A Meditative Journey Into Your Own Emptiness

Walking MD DSC05318

Margy Dowzer Photo

I invite you now to take a small journey into your own emptiness.  I invite you to sit comfortably and notice your breathing.

Imagine that you are walking at a leisurely pace down a path in a meadow.

Ahead of you, you see an old oak tree by the path.  As you slowly come near to it, you find a pile of stones in the path blocking your way.Stones in Path MJ DSC04228_2

I invite you to take a minute to pause and remember the unfinished projects in your life, the clutter you want to clear away. Imagine them like these stones in the pathway.

As you remember each project, imagine that you lift a stone from the road, and place it in a huge pile under the oak tree.

After a few minutes, if you haven’t finished clearing all your projects and stones, I invite you now to move just one more stone under the oak, to represent all the rest.  

Then slip around the outside of the path to continue on. And imagine the wind of your breathing gently blowing over the top of the stone pile.

Now you are walking further on the trail, past the oak tree, through a field. Ahead of you, you notice a majestic willow tree next to a peaceful brook. As you reach the brook, you find a large empty basket floating in the water.

I invite you to take a minute to notice the unresolved emotions you carry in your heart, the old conflicts and entanglements. Imagine these old emotions like objects in a back pack, weighing you down.

As you notice each old emotion, take it out of your back pack, and place it gently in the huge basket in the brook.

After a few minutes, if there are still more unresolved emotions in your heart, I invite you to place one more object in the basket, to represent everything else you cannot resolve at this time.

And now imagine the water of the brook gently taking away the basket in the wind of your breath, until you can no longer see it.

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Continue on the trail, past the willow tree. Ahead of you, you now see a garden of rose bushes, with brilliant red flowers, and thorns. As you come close to the roses, you see that they are in a circle, around a large compost heap.

I invite you to take a minute to notice all the ways that you try to get other people to behave according to your expectations. Notice the ways you try to control, to be effective, or to be right.

Red Rose MJ DSC00893Imagine each of these maneuverings like old rotten fruit in your backpack. As they come to mind, toss the rotten fruit lightly over the roses and thorns, into the compost.

After a few minutes, I invite you to take your backpack itself in your hands, to represent all that is unconsciously driven in your heart, and toss it too over the roses into the compost.

Imagine that the roses are growing taller and more beautiful, and they are swaying slightly in the wind of your breathing.

Then you continue on the trail.

Ahead of you there is an apple tree. Under the apple tree there is a shady spot.

I invite you now to think about all the roles you fill in people’s lives. Imagine each of these roles as a heavy coat you are wearing.

As you think of a role, take off that coat, and place it on the ground beneath the apple tree.

Finally, see yourself in a comfortable summer outfit. You have nothing to carry.Apple DSC01750

You reach up and take a bright ripe red apple from the tree. You take a bite, and it is sweet and crisp. You sit down on the ground cover formed by the coats.

You hear the wind of your breathing blow like music across the grass. It is enough.

Facing My Own Attachment to Separation

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When I take seriously the interconnected web of all existence, when I begin to try to experience it, I also come face to face with my own attachment to separation. There is more to awakening than a mystical appreciation of the beauty of the larger whole. Something within me, and I believe within all of us, is afraid of opening the heart. I am afraid of feeling the pain of other people, I am afraid of feeling the pain of the earth. I am afraid of letting go of my illusion of control, I am afraid of being hurt by other people, or emptied out by other people. It seems easier to distract myself than to pay attention to the fear around my heart.

But this too is a part of the dance. We have to be aware of our separateness in order to come to awareness of our unity. Because here we are. Here I am in this moment, alive and part of the great circle of life. All the feelings I feel, including fear and separation, are part of the universe at this moment. And, what I have learned from many teachers, is that somehow the only task that matters, the only dance I must do, is to pay attention to the task of the present moment. I am asked to take one step forward, to make the one next choice.

There are many teachers of meditation, in many different traditions. I do not have a particular formula to teach you to use to experience the divine. But many of the mystical systems within the world traditions actually do teach practices, the purpose of which is to help us to work with our fear, and our attachment to separation, and to bring us to that experience of higher consciousness. The Buddha encouraged people not to believe what he taught, but rather to try it out and test it for themselves.  If you want such a formal practice, finding a meditation group with which to work can be very helpful.

Even without a formal practice, we can take small steps. If we can notice the thread of connection between ourselves and one other being, that is a step. When I eat a piece of bread, I might call to mind that I am joining this bread together with my own body—it is becoming human in me. Why do people pray before eating, in so many cultures? There is something about the process of eating that reminds us of our threads of connection.

Even as you sit here reading, notice the sounds that send vibrations across anyone nearby.

If you are outside or near a window, feel the sun on your cheek, and realize that you have a thread of connection across thousands of miles of space—its light is reaching you.

Notice the gravity pulling your body to the ground, attaching you to the chair and the floor beneath your feet.

