Mindfulness involves cultivating familiarity and intimacy with aspects of everyday experience that we often take for granted.
How can we ever know the difference we make to the soul of the earth? Where the infinite stillness of the earth meets the passion of the human eye, invisible depths strain towards the mirror of the name.
In the word, the earth breaks silence. It has waited a long time for the word. Concealed beneath familiarity and silence, the earth holds back and it never occurs to us to wonder how the earth sees us. Is it not possible that a place could have huge affection for those who dwell there?
~ John O'Donohue
"Our voices echo in the spray
and steam of this room where once,
long ago, he knelt at the tub’s edge
to pour cups of bathwater over my head."
"One of the most difficult things to say to another person is, I hope that you will love me for no good reason. But it is what we all want and rarely dare to say to one another – to our children, to our parents and mates, to our friends, and to strangers. Especially to strangers, who have neither good nor bad reasons to love us."
~ Russell Banks, from The Angel on the Roof
Excerpt from "Unleashing the Mystery of Existence," Spirituality & Health, March-April 2013:
Kim Rosen: You have been a Zen practitioner for many years. How have your own spiritual path and your evolution as a poet been interwoven? Does your Zen practice teach you about writing poetry? Does your writing teach you about Zen?
Jane Hirshfield: They are left foot and right foot.
What is serious to [humans] is often very trivial in the sight of God [aka Nature, Time, Source, Mystery of Life]. What in God might appear to us as "play" is perhaps what God takes the most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays in the garden of creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear God's call and follow in the mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash -- at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the "newness," the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.
For the world and time are the dance of the [Source] in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity, and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it or not.
Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital Neurosciences Research Center, Boston, March 2012
Excerpt from "Looking Back: My First Year as a Meditation Practitioner," by Kenji, Unready and Willing, June 2012:
Ever since I started meditating regularly last year, one question I continued to ask myself was: “Am I happier?”
For the first three months, my answer was “no.” Contrary to my expectations, I often felt more emotional turmoil than I had before. It seemed as though any event, no matter how trivial, would set off a wave of depression, or sometimes an unstable rush of euphoria, the comedown from which was never fun. I’ve always considered myself to be emotionally sensitive, but this was ridiculous.
The reason for this intensification of emotions was not apparent to me until just recently. Much of it had to do with the meditation techniques that I practiced, techniques which were supposed to raise my awareness of every physical and emotional sensation, thus grounding my attention in my body and in the present moment. As a side-effect, it also made emotions feel stronger, and thus much harder to ignore.
Most every day, sometimes for one hour, oftentimes for two, I would sit on a cushion with my eyes closed and attend to any sensation, be it painful or pleasant, that manifested in my body, and would endeavor to remain detached from them. If a certain area in my lower back ached, for example, I focused all my attention on the ache, and tried to experience the pain without labeling it as either “good” or “bad.” In the clearest moments, thoughts and judgments about the pain became hushed and subdued to the point that I could regard the pain as nothing more than what it was: sensation. Although it wasn’t the goal, the pain itself would often subside not long thereafter.
Because I worked to improve my awareness of sensation, it was only natural that the physical sensations that characterize emotions like anxiety, sadness, or melancholy would be felt much more strongly than they had been before. Sometimes some small misfortune would trigger an unpleasant emotion and because I was more sensitive to this emotion, I felt as though meditation, rather than improving my overall sense of well-being, worsened it.
In reality, the emotions didn’t change. What changed was how I experienced them. The more I practiced, and the more I read about the practice, I realized that meditation was not meant to purge our minds of negative emotions or thought patterns, but rather meant to help us experience them without judgment. We were to let go of our resistance to pain at the deepest level and understand that we suffer not because pain is bad, but because our mind labels it as bad.
Excerpt from "How Silence Works: Emailed Conversations With Four Trappist Monks," by Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston, The Awl, June 1, 2012:
I would say that silence has become natural for me. This is not the case with most communities of monks. In community, we tend to struggle with silence. A human being is a social creature, and we find that, while maintaining silence alone is natural and a blessing, cultivating silence in a group is hard and a discipline we have to commit to over and over again.
