Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.
– Georgia O’Keeffe
In August, 2003, I attended a five-day, mostly silent retreat with Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (and 900 others). I thought of it as “Buddhist boot camp.” We awoke at 5:30 a.m., exercised with Thich Nhat Hanh or one of his monks or nuns, and spent the day meditating, listening to dharma talks, participating in discussions of Buddhist thought, and in general immersing ourselves in Buddhist practice.
At that time the older brother I never had, my close friend Robert, was in a bad way. Like me, he had nearly died about ten years before, and like me had struggled with his infirmities. For a long time, he did well, but in recent months he’d fallen into a deep depression. I was also battling depression at that time and it strained my limited emotional resources to be with Robert. In the best of times, our relationship was 70% Robert, 30% David. Lately, it had been 99% Robert, and I’d been avoiding him. But as I drove past his apartment in Gloucester on the way back from the retreat, I realized I felt healed. I could see Robert again.
When I arrived home, there was a message on my answering machine from Robert’s ex-wife. I called her. “I hope you’re not going to tell me what I think you’re going to tell me,” I said. “I am,” she said. “Robert committed suicide two weeks ago.”
The next day, I came down with a high fever and a severe cough. For 10 days, I was in a delirium of what turned out to be pneumonia. When I’d recovered enough to venture outside, I took a walk on Good Harbor beach. As I crested the first dune, I was overcome by the sensation that I, as well as the air, the surf, the sand, the sky, and the people and dogs playing on the beach, were all just matter and energy. Everything was a continuum, the boundary between myself and the sand and the air vague and indistinct, as if we were all images in a Pointillist painting. For the first time in my life, I not only knew but felt and saw that I was part of everything and so was everything else. I was more aware than I have ever been.
After I got home, I remembered how Thich Nhat Hanh had described the beauty of the retreat’s host campus, which to me had seemed pleasant enough but not extraordinary in any way. This, I now thought, is how Thich Nhat Hanh sees. I was suddenly hungry and eagerly ate nearly a quart of vanilla yogurt, which tasted better than the best vanilla ice cream I’d ever had. I remembered Thich Nhat Hanh telling us to chew our food until it was liquid so we could enjoy the delicate flavors of carrots and zucchini. This, I thought, is how Thich Nhat Hanh tastes.
Over the next few months, I had shorter but equally intense experiences of heightened awareness. A baseball field I crossed on the way home from the commuter train shimmered with beauty. My heart resonated so strongly with a therapy client’s feelings that I thought, at first, the emotions were my own. With regular meditation, this awareness waxed. When I slackened my meditation practice, it waned.
Awareness cuts through the tangled thought processes of the rational mind and the pull of emotion by placing us in our bodies, in direct contact with our environment, right now. As a therapist, and in my own personal work, becoming aware has been a slow and sometimes faltering process, but it always yields a shift toward conscious choices rather than acting reflexively from unconscious attitudes and beliefs – of responding, rather than simply reacting.
There are many tools to increase awareness. They all facilitate connection between a more aware self and the world as it is, not as we hope it is or fear it will become. The tools I use most to help me become more aware include mindfulness and meditation practices from Buddhism, attunement practices from Focusing, perception-based techniques from Gestalt Therapy, and pattern recognition and interruption strategies from Spell Psychology. But photography, writing, and even motorcycling have also helped me to become more aware. Each of us finds our own path to awareness.
By clarifying our sense of ourselves, the world outside us, and our connections to it, awareness enables us to know who we are and what we need. As it increases, we find ourselves intuitively saying “yes” when we mean yes and “no” when we mean no. Awareness, regardless of the method by which it is achieved, is an essential component of awakening from the many-faceted sleep of illusion to the full and genuine lives that are our true heritage.
Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)
… and coming soon, The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World