Notice your breathing, the air going in and out of your nose and mouth.

When you go into the kitchen, and drink a glass of water or a cup of coffee, think about how your body is also a form of water—70% water, and imagine that your hand is pouring water into water.

When you talk to a friend or a stranger, imagine the divine spark inside of them and inside of you, and see how that affects the greeting you bring.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if we use the word God, or God-ing, or light, or love. It doesn’t matter what we call it. What we are reaching for is larger than language, larger than thought. But it is already deep within us—closer than breathing, closer than a song, closer than the DNA of each cell of our bodies. The threads of connection already weave their way into the center of our being, and hold us one to the other. There is a blessing in it, when we can feel it and see it. There is a sense of coming home and a feeling of belonging. May it be so. May we awaken like the spring flowers.

 

Miracles

One of the first things to be discarded by the early Unitarians, as reason was adopted as their guide, was their belief in miracles. They celebrated the wonder of the natural world, but decided that healing and prophecy and other supernatural events found in the Bible were imaginative stories from a more superstitious age. And it all makes sense: those events were not a part of their own lived experience.

However, there are many mysterious aspects of our human experience. More recently, even scientists have grown curious about healing, extra sensory perception, and other phenomena that seem to defy logical understanding. As the orderliness of Newtonian physics gave way to the strange chaotic properties of matter and energy encountered in Quantum physics, people began to wonder if spiritual mysteries had been cast aside too soon.

It has been difficult to use the scientific method to sort out the very subjective realm of spiritual experience. If some people can experience God, does that mean all people should be able to do so? Are there spiritual methods and practices that should consistently produce a spiritual experience? Buddhist and other forms of meditation have had an appeal for skeptical thinkers because meditation is a practice offered in the manner of an experiment. It is a method, not necessarily linked to particular beliefs, and anyone can try it out. But this is not to say that results are easy to measure.

I believe when we move beyond religious dogma that tells us we must believe certain miraculous things have happened in the past, we can move toward a thoughtful openness and curiosity about the inexplicable experiences of our own lives and the lives of those around us. Let me tell you a story from my life. It is actually a rather simple story, nothing big or dramatic. But it taught me something about miracles.

In the spring of 1986, I was living at the Seneca Women’s Peace Camp in upstate New York. At that time of year, there were only a few of us there, staying in an old farmhouse on land near the Seneca Army Depot. We were there to protest nuclear weapons, but this story is not about a prayer for world peace. At that time, my lover was living in western Massachusetts, and I missed her. I didn’t have a car, or much money. My prayer was a wish that I might find a way to go visit her.

The camp was a crossroads of sorts, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to have visitors. Peace activists from all over would stop in for a day or a week. Not so many during the winter or spring, but still a few. In my prayer, I was conscious of my wish to see my love, and I remember imagining someone coming like a knight on a white horse to carry me to Massachusetts. Quite a small prayer.

The very next day someone drove into the driveway. The visitor was driving to Massachusetts in a white pickup truck. It would have been enough to get a ride, which I did. But the white pickup truck was an added ironic touch that still sends goose bumps up my arms. So whimsical and tender a response. 

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Experience the Present Moment

Snowy Abstract Sun DSC08841In order to enter this experience of the present moment, which is also the experience of eternity, we must move from our left brain awareness to our right brain awareness. Taylor says the way to do that is to quiet the chatter of the left brain, which speaks to us constantly in the story of our life. So that is what meditation teachers have been trying to tell us!

I am usually a very left brain sort of person. I like the way the left brain organizes everything and notices patterns. I like how it tells a story from the memories of my life, and tries to make meaning and find the purpose of things. I like how it can see the patterns of the planets and stars and moon, and create calendars. I like to listen and read and write and talk. One of my spiritual practices has been to journal, and I can see that this is a very left brain spiritual practice, a way to tell a story and make meaning about my life.

But with the insights of Taylor’s perspective, I also feel more comfortable with that other process, that process of stopping the left brain, to experience being. The process of letting go of the past and future to notice the abundance of the present moment. She says,

“The feeling of peace is something that happens in the present moment. It’s not something that we bring with us from the past or project into the future.”

The right brain has the capacity to appreciate the miracle of life right now: that we are here, that our cells work together to see and hear and taste and touch. The right brain has the capacity to experience the connection between ourselves and the larger whole of which we are a part. The right brain is inherently grateful and nonjudgmental, compassionate and curious, awake to beauty and joy. The right brain is aware of the dance of life, not attached to a separated small being, but joined to a flow of energy that is not divisible by time or space. William Blake has put it this way:

To see a world in a grain of sand
and a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.

Quote from Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight, p. 159.
First lines of the poem by William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence.”

