I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields…,
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon…?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver
Some transitions in life, such as the end of a season, can call for a period of slowing down. I prefer to think that any slowing down typically brings one into the basic wisdom of the heart, which finds that slowness leads to a softening and a heart opening. Slowing down, we are able to feel a warm summer breeze against our sun-tanned skin and enjoy a slow, lingering cloud-defined, twilight-hued sunset. We are able to eat a ripe homegrown tomato with a new appreciation for all it takes to experience this gift of taste. We are less scheduled and more available to life’s simplicity. We are able to convert our fears into sadness and let our heart pain shower us with bodhichitta, or our naturally awakened heart, our intrinsic goodness, and basic sanity.
There are a lot of ways to “achieve” what is already our essential nature. So often, we read about doing yoga, tai chi, chanting, qigong, mindfulness meditation, centering prayer, which are all disciplines for the mind so that it can get out of its own way. Truthfully, however, if you take some time and daydream—look out your window and notice your breath, you’ll also notice a sense of ease, a sense that you don’t have to do anything and that nothing is required to feel awake. We often get lost in prescriptions and stand in line waiting for what we already have: sanity.
One of the basic premises of mindfulness is slowing down and paying attention to just what is happening now. Although calm may be the result of mindfulness, we are not looking to create anything, as much as simplify things. Simplicity might evoke all kinds of associations for you. What happens when you feel into the concept of simplicity? Maybe the first experience you have is a negative one related to deficiency or something lacking complexity and sophistication. On the other hand, it may reflect for you a quality of experience that relates to clarity, purity, or even beauty. It may suggest eliminating unnecessary complications. This final consideration of “eliminating unnecessary complications” is what I mean by the word simplicity—a simple harmony and alignment with the way things are. We are less in our thoughts and more simply aware of the movement of life.
Shamatha (Sanskrit for “calm abiding”) meditation practice is the development of mindfulness, or being present in the moment to what is happening. This is a practice in which you bring awareness to a single point of attention, such as one’s breath. The purpose of concentration practice is it allows the mind to strengthen its ability to focus on a single point while also noticing various emotions and conceptual thinking processes, but not getting lost or dwelling in these temporary affective and cognitive conditions.
The first aspect of our noticing might be to employ mindfulness by just observing our ordinary breath and how it naturally occurs in various situations. Bringing attention to breath is as simple as walking and noticing how you are breathing: climbing the stairs and noticing how exertion affects your breath, or how falling asleep influences breath. Again, the ultimate purpose of bringing attention to our breath is that it effects—allows our opening into what already exists—an undisturbed witnessing clarity. This sets the stage for bringing a more analytic attention to the patterns of our mind experiencing the world. We then begin to explore the movements of mind. We begin to notice certain patterns of seeking relief from our suffering by running after security and comfort. So, we become curious about our patterns:
- Is there a basic honesty to how we approach life?
- Can we encounter ourselves, and explore our self-truths, without any judgment, without condemnation?
- Can we neutrally observe our inner landscapes (our emotions and thoughts) as we might the changing weather conditions?
Seeing self is similar to seeing any changing conditions. Our fears are that somehow what arises in our minds is really who we are. This ignorance leads to irritation, doubt, embarrassment, fear, shame, anxiety, depression, and a host of other conditions that seem to be emotional roadblocks to our basic sanity. Yet we can respect what is arising without making it personal. Shamatha practice allows us to focus on one thing (breath) while simultaneously noticing that emotions and thoughts arise and that there is no need to suppress or attend to them. There is a basic, friendly, naturally intelligent, sane openness in experiencing what arises, which leads to a precision and clarity that is vitally connected with whatever is experienced.
Ultimately, you could say that what becomes clear through meditation is the expression of the awakened state of mind. This expression allows for a sense of dignity, a compassionate presence with others, and a willingness to spontaneously let go rather than hold on. Ironically, we begin meditation by noticing our sense of personal suffering and find that suffering is the gate by which we enter into experiencing that there isn’t anything to hold onto. We make friends with our basic insecurity and it becomes less of a problem. So, meditation refines experience to just this: this morning’s grass that smells dewy and fresh, this azalea in bloom, this death of a loved one, and this one “wild and precious” life where everything is vitally alive and deeply meaningful, not because it meets our expectations, but because we’re touching truth as it exists right now—in all its complete, unified aliveness.
Oliver, Mary. (1990). The House of Light. Beacon Press: Boston
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.