I’m just starting to see how “out of shape” I am in my meditation practice. I’ve definitely been coasting this past year (or two or three…), and even missed my annual retreat this past spring, which interestingly, I am feeling the affects of now. I decided to take an online meditation class with some Vipassana teachers in Canada this fall. Best decision I’ve made for myself recently.
The name of the class is “Strong Knowing”, and it pretty much is what it says. It’s mindfulness 24/7, making great effort in noticing everything around me. While the ideal is to observe everything around me all of the time, the daily task is to sit for an hour uninterrupted, which is about 30 minutes more than I have been sitting these past several years. I’ve been motoring on 20-30 minutes a day, and telling myself it’s okay if I just sit for 5 minutes if that’s all I have time for. While that’s all well and good – that whole do-the-best-you-can thing – it’s not serving me very well. Enough of the self deprecations though. I’m more interested in sharing what I’ve been experiencing in these one-hour sits.
To begin with, the invitation from the teachers is to actually not sit the way we meditation practitioners usually do sit, which is on a meditation cushion in full, half or as-best-as-you-can lotus position. (I’m the as-best-as-you-can person). Rather, the invitation is to sit somewhere where we can take in all of our senses, maybe even on a park bench, observing everything in my surroundings. Then, while sitting (and even while not sitting), the three steps to experientially observe are, 1) the thing itself (sight, sound, sensation, thought, etc.), 2) the receptor in the body (the eyes, ears, body or mind), and 3) consciousness. The third step gets me every time because then I collapse into ego, and “enjoy” that ride/narration for a while until I realize I’m on the wrong train, and then go back to step one, “the thing itself”.
The. Thing. Itself.
I’m in my third week of this newly committed practice, and I’m just starting to taste the fruits of my labor, literally. I’ve been sitting in my backyard, which has a lot of fruit trees. My wife is an avid gardener. She works very hard on our back yard. (I just pull weeds and dig holes when she tells me to). This morning when I was out there, I found myself just staring at a pomegranate on our pomegranate tree. In the course of that hour, I looked all around me. I saw dyads and tryads of crows surveilling the neighborhood, with the occasional singleton searching for her murder. I saw a Golden-Crowned sparrow and a hummingbird share a tree branch for a few seconds, inches from each other. I saw a Starling crash into out trampoline netting, bounce back off of it, turn around, and merely decapitate my head until it swerved to the other side and found its way on a branch to stabilize itself. (Who knew meditation could be so violent!). I heard a bunch of stuff too – multiple species of birds chirping within feet of me, crows mobbing in the far distance, kids playing, and a tar truck laying tar on a nearby street. I now know when my neighbors open and close one window in their house, and the length of the curtain that they need to use to protect them from the sun at certain times of the day. I smelled the dull sweetness of the Jacaranda tree’s leaves, which hung inches from my nose. I never knew a Jacaranda tree could smell so sweet. I tasted the bitter acid of my coffee, which had been sitting in the pot for two hours before I poured my first cup.
And then there were the thoughts. I’m grateful for my neighborhood. My backyard is a beautiful little forest. I am connected to nature. I need nature. Nature supports my nervous system. That’s so cool that my friend, T, is getting certified to lead Forest Bathing walks. There is so much nature around us, even in an urban setting. We are nature.
Then there was the receiving. And that’s the fruit of the labor. Looking at the pomegranate, I then looked around the yard, and I could “see” my dog Sadie who died in May, trotting up to me, tail wagging, head dropping into my lap. And the rage of my grief shedded from me in that moment, and melted to tears as I received the grief. But of course, it’s not just that grief, the grief of my dead dog. It’s grief, as in the grief of many things. But more so, it’s healing, and it’s connecting with humanity. Like that story in Buddhism when a woman during Buddha’s time approached him and said she was mad and sad that her child had died and she wanted to know why her child died. The Buddha told her to go around the village and collect a mustard seed from every family that had not lost a child and come back to her the next day, and they would talk then. So, she went around the village, and every person who opened their door could not give her a mustard seed because they too had lost a child. When she returned to the Buddha the next day, she had learned the lesson of the mustard seed.
We all suffer, we all participate in this thing called humanity. And the one hour of sitting is one way to access that deep well of humanity, so I am able to go back to the other twenty-three hours with a little more softness, a little less rage, and little more bandwidth to contribute something decent to our world.
And maybe tomorrow that pomegranate will be ripe enough for eating.