Trailing the Snail
Post by Chintana Ahlund
“at my feet
when did you get here?
~ Kobayashi Issa
I’ve been meandering underneath moody clouds lately. Fall weather often brings about a blanket of wet gray sky and deeply felt breezes. There’s a simultaneous freshness and fading in the air this time of year.
It was this weekend that an empty snail shell halted my footsteps.
Can a snail live without its shell? I wondered.
This small encounter stirred whimsical notions within me. The snail, this week, has been my muse. I’ve spent several portions of my walks pondering its existence and have been performing daily internet research on how it lives. Simply put, I’ve been trailing the snail.
Sadly, I learned that a snail cannot live without its shell. So, I had come upon a corpse. The occupant of that abandoned shell had died from malnourishment or had fallen prey to a bird with an appetite for escargot (most likely a limpkin or snail kite in Florida). I also read that the snail comes to life on cloudy days and is active at night (which explains the silver trails edging sidewalks in the evenings).
Today, I stood eyeing a book in the New Releases section at Barnes & Nobles. It was a small hardback featuring an illustrated snail leaning over the word wild on the cover. This led to a spontaneous purchase of Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. It’s the story of how a bedridden woman befriends a woodland snail to help cope with a life altering illness.
I’d like to share some of her insights on life, drawn from the close observation of a pet snail:
Survival often depends on a specific focus: a relationship, a belief, or a hope balanced on the edge of possibility. Or something more ephemeral: the way the sun passes through the hard, seemingly impenetrable glass of a window and warms the blanket, or how the wind, invisible but for its wake, is so loud one can hear it through the insulated walls of a house….Each evening the snail awoke and, with an astonishing amount of poise, moved gracefully to the rim of the pot and peered over, surveying, once again, the strange country that lay ahead. Pondering its circumstance with a regal air, as if from the turret of a castle, it waved its tentacles first this way and then that, as though responding to a distant melody.”
The snail symbolizes stability, self-reliance and resurrection. It often hibernates in the winter by tucking into its shell and sealing up the entrance. This is also how it survives hot days, waiting for rain to enter and moisten its body. Based on ancient Greek terms, the snail is aptly called a “stomach-foot” (gastro = stomach and podus = foot) as it slides on its belly by secreting a mucous to aid with movement. It can even glide across a sharp razor blade without getting cut. The snail perceives the world cautiously and explores gracefully, through two sets of tentacles: the upper pair is used for smelling and seeing. The lower, shorter pair aids in feeling and tasting.
So, how can the snail inspire our practice?
First of all, remember that meditation is relationship – to yourself, your surroundings and to others. Elisabeth Tova Bailey finds great wisdom in relating to a snail. The snail reminds us to slow down and to also see aliveness in dampness and darkness. A snail cannot hear things. It simply sees and feels. So, perhaps we can also learn to put aside the annoying voice that tells us that we don’t have time to slow down from life’s busyness. Just be like the snail and stop listening to that inner critic. Simply tune into what’s in front of you and peer into it deeply.
Try the following exercises, inspired by the snail.
Trailing the Snail
- Take a slow walk at night and take note of what comes alive.
- Sit comfortably, keeping the eyes closed. Breathe slowly in and out of the nose. Place the left hand on top of the right hand, palms facing up. Have the thumbs touching, forming an oval shape. Relax the arms and elbows, holding the hands in this position right below the belly button.
- As you perform sitting meditation, picture a snail poised in your palms. See the swirl in its shell. Use this image as an anchor for your sitting practice. Keep breathing slowly and coming back to this visualization.
- Pay attention to what feeling arises from meditating on the snail. Do you feel self-assured? Do you sense and trust that things are slowly unfolding in your life? Do you feel a deep sense of longing? A dryness?
- Open your eyes and jot down a list of what comes to mind from your meditation.
- Then go – write for 10 minutes on a topic (ex: trust, dryness, slime, etc.)
The snail can evoke much understanding about life. Slow down and see what unfurls from your study of this often unnoticed creature. Enter the silent world of the snail. Perhaps, it leads to an unseen creative outlet or an unsolved mystery that lies within you.