Learning to Sit

by Reeve Lindbergh

When I was growing up in Connecticut, our family life was pretty busy. Like most children, I was mainly consumed by my own young life and thoughts, but as the youngest child in a large family I was also keenly aware of the many other lives whirling around me. I had a sister and three brothers, all pursuing different interests and activities. Our father was an aviation consultant who traveled all over the world, coming and going from our household according to his own ever-changing schedule. My mother managed to run the household during his frequent long absences while at the same time continuing to pursue her own work as a writer. 

I was especially fascinated by my mother, who was, for me, the very heart of our family. As a young married woman, she had written about her adventures as a pioneer aviator flying with my father. By the time I was growing up she wrote about the challenges of being a wife and mother while trying to pursue a creative life. She reflected upon the scattered, distracted nature of most women’s lives in mid-twentieth century America and recommended periods of deliberate solitude within the increasing demands and activities of the modern world. 

Sometimes she would leave our house, the place where the telephone rang often and there were piles of letters for her to answer and the needs of her five children to be met and go off for a few hours to work in her “Little House,” a small structure the size of a tool shed with a door and two windows, nestled on a hill behind the garden. This was her own place, not her husband’s or her children’s, and there she would sit at her desk by herself for an hour or an afternoon, some of the time writing, but some of the time, she said, just “sitting.”

Other times she would quietly walk out the door and make her way along a sandy path in another direction, heading toward a cove that was close to our house. In the cove was a narrow, sandy beach just below the rocky seawall separating the sand and seawater from our sloping lawn. All along the path tall cattails swayed in the breeze off the cove, and now and then an egret stalked through the mudflats in search of minnows and crabs. 

Before she got to the beach, my mother would turn off the path and sit down on an overturned and probably unseaworthy rowboat that had been hauled up from the beach and left in the grass. She would just sit there, looking out toward Long Island Sound. I knew she was not reading, because she didn’t have a book and she wasn’t wearing her glasses. I also knew she was not looking for birds, because she would have brought her binoculars and the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. She was sitting, just plain sitting, not doing anything at all. 

I didn’t know what to think, but when I asked her about this she said that sitting was “helpful” to her, and that this kind of sitting was something my Aunt Margot did, too. I adored my Aunt Margot. She wore bright lipstick and beautiful dresses and smelled like Chanel No. 5. Whenever we met she smiled and laughed and embraced me in a deliciously enveloping way. Her perfume and her lipstick lingered with me afterwards, the perfume in the air and the lipstick on my cheek, sometimes for the rest of the day. As for sitting, all I knew was that my Aunt Margot sat elegantly. She crossed her long legs in their silk stockings, and I could hear the swishing sound when her legs moved past each other, briefly touching. I could not imagine my Aunt Margot ever perching on an old rowboat, or settling herself for hours in a remodeled toolshed. It wasn’t possible.

But I learned that she did have her own places to sit, and people who sat with her. A group of women came together in Aunt Margot’s apartment on New York’s Upper East Side regularly, my mother said. They sat in the living room, on sofas or in chairs. My mother attended these gatherings, which she referred to as “My Group.” They read books on Eastern philosophy, and sometimes a speaker came to talk to them about what they had read. At each meeting they spent the first part of their time quietly in the chairs, sitting.

I found out one day that my Aunt Margot also had a special, private place for sitting by herself. I had come to her apartment for tea, and when I made my way to the bathroom to wash my hands I walked through a small carpeted room in which one corner was clearly designated for sitting, Aunt Margot style. There were silky-looking cushions on the floor, and on the wall the framed image of a dancing person or creature, I wasn’t sure which. It was an inviting corner, and I stood for a while looking at it, but I didn’t sit down even for an instant. I didn’t think it would be polite. I had a very strong sense, too, that this wasn’t my place to sit, any more than my mother’s overturned rowboat or her Little House were. 

I wasn’t sure there would ever be a sitting place for me. It took me many, many years to discover sitting for myself. This seems absurd in someone who had such excellent examples right in my own family for so many years. However, I spent most of the decades of my life being very busy in one way or another, with no time to sit at al—or so I thought. 

In young adulthood I did occasionally find myself with my mother or my aunt or both of them, visiting people and places they found inspiring. I sat with my mother while she was having tea and conversation with Ananda Jennings, a Buddhist teacher then living in Ojai, California, and I listened with her and with Aunt Margot to Jiddu Krishnamurti’s lectures in Gstaad, Switzerland when my mother was spending her summers not far from that town. Afterwards I read several of Krishnamurti’s books, and then books by Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, and others, more and more of them as I grew older and my mother and my aunt were both gone. I think I read these books in order to stay connected to the women of my childhood. It didn’t occur to me that I could also sit, as they had done, and for the same reasons.

My sitting only really began when my mother was receiving care at the end of her life from a group of Buddhist caregivers in Vermont. Through them I met Carol Hyman and her husband, Patton, who created Applied Mindfulness Training. From them I learned that it was possible to sit within my very own life and in my own place. I could pay attention to my breath and watch evanescent thoughts moving into and out of my mind. I could sit in a chair in my own living room, for shorter or longer periods. I learned to do this regularly and faithfully, and I learned that it is indeed helpful, as my mother said.

I am so grateful to mothers, aunts, friends, and to all the teachers and teachings that have enriched my life. I am especially grateful to Applied Mindfulness Training for teaching me, finally, how to sit.

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