“Meditation as the Art of Everyday Life” is an extract from Ira Rechtshaffer’s book, Mindfulness and Madness: Money, Food, Sex and the Sacred, recently published by John Hunt Publishers under the imprint of Changemakers.
We entered the world with a sense of the miraculous and with openness to raw experience.
But by the time we leave childhood, we were taught to suppress the ordinary miracle of being.
The problem is that the world is no longer enchanted for us as when we were children and ordinary things pulsated with life. The sense of the sacred in everyday life has mostly been lost. Yet, our youthful wish for the superlative does not vanish.
Spiritual teachers are frequently asked by their students how to practice meditation in everyday life with all of its distractions and demands. Practitioners genuinely want to know how to make a connection between the inspiration and clarity that they feel while doing sitting meditation and walking the path of ordinary life.
A Zen Buddhist teacher may abruptly exclaim, “The apple blossoms have arrived early” or “That blind man’s tapping cane,” drawing the student’s attention to the sights and sounds of the everyday world as the path. Yet, our lives are continually distorted by our wish to be relieved from boredom, emotional flatness and from our silent worries.
We could define samsara, the Buddhist term for collective neurosis, as the misguided search to find a remedy for our dissatisfaction and sense of emptiness in all the wrong places. In our hunger to find something that is distracting, exciting, or hopeful, we tend to overlook the seemingly inconsequential details of our everyday lives, but such details are the path. The secret for how to bring meditation into everyday life is to make room for the ordinary. We have to trim our eagerness for the ‘extraordinary’ and return to the immediacy of this precious moment unfolding before our eyes.
For our everyday lives to become an art, the practice of panoramic awareness is indispensable. Buddhist meditation involves both mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness or shamatha is the dispassionate observation of our mind’s contents with accuracy and precision. Just this single thought or image, now! And just this immediate pain in my knee, now.
Awareness or vipashyana is tuning in to the larger space within which these contents arise. It is the inquisitive aspect of mind that lends meaning and value to the individual thoughts, images and feelings that arise in sitting practice. It is an expanded sensitivity to and appreciation of the forms, textures and colors of our sensory world. Vipashyana suggests that we cultivate an unlimited openness to hear, touch and feel both our inner world and the outer phenomenal world, permitting both to ‘speak’ to us in their own language.
We use all of our senses in order to be in total communication with our environment, understanding that it exists in sympathetic relationship with our five senses. There’s some kind of underlying communication that’s taking place all the time between our senses and the surrounding atmosphere.
When we relate to our world from our heart it becomes very personal and intimate. We perceive a living, breathing world, a sacred world, but not one of inert objects and anonymous entities. Our everyday life is made up of countless details, shifting textures and emotional nuances that lend personal meaning and value to ordinary things and events. We might walk into our home this evening and notice that we feel a special fondness for our soft leather recliner. This recliner has caressed our body like an affectionate mother, supporting us so that our mind could be free to entertain lofty ideas and explore visionary possibilities. Feeling appreciation for our recliner evokes its soul, suddenly making it come alive and take on character.
There’s a strong temptation to ignore what is beautiful or exquisite in favor of what is practical or profitable. Yet our human heart has a logic of its own, which is often at variance with our habits. To live close to the heart opens us to beauty, love and the sacred, as well as to feelings of emptiness, loss and despair. To live with such feeling-awareness is to live at our depth, which adds richness, texture, tone, and expanded meaning to our experiences.
Panoramic awareness relates to the things and beings of our everyday world as intimate partners. Appreciating the surrounding energetic field in which everyday things take their life, we’re able to perceive their natural vividness and innocent vitality.
When we relate to our world as a living world, and not as one surrounded by lifeless objects, we transform an otherwise material world into a world with soul. When we look at the world through our heart we bring the meditative state of mind and the artists’ eye to our ordinary life.
After meditation practice this morning, I went for a short hike. The wind blew a crisp yellow autumn leaf across the pavement, which made a scuttling sound. All I could hear in that timeless moment was the lonely ‘voice’ of that autumn leaf beckoning me. That leaf was the essence of autumn, of all autumn’s that ever were or ever will be, symbolizing both nature’s fruition but also death. I felt melancholy and had an intimation of my own death, which simply felt like a part of the natural order of things, part of a lawful cycle that is timeless.
Such intimate communication between us and the phenomenal world seduces the world to reveal its secret dimensions.
In order to heal the split between our invisible inner world and the hard realities of ordinary life, every aspect of our life will need our love and attention so that it may reveal its hidden side. We might engage the events, situations and relationships of our everyday world not for the sake of overcoming life’s struggles, but to appreciate our existence more fully.
Such an orientation towards our everyday life has immense energy and the potential to reframe mundane events with meaning and significance. It may also enable us to recognize patterns of connection that help us understand our human existence, our place in the immense design of things.
Having courage to face the unknown, a brilliant color emerges and interrupts our train of thought, a sound shatters our discursive thinking, someone touches us gently and our hearts melt. When we perceive ordinary phenomena in this naked fashion there is an abrupt discontinuity in the usual flow of things. This is what allows us to see things in their innate essence and nature. This is how we bring meditation and elegance into our lives.
In the crisp immediacy of nowness, we recognize the uniqueness of each moment and everyday things. Art in everyday life is the deepening or intensifying of experience that gives new significance to the ordinary things and beings of our world. It is feeling the breath of life pulsating in and through ordinary events and activities. We might regain a child-like sensitivity to the immediate freshness of this moment, as we find ourselves more fully alive, enjoying an abundant life without shame.
Author: Ira Rechtshaffer
Editor: Caitlin Oriel
Image: Author’s own &