I would not speak of the “sacrifice of words” except in relatively rare instances when a passion moves me to speak and I struggle to hold my tongue. The silence which is my natural habitat is not created by forcibly sacrificing anything.
When a man and woman meet and fall in love they begin to talk. They talk and talk and talk all day long and can't wait to meet again to talk some more. They talk for hours together, and never tire of talking and so talk late into the night, until they become intimate—and then they don't talk anymore.
Neither would describe intimacy as “the sacrifice of words” and a monk is not inclined to speak about his intimacy with God in this way. Is silence beneficial for all people?
I would say the cultivation of silence is indispensable to being human. People sometimes talk as if they were “looking for silence,” as if silence had gone away or they had misplaced it somewhere. But it is hardly something they could have misplaced. Silence is the infinite horizon against which is set every word they have ever spoken, and they can't find it? Not to worry—it will find them.
"What drew me to poetry in the first place was the sense that there was the world as you experience it -- the world of your family, the world of your work, of your everyday life -- and there's something under the surface going on, too, inside everybody. That kind of unknowable quality to other people -- including your parents and your siblings -- that everyone has a whole inner life that it's very, very difficult to know about it and know what is happening inside another human being. That's what I"m most interested in and I'm drawn to those kind of moments of crisis in a way because that's when the underbelly shows through. Those are the moments when you can see it."
“A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedies, whatever it be, remorse, lost love or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table.”
A friend of mine was walking along Madison Avenue, let’s say, with the New Yorker writer Roger Angell, one of the great sports writers of America…Someone recognized Angell and stopped him and began to flatter him about his writing and tell him what a great writer he was. Then my friend and Angell continued to talk…Angell said to my friend, “That’s what it’s all about.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s what writing is all about.”
“The love of strangers.”
Which is a sort of neuroses. Most people are satisfied with the love of people around them, although that love tends to be insufficient at most times. Whereas writers tend to court the love of total strangers and I am probably more guilty than anybody. I tend to begin each of my books with a prefatory poem that’s actually addressed to the reader. It’s my way of acknowledging the presence of the reader.
As I’m reading contemporary poetry, they tend to fall into two categories which are sort of indefinable. In one category, I feel that the poet is aware of my presence and in the other I feel that an act of typewriting or someone is committing an act of literature oblivious to my participation in it.
You might call these two kinds dogs and cats. Dogs are really interested in people, as you know, whereas cats are much more self-referential…I think of the poem as a social encounter.
Jorge Luis Borges writes:
The taste of the apple lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and the reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book. What is essential is the aesthetic act, the thrill, the almost physical emotion with each reading.
by Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning
Every morning I sit across from you
at the same small table,
the sun all over the breakfast things—
curve of a blue-and-white pitcher,
a dish of berries—
me in a sweatshirt or robe,
Most days, we are suspended
over a deep pool of silence.
I stare straight through you
or look out the window at the garden,
the powerful sky,
a cloud passing behind a tree.
There is no need to pass the toast,
the pot of jam,
or pour you a cup of tea,
and I can hide behind the paper,
rotate in its drum of calamitous news.
But some days I may notice
a little door swinging open
in the morning air,
and maybe the tea leaves
of some dream will be stuck
to the china slope of the hour—
then I will lean forward,
elbows on the table,
with something to tell you,
and you will look up, as always,
your spoon dripping milk, ready to listen.
Σώμα, θυμήσου όχι μόνο το πόσο αγαπήθηκες,
όχι μονάχα τα κρεββάτια όπου πλάγιασες,
αλλά κ’ εκείνες τες επιθυμίες που για σένα
γυάλιζαν μες στα μάτια φανερά,
κ’ ετρέμανε μες στην φωνή — και κάποιο
τυχαίον εμπόδιο τες ματαίωσε.
Τώρα που είναι όλα πια μέσα στο παρελθόν,
μοιάζει σχεδόν και στες επιθυμίες
εκείνες σαν να δόθηκες — πώς γυάλιζαν,
θυμήσου, μες στα μάτια που σε κύτταζαν·
πώς έτρεμαν μες στην φωνή, για σε, θυμήσου, σώμα.
