It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
— Mary Oliver
I’ve always appreciated the idea of setting aside a day to cultivate a deeper intimacy with Divinity. It feels important not just to be the active expression of the Intelligence That Animates as we go about the hustle and bustle of daily Life but to cultivate a receptivity to Intelligence as pure potential. A day of contemplation appears to move us closer to an appreciation of the sacred than a day filled with the distractions of to-do’s, no matter how practiced one is in the art of working meditation.
On this particular Sunday, the call to worship came from a blue sky, a warm breeze and brilliant sunshine. I set out to find peace in the country byways and orchards of a beautiful California morning. My heart sang with the birds as I pulled off the road to park the car. As I opened the door into what I expected would be the vast stillness of rolling hills, I was greeted by the low-pitched roar of lawn mowers. Apparently, not everybody is called to worship on Sundays! The movement from delight to dissatisfaction was instantaneous. The conversation in conditioned mind was a predictable mixture of disbelief, disappointment, disgust, disgruntlement. The conclusion of all that mental activity was decisive. “Go home. You can’t meditate here. No peace for you!”
Something hesitated. Something else propelled the feet to start walking. Something asked whether peace was an external or internal state. After all, this something posited, one carries the mind wherever one goes, even in the most peaceful of places. How often is the stillness outside a guarantee of tranquility within? Isn’t meditation finding the peace that isn’t affected by lawn mowers or monkey mind?
As I walked, I was aware of the oscillation of attention between bird song and lawn mower, between marveling at the beautiful complexity of a silent oak tree and berating the human capacity for shattering harmony. But as I kept walking, the sound of the engines receded, becoming a muted buzz at the outer edges of a morning once more filled with bird chatter. The lesson offered by this encounter was inescapable!
Anyone practicing for any length of time can spot the habitual orientation of conditionality. Arranging circumstances so that “I” feel a certain way is the default human setting and the core driver of most human pursuits. Conditions can rarely be arranged to meet expectations! A call to worship for one person clashes with a call to work for another. Building peace and happiness on the foundations of something as unpredictable as externals–other people, careers, where one meditates on Sunday mornings–is a recipe for suffering.
On the other hand, one can feel tremendous compassion for the human being saddled with a mental apparatus capable of creating a hellish interiority wherever they are. Small wonder that the default impulse is also to escape the torment of our own thoughts. We all want a vacation from conditioned mind but are programmed to believe that peace is possible only if we escape the circumstances. It is easy to feel dejected when we discover that even in the cathedral silence of towering pine trees, the mind still wants to dwell on what’s wrong, or worse, after years of meditating, one is still rattled by the sound of the lawn mowers. The trap for any experienced practitioner is to be caught in the vortex of knowing the mind is the “problem” and being unable to silence it by sincere devotion to practice.
As I walked, I pondered the conundrum of finding peace when neither the external nor the internal environment could be “arranged.” I was able to walk out far enough to no longer hear the roar of the lawn mower. Is there a way to metaphorically walk that distance in the internal landscape so that the noisy chatter of the mind fades? Being completely engaged in something like facilitating or writing or intense physical activity does dial the mind down. Spending extended periods of time in natural beauty (in the absence of lawn mowers) has the effect of soothing the mental system. What is the process at play in these places where the mind is not the center of attention?
The answer was in the question! The mind is not the center of attention!
In the sacred Hindu literature, a human being is described as divinity encased in five interlocking sheaths.
- The first sheath is the physical body, literally described as the illusion of accumulated food, in that its solidity, built out of what it is nourished by, is impermanent.
- The second sheath is the breath of life, the subtle energy of the life force that burns food for energy.
- The third sheath is the mind constituting all thoughts, emotions, and memories, the spectrum of what defines us as a personality.
- The fourth sheath is the sheath of innate intelligence, the discerning wisdom of awareness that is literally beyond the mind.
- The fifth sheath, the sheath of bliss, is the experience of joy, love, happiness, and peace, independent of all conditions.
When attention is on the mind, experience of ourselves is reduced to one aspect of all that we are. Recollecting our other dimensions is the metaphoric walk away from the mind. As the awareness expands to notice the body, the breath, the still small voice, the witnessing awareness, the mind recedes from being the focus of attention. If we can direct attention “inward,” we can plumb the depths of our interiority and rest in a peace that is unconditional. The secret, it seems, is to become aware of our totality.
The call to worship is really a call to know our essence as multilayered and multidimensional. We settle for identification with ego through habit and ignorance. But an active practice of accessing ALL that is us is available on the cushion, whether in the meditation hall or in the company of sweetly blooming daffodils.
And so on this Sunday morning, I sit down on a cool, pink rock, close my eyes, take a deep breath and count to ten. Navigating past the turbulent tumble of thoughts, attention slips into the space between the thoughts and for a glorious moment it rests in peace, peace heralded by the clear, pure notes of a bird in flight.
Here in my hand is the opportunity, and the way is clear beyond the gate of thought and desire. There is no self and other as the awareness of pure undisturbed consciousness slips into all consciousness.
– Daily Recollection