I took my parents’ dog, Jake out for a walk in the park this morning. The wind was cold, and the trees were icy and barren. Jake didn’t care how cold it was. Immediately, he shot like a rocket across the park after a squirrel. I called to him, but he was too caught up in all the excitement and snow. Eventually, he settled down, and the white stillness of the park returned.
So it is with my inner life. I see that my thoughts can be just as noisy and reckless. I can’t change my dog’s nature. That is how dogs are. Sometimes though, Jake hears my call and recognizes that I am his master, or at least that I am the one that feeds him, and he obeys. What if we could have a similar gentle attitude towards our wandering mind that we find ourselves in so often, and instead of reacting against it, see it as a friend?
Maybe I am just chasing after squirrels a lot of the time; however I can also recognize that all these inner noises, clamour of associations, and busyness prevent me from the direct experience of life. Behind all of that, there is always a quality of stillness, whether I recognize it or not. Jeanne de Salzmann speaks about this stillness in her book The Reality of Being. She writes:
I have to see that there is a space between thoughts. A void that is reality, and I need to remain as long as possible in this space. Then another kind of thinking appears, clear and intelligent, a thought of another level, another dimension.
The idea that there are two worlds or two rivers is found in many spiritual traditions. The first is the world of our day-to-day functioning with all its dogs of commentaries, opinions, ideas, as well as the emotions that move through us like the weather. The second world is completely different. It’s related to silence and seems composed of an entirely different order. This second world is always beckoning to us, but it is hidden behind the veil of the first world. Siddhartha describes this second world beautifully as “a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.”
The key, I think is not to be in one world or the other, but to witness and be related to both worlds at the same time. The Buddhist teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya provides a wonderfully clear description of this practice in his book Awareness Alone Is Not Enough:
When you are on your own, your attention will tend to be all ‘in here’. When you are with others, it will most likely be all ‘out there’. Why does it all go ‘out there’? It is because you are more interested in what is going on ‘out there’, because you are not really interested in what is going on ‘in here’. When the attention is all outside, thoughts and emotions will come unnoticed and things will build up.
“[The yogi says, yes, this is the problem! I try to maintain internal awareness but when the awareness wants to go out, it affects the quality of awareness.] OK, the outside is important but so are you! Why not be aware of both, why not go for 50/50? There are of course variations. In some circumstances it might be 60/40, etc. You need to experiment, learn in different situations…
To make an effort in this direction, I try simple exercises; for example, in the morning, I say to myself: “I am going to try to be as present to myself and the world around me today whenever I pass under doorways throughout the day.” From this deceptively simple task, I gather snapshots of myself. It’s really not about getting the task right or wrong, but to see how I am moment by moment. For the most part, I see that I forget the task most of the time. Why do I forget? If I’m lucky and remember the task underneath a doorway, I wonder what part of me remembers. Essentially, I’m attempting to break up habitual patterns and awaken from a hypnotic sleep by putting myself into question. I’m making an effort to step outside the incessant story I have of myself, that usually runs on auto-pilot and bear witness to how I really am, moment-to-moment.
In short, these exercises are a struggle to bring the action of an inner world into my daily life. Similarly, when I practice meditation in the early morning, I’m seeking a way that that will hopefully relate both worlds and inform my daily life. The temptation is to be lost in the inner or the outer. Is it possible to be in manifestation, yet related to an inner silence at the same time; to be in-between the meeting of the horizontal and the sacred vertical axis? In the busyness of life, this is near impossible, but I have to try. The real challenge of being a witness and reconciling both of these forces of life truly begins as soon as I get up from the meditation cushion. Back in the dog park, I whistle to Jake and prepare him to come back home. ♦
Pictured: Winter Walk, by Lynn Friedman