This past month of April I have been writing about the different paths and stories of our lives. Sometimes we make a deliberate decision to add a chapter to the story, like going on vacation, changing our job, getting married, committing to a long term relationship. We are aware we are turning the page of the story; we are on an adventure. But mostly, we are living inside our stories, so we don’t necessarily have a sense of being part of one that is unfolding. Last week I took a look at the reality of suffering, impermanence, and not-self – the three marks of existence in Buddhist philosophy, a path of understanding about the reality of life. This week, I thought we could reflect on how we pay attention, our relationship to what is coming into our awareness and the joy of being a part of something bigger than ourselves.
Today I walked the same hiking trail, I have walked many times. It is one I know very well. It’s not a particularly grand or scenic trail. It meanders through softwood and hardwood forest and it’s not a very long trail – about two and a half miles. I know every bend, and hill. If I close my eyes, I can trace the trail in my head. Being so familiar with anything, in this case these woodland paths, it’s easy to tune out and not pay much attention to the surroundings. And I can admit, there have been times, many, when my attention has wandered away from being connected to the experience of walking.
When I remember, to pay attention, touching in on my breathing, or the physical sensations of my body moving, I feel more connected not only to myself, but to where I am and what I am doing. I remember what it feels like to be grateful. In this case, to be surrounded by nature, to notice the shapes and colors of the trees, to experience the stillness, the sound of the birds and the movement of the wind passing. I feel blessed to have this. Simone Weil in her First and Last Notebooks (1970), catches this when she says, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
This particular hiking trail is circular. So, I don’t have to retrace my steps. I return to where I started. I find this interesting. We mostly think of paths as linear, or at most meandering. How often do we think of those paths of exploration that return us back to where we started? What have we learned along the way? Where we started is probably not going to be the same as when we began. How has what we have experienced changed us?
In a conversation with my sister earlier today, she reminded me of a poem by T.S. Eliot, the Four Quartets. Later, I found myself reading it again. It is a long poem, and one that I find needs time to absorb and understand. Toward the end of the poem, in the fourth Quartet, the title of which is Little Gidding, Eliot says,
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
Allowing ourselves the conscious practice of paying attention, allows us to be in process with what we are engaging in. It presents the experience just as it is. We notice our relationship to what is arising and understand we don’t need to add anything to it. We can watch the movement of what is around us, what we are engaged in, what we are experiencing without needing it to be any different. There is a joy in letting this be realized, if only for moments at a time.
We are part of so many paths – those that are easily identified and those that are deeper, revealing themselves more slowly. Mindfulness meditation helps us to become aware of what is present, understand our relationship to it, and supports the wisdom to know that we are not alone.
Please note: I will be taking a short break of two weeks from writing this weekly blog. Writing in this way has been a journey of exploration, which is what I hoped for. It did not have any particular mission. Having spent the past four/five years co-authoring two professional books, it is a delight to not be beholden to a project with a specific mission. The writing is freer, and I can speak to what is present for me as I write, doing my best to capture moments of heartfelt thought. My path now, is to reflect on this process, before I continue on my way.
To those of you who have signed up for the weekly blog – thank you. I will be back in two weeks!