The nature of mind
“Luminous is consciousness, brightly shining is its nature,but it becomes clouded
by the attachments that visit it.” Anguttara Nikaya
Wandering through the tall grasses of the reservation I hike, camera in hand, I peer into the reflective surface of the lakes and rivers that run through the mountainous terrain.
I go to the water often: to breathe in the quiet, to detach from the busy-ness, to re-find myself. I go to remember that I am not the seemingly endless loop of thoughts that spin in my head. I go to remind myself that I am not the center of the universe, that not everything depends on me. With the lens of my camera open wide, I zoom in close, to draw the fractals of light that swirl on the surface of the lake into my own heart so that I have more light to draw upon when I return.
Watching the lake being stirred by the wind one day, my mind churning, it suddenly strikes me that there is an intimate and clear link between my rippling emotions and the fluctuating patterns of water. I begin to tune into the metaphor: that just as the water is subject to the elements around it, my own internal state is affected by what’s happening around me.
After that, I notice that the photographs and paintings that I’ve been creating are saying something about this connection — something greater than I had initially realized. As time goes on, I see that not only am I expressing my deep love for water, but for meditation itself. So much of what I capture with my camera and paintbrush reveals the face of agitation that lies beneath the facade of calm — the distress that brings me to meditation in the first place.
Over the course of spring, summer, and into autumn, I watch the watery nature of my mind closely to see how it reacts to being interrupted, to being jostled and provoked. Similarly, I watch the water at the reservation, noting how it bends, and waves and twists around the obstacles, and I learn.
I already know the cliché that life works better when you go with the flow. But like most people, I have a hard time letting go into it. Instead, I take a stand to be understood, to be seen. And so, I waste time fighting against what is. I spend entire days ruminating, cogitating, pontificating. I twist myself into complicated internal states, then go to yoga to try to unwind. I question myself, and struggle with judgment, then spend hours in meditation to help untangle my seething, opinionated mind. I speak before thinking, and then watch with regret as the words trail out of my mouth and out of my control. I turn to chanting to re-taste bliss. I am too often out of balance, and dizzied, trek to the lake to re-align, to rinse my thinking clean.
One day I realize that all the things I’m doing to soothe myself cannot be called mindfulness practice at all: rather it’s a sophisticated way of practicing fear, of warding off the heartbreaking and inescapable knowledge of loss. It occurs to me that I have been taking class after class; absorbing teaching after teaching in the hopes of finding security. Finally something sinks in, and I get that the practice of being mindful is really one of leaping into the unknown with open arms and heart.
I’m not alone in thinking that meditation will provide a net. The reality is that meditation drops the pretense, puts us face to face with the abyss of own creation. The truth is that looking inward takes courage. But the sages promise that our consciousness follows our gaze. The moment I look at something other than my own narcissistic thoughts, my energy flows toward it, and at that moment I forget my small self; I become focused on that which I am enchanted with, and suddenly the consciousness I’ve been seeking rushes in to fill the space where “I” once stood. In that moment, I experience meditation, rather than intellectualize it.
That’s why I continually seek out nature. Every tree and ocean, every meadow and mountain is a portal to clarity. Every leaf and branch, every wave and particle of light holds the unwritten wisdom in the universe. Unwritten, because the most profound truths are felt, rather than put into words. The explanation of something is not the experience. The experience is actually nameless.
Meditation strips away our need to label everything. We do this because we are scared. We’re afraid to admit that we are not in control, that we don’t actually know most of what we thought we did, that the forces that run beneath our lives are watery and shapeless and have no handrails for us to hold on to.
Practicing meditation is like becoming water. Meditation gives me a way to explore the infinite depths of mystery. It is a doorway to the greatest mystery, a liminal state of in-between where everything nameless is a possibility.