I don’t meditate as often as I’d like but when I do I use one of the several meditation apps I’ve downloaded to my mobile phone. The other day I chose Meditation Studio’s meditation, ‘Ease with Everything’ by Noah Levine. It was the first meditation I’ve done that specifically used the word ‘ease’ (or it was the first time I consciously registered that word). The meditation suggested I ‘be at ease with myself just as I am.’
Now, I know we’re not meant to analyse our meditations but experience them and relax into their bounty. The word ease, however, and its use as a goal of meditation, intrigued me. I’m a wordsmith. I write because I love choosing words that clearly convey my understanding of, feelings about and attitude towards a subject. I decided to explore the meaning of ease so I can better understand why my recent meditation was so positive.
My dictionary of etymology tells me the word ease was in use before 1200CE and was probably borrowed from the Old French aise, meaning comfort or pleasure. That led me to The Oxford Dictionary of English (on line) where I discovered that indeed, ease is from the:
old French eise, aise (modern aise) feminine, cognate with Provençal ais, Italian agio (formerly also asio), Portuguese azo masculine; late Latin type asia, asium, of uncertain origin. The earliest sense of French aise appear to be: 1. Elbow-room […and …]: 2. opportunity. It has been suggested … that *asia, *asium may be … āsa, a recorded vulgar form of Latin ansa, handle, used figuratively in sense [of] ‘opportunity, occasion’. With reference to the sense ‘elbow-room’, it is remarked that ansātus, ‘furnished with handles’ is used in Latin for ‘having the arms akimbo’. This is not very satisfactory, but it does not appear that any equally plausible alternative has yet been proposed.
I wonder if this is the origin of the military injunction to ‘stand at ease’, a command that means to stand with feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind the back. This means the arms, or more specifically elbows, will invariably be at some degree of ‘akimbo’ (a term possibly related to the idea of a ‘jug handle’ or ‘pot handle’).
To paraphrase the rest of the entry in The Oxford Dictionary, being at ease means the chance, or skill, to perform a role or action, or to experience contentment or freedom from anxiety or anguish. For some, ease comes in the form of an appliance that does their work for them so they don’t need to exert themselves. For others it means release from life’s tribulations through apathy, heartlessness or lack of moral accountability. It is also, and this is a personal favourite, the
freedom from […] embarrassment or awkwardness in social behaviour.
I wonder if the ability to feel at ease in our world has been lost? Our leaders are almost universally rude to their opponents. Both sides of the political divide behave like bullies, bringing the worst of the schoolyard to the very places where measured, properly informed, congenial discussions should prevail. The extreme vagaries of the weather feel like a portent of the devastating climate change many scientists have, for decades, tried to warn us about. Poverty, racial discrimination and gender inequality make me wonder if we can ever be ‘at ease’ again. And yet, my meditation app instructs me to feel at ease with myself and where I find myself.
Who benefits from such injunctions? Is there an alternative to meditation that can achieve the change – and the ease – we desperately seek? I am not against meditation; I’d like to develop a regular practice, I’d like to sit for longer than ten minutes, to focus on my breath, to accept my anxieties instead of fighting them or keeping them at bay. But I also wonder if my attempts are another form of burying my head in the sand?
A dear friend admires the collectivism of the early to mid 20th Century, a political movement born partly from the terrible loss of life in two world wars. Collectivism reached its apotheosis in the 1960s and 70s but was superseded by the rugged individualism that swelled in the 80s and 90s to the present time, and whose current avatar is the newly elected President of the United States. Mindfulness has, in the last two decades, been adopted in the west as the new hope for mental health, an ideal with which I concur. Is it, however, aligned with individualism, with the cult of the self, with the potential failure to understand that many of our problems are created by our current economic and political system?
My friend added that he feels most at ease when with others: at the theatre, for instance, or a gathering of friends or family. I, on the other hand, am more of an introvert. I am at ease with my family, and certainly while babysitting my granddaughter. Despite my having to be responsible for her well-being and therefore cautious about what she does, where she is and what she eats, her artless, innocent, exploration of the world gives me most ease. I don’t enjoy large parties, preferring small and intimate dinners where everyone’s voice is heard. I also find peace when I’m reading, although that, too, is communicating and connecting with the mind and heart of the author and her characters. Compare these forms of ease to mindfulness and meditation as an aid to mental wellbeing. How does meditation fit with our obligations, as members of society, to the collective? Whose ease are we expected to care about, ours or others?
Giving ease is to
render more comfortable, relieve from pain, … refresh with repose or food, … entertain, accommodate hospitably, … give relief to (any one suffering from oppression, or burdened with expenses or laborious duties), in wider sense: to benefit, help, assist … to relieve, lighten, set free (a person, etc.) … from burden, pain, anxiety, or trouble,
but it also means to ‘ease off, or to release or reduce one’s efforts’.
Practitioners and advocates of mindfulness assert that it will help me to be calmer and more at ease with myself and allow me to confidently venture out to the world so I can help others. I have no doubt this is true. I have already found, even doing one or two brief meditations a week, that my writing has taken on a more collective tone, particularly in my blog posts. I want my words to make a difference to the lives of others.
My mother was a gifted dressmaker who, I believe, was most at ease when sitting in front of her sewing machine. She taught me to sew when I was young, so I was interested to find, as I scrolled through the entries on the on-line version of The Oxford Dictionary, a definition of ease I heard many times as a girl:
To join two pieces of material whose edges are of unequal length in such a way that the extra fullness of the larger section is distributed evenly along the join.
I want to adopt this definition as a mantra for my meditation practice. While I find mental and emotional ease through breathing, centring, contemplating and reflecting I am, in a sense, the shorter piece of the two sections of fabric. The collective, my tribe, my community, is the larger piece. Meditative and reflective writing has the potential to stitch the scarcity of the individual to the immensity of the collective and create a healthy, functioning whole. By writing meditatively, I can share my belief that ignoring our community means we renounce the right to wear the garment of humanity.
What or who puts you at ease? How do you ease the lives of others? Where are you most at ease?