Waiting In the Dark

Milky Way

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I want to share with you a little story. I went outside to watch the meteor shower during an August night. I was just sitting in my driveway, on a reclining lounger, watching and waiting. Every so often, I would see a streak of light flash across the sky. But mostly it was just quiet and dark. I was thinking about the Milky Way, and how far the stars were spread out, and how long it took for their light to reach my eyes. I was thinking about the fact that the light from these stars was reaching my two eyes in an ordinary driveway in Maine. Suddenly the sky seemed so much larger than I remembered, and I felt so much smaller, an infinitesimal speck. And yet I was seeing everything, and my seeing was as large as the sky. I was a part of the mystery. What was inside of me felt as large as the sky.

To experience that feeling, I had to go outside in the night and wait. I had the intention of looking for meteors, but there were only a few of those. However, if I hadn’t been waiting in the dark, I wouldn’t have experienced the mystery of that night. To embark on a spiritual journey is like finding opportunities to wait in the dark, however we might do that—waiting in the dark, looking for what we think we are looking for, but sometimes finding so much more.

The goal of any spiritual journey is to lead us into that depth, that place where the known crosses into the unknown. There is a part of the spiritual journey which must be intentional. We must choose to wait in the dark. But the inner purpose of a spiritual journey is to move beyond the capacity of our own intentions, to discover something larger than what we could imagine—a larger reality, a larger love, a larger mystery.

The method by which we choose to wait in the dark we call a spiritual practice. It does not matter so much how we do it, but that we take the time to do it—that we take the time to be quiet with ourselves, or to pay attention to the world around us, or to stretch the muscles of our mind and heart in the questions that we cannot answer.

For some of us, silent meditation may provide a discipline for that inner attentiveness. For others, the practice of journaling may become a tool for deep reflection.
What did I dream last night? What am I feeling today?
What am I worried about? What am I thankful for?
Another practice is to read poetry and collect the words that inspire us, so that we can memorize them, and ponder them in our hearts.
We might walk in the woods or along the shore of the ocean.

Again, it does not matter so much how we do it, but that we take the time to do it.

Bread

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”  Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh invites people to do an exercise, to begin to grasp with our minds the symphony of the larger whole. 

BreadTake an object—any object. He talked about a table, but I would like to reflect on a piece of bread. Find a piece of bread and hold it in your hand. Then, let yourself imagine what has conspired in order for this bread to be here in your hand. First of all, think of the wheat. In order for it to grow, it needed topsoil, with its fungal and bacterial components, its minerals and small worms. It needed the decomposition of the plants of many years, decades, and even centuries to create this fertile soil.

Think about the sun that shines on the earth, and the rain that falls, and the earth itself turning round in its orbit of seasons, and the moon that shapes the tides and the weather, all utterly necessary. Think about the wind, which helps the plants to self-pollinate, and the ancient peoples in the Middle East who began to cultivate the grain during the seventh pre-Christian millennium, and those who developed it and carried it to many continents through the intervening centuries. The wheat that is used in bread co-evolved with human beings, and does not thrive in the wild.

If your bread is made from organic wheat, it doesn’t use petroleum for fertilizer, but it took petroleum in the form of gasoline to harvest it and ship it to the bread makers. Non-organic wheat uses even more petroleum. Petroleum is created from the remains of ancient plants, so this bread is also dependent on them. Think about the metal in the trucks that drove the wheat and in the machines that mixed the bread, and the mines it came from and the factories where the machines were made.

Think about the yeast, and the process by which human peoples discovered and developed the properties of yeast to raise the dough of bread. The honey, and the bees that work tirelessly to make it, and the flowers and their nectar. Think about the water that enabled these ingredients to be blended together. Think about the fuel to heat the ovens.

Think about the farmer, and the miner, and the bread-maker and the factory worker; think about the food they needed to eat, and the clothing they needed to wear in order to do their part of the work that brought this bread to your hand. The trucker, the grocery stocker, the clerk. The houses they live in, their schools and their doctors and their dentists.

Think about their parents, and their grandparents and their great grandparents, and what kept them alive, to bring forth their children, that these people who work might be here today. If you are holding organic whole wheat bread, think about the growing environmental consciousness, that created a market for organic whole wheat bread, after many farmers, bakers and corporations had abandoned the old methods for the soft white appeal of Wonderbread.

I could keep talking all day if I followed all the threads of connection just linked to this one piece of bread. Paraphrasing what Thich Nhat Hahn would say:

If you grasp the bread’s reality then you see that in the bread itself are present all those things which we normally think of as the non-bread world. If you took away any of those non-bread elements and returned them to their sources…[the honey to the bees, the metal to the mines, or the farmers to their parents], the bread would no longer exist. A person who looks at the bread and can see the universe, is a person who can see the way.

 As long as we think of God as “up there” somewhere, like a father or a king or some other kind of person, we imagine that we are separate from God, we imagine that we can think or not think about, believe or not believe in, pray or not pray to that God. But in a spirituality of connection, the gaze shifts to understand that there are no truly separate things, that there is no separate self or separate God—that our “own life and the life of the universe are one.”

Quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Translated by Mobi Ho, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975) p. 47-48.