August 27, 2013

A Carrot, a Crayon, a Bar of Soap. ~ Ann Nichols

“Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or Pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.”

~ Voltaire

My main meditation practice is, you know…meditating. By which I mean sitting cross-legged on my zafu, closing my eyes and concentrating on my breath as it fills my lungs and exits, only to roll naturally into a fresh, cool inhalation.

I try to do that every day for at least twenty minutes, and when I don’t, I feel more keenly the busy jangling of thoughts that fill an average day.

But then there are those other days, the days when the dog bites, the bee stings, the phone starts ringing at 8AM, the washing machine breaks and I just can’t seem to find the time to do sitting meditation.

Or, to be honest, I feel guilty taking even 20 minutes to sit on the floor and follow my breath when all hell is breaking loose around me.

There are other days when I do “sit,” but I spend my 20 minutes wrestling with a parade of unbidden plans, anxieties, leg cramps, neck itches and rehearsals of past grievances.

This is perfectly normal, and I have learned not to judge daily practice as “good” or “bad,” but on those days I admit that I leave the cushion feeling that I could maybe use a booster later in the day.

I already knew about walking meditation (I bow to Thich Nhat Hanh for that one) but it turns out that there are many other opportunities for meditation that do not involve “sitting,” and that can be worked into the busiest day. I would never dis “real” sitting; I am a Buddhist and it is the foundation of my practice. The truth is, though, that sometimes, an “alternative” kind of meditation provides a better vehicle for clearing my mind and finding the subtle, glowing heart of genuine presence.

I cook professionally and at home; preparing food is one of the activities in which I can stop thinking and simply be with the task at hand. It doesn’t happen when I am under the gun to get food out rapidly, or putting out a fire (literally or figuratively) in the kitchen.

It comes when I am peeling a huge pile of carrots, methodically slicing off the ends and stroking the peeler down their rough, orange lengths, watching the thin strips fall into the compost bin. I breathe in the earthy-sweet carrot smell, I feel the hardness of the metal peeler against my soft fingers and the honest fatigue in my arm.

It happens when I am frosting dozens of cupcakes, moving from one to the next with my pastry bag and repeating the circle that starts with a burst of pressure and becomes smaller until I lift the tip from its crowning peak.

There is no thinking, no planning, nothing but my tools, the food and the familiar rhythms of chopping, kneading or stirring. The movements are reflexive, like breathing, and gradually there is nothing else in the world, nothing but my work.

I am also a huge fan of coloring, although I’ve graduated from The Big Partridge Family Activity Book to mehndi and mandalas. I have a whole ritual (don’t laugh at me) that involves burning incense, playing ragas or kirtan, getting out my crayons and filling white space with bursts of color.

It is another kind of rhythm; the short, firm strokes of an outline, the longer, softer motion of filling large spaces, and even stopping to sharpen the crayon with smooth, practiced turns. The patterns repeat, like breathing, and I don’t think about the colors, just picking up whatever appeals to me at any given moment.

Given enough time without interruption (always iffy but worth a try) I can become lost in the process. It’s not a “thinky” creative activity like writing or drawing, but a task that occupies my hands, and stills my busy brain with that smooth, regular repeated motion.

If all else fails, I meditate in the shower. It’s another one of those things that’s mechanical—I have done the things I do in the shower in exactly the same order for decades—but gives me the space to be completely present. I feel my hair move beneath my fingers, and the difference between the slippery bubbles and the friction after rinsing.

I revel in the silky, fragrant slip of the soap between my palms, watching the white lather grow, and I pull the razor smoothly, lightly up my legs and touch the growing trail of smooth white skin.

My senses are full, my mind is still, and if I find that I am thinking about my plans for the day, or worrying about the bank balance, it’s easy to send the thoughts away and focus on the sensations in my body.

I’ll never bail on sitting meditation, because I believe it is the best, the primary tool for working with my wild and crazy brain. It’s good to know, though, that when the world (or my drama queen mind) gets between me and the cushion, there are lots of ways to get some quality meditation time.

All I need is a carrot, a crayon or a bar of soap.


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Assistant Ed: Katharine Spano/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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