Body, remember not just how much you were loved,
not simply those beds on which you have lain,
but also the desire for you that shone
plainly in the eyes that gazed at you,
and quavered in the voice for you, though
by some chance obstacle was finally forestalled.
Now that everything is finally in the past,
it seems as though you did yield to those desires —
how they shone, remember, in the eyes that gazed at you,
how they quavered in the voice for you — body, remember.
[Thanks, Jonathan Carroll!]
There’s a part of practice that I think is inherent in all different practices. The type of concentration, the familiarity, the intimacy that you get to whatever you’re practicing, whether it’s archery or Zen or music or how to make a perfect pancake. You won’t get there unless you get intimate with the subject. You only get there through practice. As you become more intimate, you know more about it, where you can say “This batter is too liquid or too solid or too warm too cold. It’ll act this way.” All that comes only through practice. It comes up often in conversations with my friends about how people go about life these days, that they’re really not willing to practice anything.
The other day we got to talking about jeans. There’s only one of the old fashioned wooden looms in America. I think it’s actually in Raleigh, North Carolina. All the other ones were shipped to Japan, and that’s in the ‘50s. And that’s where you get the superior denim because people are willing to make things by hand and become intimate with it. Whereas a lot of people in the United States or in Europe will just go, “I’d rather buy ten pairs at Walmart than buy one pair of really good jeans, even though the really good pair will probably outlast the ten pairs they buy at Walmart.” So, there’s a lack of that—you might say depth—that comes from not practicing, from not practicing a craft.
* * * * *
“It’s about how much time you’ve spent together. That’s what makes a family, not biology, not sexual or political persuasion. It’s just that: time.”
~ Julianne Moore, from “Erotic Sparks Fly, and Lines Are Crossed,” by Dennis Lim, New York Times, April 30, 2010
Excerpts from “A Monotheistic Model of Love,” by Gilla Nissan, Parabola (Spring 2010):
In B’re-sheet, Genesis, during the process of the creation of the world, it is said that God separated the water into two: sha-ma-yim, the water of above, and ma-yim, the water below. The Zohar: The Book of Splendor, a collection of works ascribed to Simon Bar Yochai of the second century CE, goes on to say that the lower waters missed and longed for the higher waters and so cried out to unite back with them. The Hebrew words reflect this deep relationship: mayim, meaning water, and shamayim, meaning sky.
God tried several times to create the world. He used equal measures of compassion, che-sed, and judgment, din. More than once the world collapsed until He incorporated an extra measure of ra-cha-mim, another word for compassion. Without love the world cannot exist, yet we humans were given freedom to love or not to love. God so wants to be known and be loved out of free will; forced love is no love at all.
* * *
The Hebrew language has gender; we refer to God in the masculine; although, in His true nature He is without gender. In the Tetragrammaton, Yud Hey Vav Heh, the unutterable name of God, the letters vav and heh represent the male and female forces of providence. The male force is that which acts upon the world, while the female force is that which allows the world to be receptive to God’s power. We refer to God as Him because we want Him to act upon the world through the male force of providence. The Hebrew word for Divine Presence, on the other hand, is She-chi-nah, a feminine noun.
* * *
According to the Zohar, love begins with a physical attraction, then communication and speech. A kiss is the merging of one breath with another. As closeness occurs, the lovers stop speaking and are merely aware of each other’s breath. Finally, they come even closer, to the point of physical contact, and their communication becomes a kiss. Here they are aware of each other’s life force. Kissing, explains the modern mystic Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, is a natural consequence of increased intimacy in speech. Two mouths come closer and closer, and progress from speech to breath to the kiss. The kiss, then, is the highest form of intimacy.
The Zohar describes four levels in the intimacy of love: physical attraction, speech, breath, and the kiss. These same four levels exist in the relationship of a person with the Divine. These levels are to this day reflected in the structure of the daily services in the synagogue and private prayer, moving the worshipper from one level of intimacy to another. The impact is deeply profound when one’s ka-va-nah, intention, is aligned with the words.
"Every day we could choose to be intimate rather than distant, bodily rather than mental."
~ Thomas Moore