Friday, November 18, 2011

The Small Picture

Zen Buddhism makes much of living in the present. If you make a conscious effort to put all of your awareness in the present moment, you will find that it is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Time slows down, or disappears entirely, and the mundane takes on a startlingly profound significance.

To illustrate what I mean—I usually get up in the morning, feed the cat, make my bed, meditate, take a shower, and then go downstairs to make breakfast and wash any dishes left in the sink. Anyone reading this has their own version of the morning routine. But try this—when you get out of bed, don’t focus on anything except what you’re doing right now. Don’t worry about what you will do at work, or wherever else you are going that day, don’t rehearse conversations with people that you haven’t had yet, don’t think about what happened yesterday. Focus on each step you take when you get out of bed. Focus on the act of turning on the water in the shower, and washing yourself. Focus on the act of washing dishes. Apply that to whatever you do in the morning, or just one thing you do, and see what happens.

Besides the slow-down of time, you will find that this is a very difficult thing to maintain, because your mind jumps all over the place. It’s the reason you can’t meditate by sitting and thinking about nothing. Your mind can’t bear sitting still and shutting up. Rather than fight that, it is said that it is better to listen to the chatter of your mind like you’re listening to the radio or a TV in the background.

Even though it is unlikely you could maintain this state of mind, it is a very worthwhile exercise. For one thing, it shows you how you really DON’T live in the present. Another thing it demonstrates is how mundane tasks are acts of meditation in and of themselves. Finally—if you can manage to attempt this sort of thing, even for a little while on a daily basis, you will find that it completely changes how you view life.

Poetry is the language of the present. To describe a scene or an event, you have to be fully immersed in whatever it is you are writing about. It isn’t really an accident that sacred and/or mystical writing is usually in the form of poetry. There is an attempt to recount the wonder of the experience, no matter how mundane. I think rationalism has made us lose our sense of poetry, as we have a habit of trying to “factually” recount things in an “objective” way. It’s not just what events objectively happen; it’s how those events are experienced. For instance, Gary Snyder has a poem about waking up, rolling a cigarette, and listening to distant cars going by. Simply listing those activities leaves them devoid of meaning. But in a poem: “Sun breaks out over the eucalyptus / grove below the wet pasture / water’s about hot / I sit in the open window / & roll a smoke / ... / a soft continuous roar / comes out of the far valley / of the six-lane highway—thousands /and thousands of cars / driving men to work.” (from “Marin-an” in “The Back Country”).

Like most of us at some point, I have a tendency to try to figure out the “big picture”. Where will I be in five years, what is my plan for making big changes, what are my deadlines for my goals? We short-change ourselves with this kind of thinking, because our planning is based on our assumptions about the future, which are based on the past and the present. The big picture is really a background to the small picture, and the small picture includes those daily things we do that in time will take us where we want to go. Just like squirrels build up their winter store one acorn at a time, there is a need to break things into smaller components, and focus only on those things we are capable of dealing with in the present. What seems to happen is that we suddenly find ourselves with the right opportunities and circumstances to achieve our goals. The reason this happens is because we’ve cultivated awareness—and when you are aware, you pick up on things that others miss. It may be something read online or in a newspaper (does anyone read those anymore?), a casual comment from a friend or from someone sitting across from you on a train. I believe the term for it is “serendipity”.

Serendipity (and synchronicity) make us nervous, because it means relinquishing control and trusting that you will get to where you need to go without worrying or fretting about it. This doesn’t mean that no forethought should go into future plans, but we do tend to spend more time worrying about those things that are out of our control. You can’t “solve” what is uncertain and unknown, so you can only surrender to it.

With so much going on in the world, and so much information, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to learn to focus on one thing at a time. After all, you never really win the multi-tasking game; you just have more and more to do, and less time in which to do it.


harry said...

Nice reminder. Now please tell my brain, which keeps yapping on.

Mark Donahue said...

Truth truth truth. You post made me recall Joseph Campbell speaking about eternity. "Eternity has nothing to do with time" was one of his quotes.

Keeping one's awareness in the moment may be eternity; a kind of internal relativity mirrored by photons in the world.

Perhaps if one can achieve that state, 100%, without the reflection of the past, or projection into the future (speaking of projections... have you read any of the physics articles saying we're all holograms?)... then maybe this grand unfolding occurs, wherein this perfect, head of a pin balance allows the Now(nao) to just be.

Who knows? I don't have the oomph to articulate it well.

Brigid N. Burke said...

Harry--I think we all have the same problem! Especially if we're academics. :)

Mark--yes, I think that's the secret--living in the "now" without judgment, just observation, is really that state of consciousness that people identify with "God". So simple, yet so difficult. So simple that no one believes that anyone who says that could be serious. No worries about not being able to describe it--it's not really describable!

I love that quote from Joseph Campbell--I remember him saying that in his interview with Bill Moyers. Time is really a convenient construct that we use to measure things, and to interpret phenomena in relation to other phenomena. Jung also said that a characteristic of the "collective unconscious" was that time and space seemed to have no effect on it. Reality does get very weird when you examine it closely.