“[B]asically, a tea ceremony is conducted by one or two people who sit before their guests and prepare tea in a very traditional manner, using beautiful cups, and whisks made from bamboo, and so forth. Even the guests are part of the ceremony because they must hold the cup in a certain manner and drink from it just so. If you think of it as sitting down to have a nice cup of tea…well, it’s more like a sort of dance, or even a meditation, conducted while kneeling.
My first tea ceremony teacher was…so obsessed with tea ceremony that she taught it as if every movement was absolutely holy. Because of her enthuasiasm I quickly learned to respect her teaching, and I must say it was the perfect lesson to have at the end of a long morning. The atmosphere was so serene. Even now, I find tea ceremony as enjoyable as a good night’s sleep.”
~ Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha
In one of Atlanta’s oldest neighborhoods, an amiable chiropractor operates a small office, just five tables behind a small waiting area. Rather than appointments in order to focus on one patient at a time, he operates solely by walk-ins. He cycles among the tables, allowing time for adjustments to settle, either from patients staying supine or walking around the office. He works holistically, recommending yoga poses and home remedies as often as adjusting vertebrae.
Of course, the physical condition of each patient affects the length of a visit, but in this practice, the physical conditions of everyone else equally influence the time as well. Regardless of whether a visit is twenty minutes or an hour, both the adjustments and the waiting time create more opportunity for decompression. Rather than wasted time, patients have the luxury of time to release body and mind more fully, soak in their own thoughts and emotions—particularly in comparison to a neatly scheduled visit inserted into the typical overbooked life. The lack of appointments forces patients to drop expectations and become more receptive to the doctor’s work; he recognizes that time spent in a theraputic space is as powerful as his own direct healing efforts. Like the tea ceremony example, mindful time on one of his tables can rejuvenate as much as a full night’s sleep.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, physical activities, particularly dangerous ones, also exemplify mindfulness. Michael Reardon was a famous climber, known for impressive boulder problems within fifty feet of the ground as well as multi-pitch and high altitude climbs. He became famous particularly because he soloed so many of those climbs. However, he did not consider his practice as reckless, believing that “soloing is a life wish, not a death wish.”
Clear focus is essential for climbers at any elevation, including soloists (who don’t use ropes). The effects of a split-second distraction from breath or attention can explode like a mushroom cloud. Regardless of his distance off the ground, Reardon maintained the same mentality: “I often refer to my zone of concentration as the ‘eight-foot eggshell.’It is the immediate area where my hands and feet lie. It is the concentration of my focus. In this area, I have a choice of moving up or down, but everything outside of that area no longer matters.” (emphasis added)
Chris Sharma, often regarded as the top climber in the world, has a similar focus on the present task, rather than the intended result:
“We have these ambitions and motivations—maybe they’re somewhat egotistical—to try to achieve. Oftentimes that ego gets in the way of actually just being totally present in the moment. Working on a hard rock climb, if I have this idea, I want to get to the top, then I’m thinking more about the top than just the present, just climbing. The times I’ve been most successful have been when I’ve just been climbing—not thinking about anything. So I try to have an open mind, not have any expectations, just go to have fun and not force anything, not be too attached to getting to the top. And that always seems to bring about the highest performance.” (emphasis added)
Any pursuit, regardless of the means or ends, can become an exercise in mindfulness, the effects of single-pointed focus. Those who knit or crochet must also pay attention to minutiae, in the same manner as rock climbers, for the sake of producing hundreds, thousands, of even stitches. One at a time. Surgeons must have similar singular attention. Hands full of surgical equipment must stay present; distraction can literally mean the difference between life and death. Cooks cultivate mindfulness as they execute the many steps to create a meal, such as waiting for oil to heat so that spices sizzle at just the right temperature. Gardeners and farmers know soil intimately, the importance of its different textures and smells. Even hula-hooping, often dismissed as a child’s activity, has practitioners who use nearly identical language as meditators to describe their practice. Ann Humphreys describes her goal as “Full Presence.” She describes her hooping practiceas “meditation, my way of reconnecting with the deepest part of who I am—the breathing, moving entity that enjoys the miracle of being embodied.” (emphasis added)
To excel at anything, regardless of talent, requires sustained, mindful effort. Whatever the practice, whether purling an even row with knitting needles or literally stitching a person together in surgery, requires the same single-pointed mental state as any meditative practice. Even without deliberate study (or a laissez-faire chiropractor), people strive to sate their natural need for mindfulness—the times when they feel happiest and most alive, when life’s inevitable distrations fade. Even with disregard for meditation, hobbies often reveal their outlets for breath and awareness. Those pursuits usually best exploit natural abilities and allow people to experience single-mindedness.
My earliest exposure to mindful practice was regular church attendance with my family. Prayer, of course, was constant practice: before meals and bedtime, during church services, at special occasions. From a young age, one of my favorite practices has always been watching sunrise or sunset. I have always loved the sky. Whenever I have a clear view, I use sunrise and sunset as moments to stop.
Many traditions, religions, and spiritualities have developed a myriad of ways to teach mindfulness and consciousness. One of the most famous definitions of yoga is the second of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: yoga chitta vritti nirodha. Sanskrit is both succint and highly loaded with meaning, so the translations are many:
- Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
- Yoga is the stilling of the movement of thought, in the indivisible intelligence in which there is no movement.
- Yoga means withdrawing the extrovert tendencies of mind from mundane objects, making them introvert and merging them with the basic background of mind.
- Yoga is the inhibition of the modifications of the mind.
Embrace, surrender to the present. Distill oneself to consciousness. Not coincidentally, that is when we are most alive.
Such consciousness provides the potential to learn many lessons: patience, acceptance, joy. One of my closest friends grows much of his own food, and he told me that gardening has taught the most powerful lessons of detachment and acceptance. Over the years, he has watched squirrels devour his tomato plants and bad weather destroy entire crops. Yet those possible outcomes never deter his slow, steady efforts to coax life from the ground every season.
Meditation, by definition, emphasizes the importance of being present. It narrows the focus to the self, rather than an external objective. The purpose of meditation is not breathing; we do that already. What we already live day-to-day, even without direct links to spirituality or religion, demonstrates that mindful intentions yield both immense power and peace. We already recognize the practices that nourish us, what resonates most strongly in our lives. What we love to do has enormous potential. Meditation is the practice of establishing, sustaining, and embodying a practice—encouraging us to live not in a comfortable rut, but to confront and realize ourselves. Such practice offers another realm of knowledge and transformation, of which many names exist: enlightenment, union, bliss, samadhi, nirvana.
In his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hahn articulates the many commonalities of Buddhism and Christianity. I agree with his view that mindfulness transcends religious beliefs:
“Our true home is in the present moment. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment. Peace is all around us—in the world and in nature—and within us—in our bodies and our spirits. Once we learn to touch this peace, we will be healed and transformed. It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice. We need only to bring our body and mind into the present moment, and we will touch what is refreshing, healing, and wondrous.” (emphasis added)
In that way, peace within oneself is not such a distant goal from peace on earth.
Although sports, needlework, surgery, gardening, or sunset-watching do not form the basis of religion or spirituality, they are ways to access the power of being present. I have many, many sunset photos. What they probably cannot convey to others is how varied that same sight felt in different places–the photos cannot capture the suchness of those moments. Yet that practice, despite its lack of obvious variation, sustains me and allows me to remain present.
One of my favorite quotes is, “If you cannot see God in all, you cannot see God at all.” Not because I necessarily believe in capital-letter God (whoever that is), but because I love the idea of the divine in the mundane—another way I stay present.
SK © 2010
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
~ George Herbert