they are or how to move forward, and what steps they should take to do so. Although specific situations sometimes prompt this feeling, it has less to do with external circumstances and is typically more about how one relates to those circumstances.
Someone recently told me, “On the surface everything in my life looks great. I am where I should be at this point in my career, I enjoy the work I do, my family life is stable, and I have worked hard in therapy in and in other ways to heal some previous difficulties. I can see progress. Yet lately I can’t shake the sense that I’m somehow disconnected from it all, like I can’t feel my life anymore.”
Knowing this person as I do, my first thought (which I did not share) was, “Of course you can’t feel your life. You’re too busy rushing around trying to make it happen.” My second response was less judgy and more heartfelt: boy, do I know that one! My own sense of disconnect from myself -- and thus everyone and everything around me -- was the motivation to begin my training in mindful awakening, by taking Alexander lessons. At the time, of course, I didn’t realize that I was embarking on that journey, but I did have the sense that I was somehow not connected to what other people called Living.
If this sounds at all familiar to you, read the poem above once again. This is some beautiful advice about what to do when you feel lost. Whether it is a deep, existential sense of displacement, or a momentary confusion about how you are orienting to a place or a situation, the best way to begin is to stop. Just pause and be as still as you can. Slow down and know that “wherever you are is called Here.” The poet calls this a Powerful Stranger, and we must ask permission to know it.
Right there is a huge change of habit, isn’t it? Who asks permission of their life to be living it? Mostly we just push ahead, setting our agendas, slogging away with our burdens, keeping our heads down and moving forward no matter the cost. When we can slow down, get a little quiet, and literally catch up with ourselves, we increase awareness. When we’re aware we have choice. Because you feel lost and don’t know what’s real or what to choose, stopping and allowing awareness to arise is the most skillful move you can make. Maybe you won’t gain insight or see a clear choice right away, but it’s certain you will not until you’re present and beginning to awaken.
This poem uses the forest as a metaphor, but perhaps also as a direct command to get out of our heads and connect to nature. (“Nature” here means any patch of organic life you can find. You don’t have to travel far for it. If you’re an urbanite, one tree or a flower will do.) The place we land when we pause and get quiet has come together organically, is nature itself arising, moment by moment. And we are reassured that even when we move away from nature, get lost again, we can return to “Here” and will be supported by the Powerful Stranger. In that place and time, we can recognize the truth of how our lives naturally unfold and cooperate with the flow. Or we can keep imposing our fixed views on how it should be, keep indulging in the helpless feeling of confusion, and remain disoriented and disconnected.
Stand still, says the poem a second time. If you want to know your life, let your life know you. This is incredibly liberating, in my experience. What a relief to not need to plan every moment, to drop the false responsibility for how everything turns out, to let go of the myth of self-sufficiency and “keeping it together” at all times. If you feel disoriented, it’s because you are. But you’re not necessarily disconnected from circumstances; you’ve simply forgotten your place in them. The place already exists, we don’t have to create it. We don’t really have to do anything, except slow down and stop trying to find the escape route.
Through continuous practice, it becomes more likely that these spontaneous pauses occur, that the ability to reorient and be known by the Powerful Stranger will increase. Start right now. As you read this, can you feel the weight of your body supported by the ground beneath you? Feel your feet. How are they contacting the earth? What can you observe in the mask of your face? Any tension there that you can release? What do you notice about how your breath is happening? What sounds do you hear?
What would it be like to ask permission of the Powerful Stranger to be inside the life you are living, and to be known in return?
If you have 10 minutes, you might like to sit and breathe with this guided meditation, Sitting & Breathing. [Note: one of the brief orienting methods is based on seeing. If you are visually challenged, you can substitute hearing, or use your inner vision.]