from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 29 January 2012

big sky mind

When I wake this morning I'm thinking about something Alain de Botton said in his essay in the little Guardian booklet on time (see yesterday's post).

He mentions that in a religious culture, time is routinely given to the soul. This, no matter how brief and informal, is a kind of ritual practice that lifts us above mundane preoccupations and reminds us of something of the eternal, whatever one considers that to be.

I think of Islam, and how when the muezzin calls prayer from the minaret five times a day the faithful simply stop whatever they're doing to pass some moments, or minutes, reconnecting with eternity, or the sublime, or the divine – in any case, with the spiritual world. It's a gesture towards the transcendent that reminds us that we are more than simply lumps of matter, and more than our thoughts, emotions, reactions, work, and the getting-through-the-day consciousness that can so bog us down.

De Botton contrasts that with our Westernised secular culture where our ritual involves, perhaps, a cup of tea and the news. Nothing wrong with that, and an awareness of current affairs is arguably essential in this interconnected world of ours. But is it enough? What happens to soul in this picture? How might we tend it in order to be aware of collective issues but be able, also, to remember that, no matter how pressing, how challenging, how disastrous, they are still all transient? How can we live in this world and still participate in Big Sky Mind?

It's easy to let our horizons shrink to the scale of our own troubles. We all need a frequent 'petit moment d'éternité' to stand between us and oblivion, or immersion in the demands of making our way in the material world –

bluetits in the courtyard; photo Francis Jones

– to catch a whisper on the breeze, share a hug, close our eyes and breathe, stand and gaze at a tree, the birds in the courtyard, read a poem, lift ourself like a buzzard free of our petty daily concerns.

We need to remember to wake up, which is what the muezzin is calling the faithful to do. We are spiritual beings living in a material world, and there is a need for a homecoming to something bigger than ourselves, bigger than tending the ego.

This is, in effect, the territory of mindfulness. Mindfulness is life with full attention to this here now and to all that is. It involves a kind of paradox: in being completely given over to the present moment one is also freed by and from it, as one is freed from the distracting mental or emotional tugs of both past and future. Then the sky at last opens up above us. This too is a way of bringing eternity into the present.

A Tibetan Buddhist teacher whose talks I sometimes attended used to speak of practising over and over painting with brush and ink a simple circle on paper. Then maybe someone would knock at the door, and he'd use that as an alert to full attention; and in that split second, as they say, of being taken back outward from his focused engagement he would go fractionally deeper before surfacing into 'everyday reality', and find that he'd drawn the perfect circle.

Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of using the telephone as a bell to mindfulness: counting to three, being fully present with that counting, before he answers the phone. I like to do that, when I remember.

I also like to use the practice of watching my breath with full attention, coming into and leaving my body; remembering that the air I breathe is breathed by all other living beings, a shared air; and within it are molecules of air circulating from all time, inhaled and exhaled equally by the bloke down the lane, a migrating goose, Martin Luther King, a prisoner at Guantanamo, the horses in WW1, Joan of Arc, Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene, the Buddha, an ancestor in the Basque Ice Age refuges, and on and on throughout time.

As I think about this I remember that I have forgotten, lately, my practice of gratitude (my 'Attitude of Gratitude') with which I used to open and close every day: simply thinking of three things for which I'm grateful can open me up beyond my prosaic troubles and daily concerns. And no matter what one's situation (within reason), there is almost always something to be grateful for. In this moment I feel no fear. In this moment a primrose is blooming in the bank. In this moment a nuthatch comes to the feeder. In this moment I have enough to eat, am warm enough and have a roof over my head. In this moment I'm grateful for the friends I have. In this moment I am filled with gratitude for the fact of being alive.

photo Francis Jones

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