While flying back home after a recent trip and looking out the window of the airplane, I saw these gorgeous clouds floating over the image of the earth below, and felt this interesting separation. Up here in the sky, I felt a quiet stillness, protected by that thin lacelike layer of clouds, from the busy bustle of the earth below. Not that I couldn’t see the surface of the earth, with its little towns and highways, and all of the usual activity going on there. But it felt like those delicate and loosely dispersed clouds provided a subtle but real separation. And that got me thinking it was an interesting representation of the buffer that meditation provides us from the busyness of our thinking minds. I often use the image of sinking below the surface of the ocean, dropping below the choppy waves to find the stillness beneath. This is just kindof the opposite imagery; rising above the clouds to escape the busyness below. In either analogy, you get the idea. We can learn to be the calm, still, peaceful awareness behind the activity. And learning to inhabit that place can help us feel so much better when the big storms of life arise.
Mindfulness is the key to learning to take this step back, to shift our awareness, and to be able to calmly observe our thoughts and emotions rather than being swept away by them. And mindfulness comes in so many flavors; from mindful movement to breath or body awareness, from sitting meditation to walking meditation, and from formal to informal mindfulness practices, there is surely something that can work for everybody.
It has been said that “meditation isn’t about trying to change what is; it is about changing our relationship to what is”. And I think this fits perfectly with these images of either rising above or dropping below the fluctuations of the mind. There’s no need to stop the flow of thoughts or emotions, or try to control the world around us, if we can just, instead, shift the way we perceive those things in a way that brings us more presence, more peace, and more contentment.
By practicing focused non-judgemental awareness, even if it is just for a few minutes every day, we train our minds to be able to do this. We train our minds to be able to drop below the surface of the waves…. or to rise above the surface of the clouds, to find that place of stillness and clarity. That panoramic perspective, or that bird’s eye view, so to speak. So each time you spend 5 or 10 minutes practicing gently bringing your awareness back to your breath, or you practice really being mindful of your body’s movements in yoga, or you practice focusing on loving kindness, you strengthen that ability. So give it a try! And if you are a person (like me) who says “I can’t do sitting meditation, I’m just too restless or impatient”, then start with moving meditation. Begin to learn to focus on your breath and your body in moving meditation, and over some time, the restlessness will settle and sitting meditation will become more approachable. And remember, there is no right or wrong way to practice. Just practice!
Why not start now? Set your timer for 5 minutes, close your eyes, and just focus on the sensation of your breath moving in and out. You can focus on the belly or the chest rising and falling, or the air moving in and out at your nostrils, wherever the sensation of the breath is most vivid for you. Each time your mind wanders (and it will), gently bring it back to the breath. Even if you have to bring it back 5,000 times, just keep at it, gently and patiently coming back to the breath, without making it a problem or condemning yourself in some way for the lapse in attention. Just keep practicing noticing what is happening, and being gentle and loving with yourself. Each time you come back, you’ve strengthened your mind a little more. When the timer dings, you are done. Simple as that! Before you know it, not only will you find the meditation gets easier for you, but you may find that you start to crave the little respite, the quiet restful stillness. And then eventually you’ll find yourself flying free, calm, and unaffected by whatever storms or madness might be going on below.