Shaila Catherine’s ‘Focused and Fearless’ (6)

Tonight we’ll continue with our discussion of Shaila Catherine’s book Focused and Fearless.

Let’s begin by practicing an adaptation of her exercise called “Meeting Perceptions.”

As you sit with relaxed and alert dignity, close your eyes and turn your attention inward.

Now notice how your attention meets perceptions.

Does the attention leap forward towards what you perceive?

Do you embellish the experience with unnecessary story lines?

Try resting back. Just allow experiences to arise and pass away.

Observe whatever happens from the stability of your seated posture.

Each time the attention pounces on a thought, sight, sound, or emotion, rest back again.

Visualize a comfortable armchair in front of a large picture window opening out to a vast view.

Imagine yourself sitting in the chair and observing the expansive view.

There is no need to chase thoughts or to follow after feelings in order to be aware of them.

Simply observe how each thought arises and passes away like a bird flying across the open sky.

Remain comfortable and steady in your grand, royal seat.

The theme of Chapter 6 is the dynamics of emotion, and it opens with a quotation from the spiritual master Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. An excerpt reads:

You have to be very alert, or else your mind will play false with you. It is like watching a thief—not that you expect anything from a thief, but you do not want to be robbed. In the same way, you give a lot of attention to the mind without expecting anything from it.

From your own experience with meditation, you know that despite your outwardly tranquil posture there is often inner emotional turbulence. We practice to witness steadily the whole range of shifting emotions, no matter how difficult or delightful they may be.

The Buddha taught, “For one’s own sake, diligent mindfulness should be made the mind’s guard.” With mindful attention, we can protect states of concentration, observing subtle gradations of peacefulness, and we are not thrown off balance by intense rage, grief, sorrow or terror. The untrained mind tends to become lost in fantasies, which often lead to suffering that manifests as mental agitation and restlessness. While mindfulness helps us filter out impediments and distractions, it does not block perception. Instead, it restrains our tendency to grasp at contacts. As the mind grows clearer and more relaxed, each moment shines freshly as it arises and passes away.

On morning walks in the Menil Park near the Rothko Chapel, I reap some benefits from daily meditation practice. I take pleasure in being alert to seeing sunlight filtering through leaves, breathing in the scent of newly blooming lilacs and roses, touching the hard, rough bark of tree trunks, and listening to myriad bird calls. I’ve learned to be aware that these sensory contacts are pleasant, to receive them and to let them go.

Shaila warns us that mindful attention to the initial contact (of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting or touching) prevents suffering from occurring. While walking outside, I try to notice when my mind starts to generate stories about my sensory experiences. For example, I see a Yellow Crowned Night Heron building a nest in the highest branches of one of the oak trees that line North and South Boulevard. If I’m not guarding the sense door of sight, I miss out on fully appreciating the visual details of the scene. Instead, my thoughts start to proliferate: I remember my parents bird-watching at breakfast time on the sun porch of their Long Island home. They keep their binoculars within easy reach, so they’re prepared to identify whatever bird flies by the sliding glass doors. As longtime members of the National Audubon Society, they compete to see who spots the greater count of different species. I think about how upset I am about the recent crash of an oil barge in Galveston Bay, just as thousands of birds are migrating north. I wonder if any Yellow Crowned Night Heron have been harmed by the oil slick. At any moment in this interior discourse, I can wake up and realize that I’m no longer enjoying the sight of the bird directly above my head because I’m lost inside my head.

You may notice a similar process when physical pain arises. Because our vulnerable bodies need food, sleep, warmth, and protection from illness or injury, physical pain is inevitable at some point in our lives. With mindful practice, we can learn to distinguish between physical and mental suffering so that we can use the pain itself as an object for concentration. We can note, “unpleasant, unpleasant” and stop reacting with aversion to uncomfortable bodily sensations. The Buddha described how frequently we add a second dart of mental feelings to the initial dart of normal physical pain. When we bring mindfulness to pain and become aware of the sensations themselves—as distinct from thoughts and interpretations about them—we can avoid triggering the mental suffering of frustration, agitation or annoyance.

Shaila mentions that restlessness, which commonly impedes concentration, often masks painful states beneath the surface of busy, agitated energies.   Mark knows all too well my tendency to scurry around tending to tasks and making plans for future events, when I’m overly fatigued and need to simply pause for rest. The more I trust mindfulness to guard my mind, the less I fall into habitual patterns of busyness.

When my mind is settled, pleasure arises spontaneously. I’m practicing fully experiencing wholesome, healing states that arise with concentration. You may share my nervousness around fully receiving pleasure. Opening up receptively entails letting go of our ordinary attempts to control situations, and that can feel scary.

No matter how much we exercise, meditate, eat healthily, ingest vitamin supplements, and receive restorative massages, none of us can completely control physical life. All bodies are subject to sickness, injury and decay. Last week Mark and I learned that a good friend Judith has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s one of the most health-conscious people we know—a hiker, meditator, sweat lodger, and vision quester. My first reaction was disbelief that this 70-year-old woman, who appears to be in such radiant health, is scheduled to have urgent surgery this week. Then I remembered that she is not any more exempt than I am from the law of impermanence. Judith has impressed me with her attitude that befits a spiritual warrior. Decades of mindfulness practice have prepared her for learning whatever life lessons she can from this painful experience.   She’s grateful for her loyal and caring husband and their circle of loving friends.

The Buddha described a human being as a guesthouse, with many kinds of feelings visiting, staying for a while and then resuming their travels.

I’ll close with Rumi’s poem titled The Guest House:

This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks