Momentary Awakenings

I have momentary awakenings throughout the day. These are not dramatic bolts of enlightenment; they are small moments of expanded awareness when I lift my head from the daily details that absorb my attention and see the world from a broader perspective. I become a witness to my experience as well as the actor in my experience.

These awakenings happen in planned and unplanned ways. When I sit to meditate or pray, I am intentional about settling into my body and opening to my inner and outer surroundings. At other times, the expansion happens spontaneously, when my attention is pulled from the fog of ordinary consciousness by something I hear or notice or remember.

The shift to expanded consciousness brings me into a more intimate contact with the juice, texture, and vibrancy of life. Things feel more intensely real, an intensity that is dimmed when I operate in the fog of ordinary consciousness. This intimacy can be peaceful, a sensation of breathing and merging with direct experience in an exquisite beauty of stillness. But it can also be uncomfortable, bringing up the urge to flee.

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A Place Where I Could See

There are times in life when our eyes are opened, when we cross a threshold into a new way of seeing.

That happened to me when I was a boy, climbing the towering silver maple behind our garage. I had a moment when the big world seemed to coelese and became smaller, more understandable. These moments can happen at any time if we are open to them.

A Place Where I could see

I should have been afraid, but friendly holds 
made easy climbing, even for a small boy.  
I looped my leg at the highest limb,
hooked my foot against the trunk and watched my town
soften in the dusk.

Head above the canopy, I had a view like Cortez, or Galileo,
beyond the school, the railroad tracks beside the
church, the spider webs of roads and cars,
the banks of trees in folding light lost in waves 
across a Midwest ocean.

Next morning, walking into school, I looked ordinary, 
no one suspecting I knew the secret way things really look.  
High windows and heavy doors took on their true proportions.
I’d been to a place where I could see how light expands and 
where the world curves over. 

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

I’m Not a Very Good Mystic

I’m not a very good mystic.

I spend most of my time absorbed by the tasks and routines of the day. I would call this my ordinary state of consciousness, where I am focused on my perspective as an individual, moving through the world as a separate being. Periodically, something shifts my state. It could be a passage I read, even a single word, like “grace” or “love.” It could be a comment I overhear about someone’s troubles, or a patch of color that catches my eye from a flower bed or a shaft of light.

In these small moments, I shift into an expanded consciousness. My senses widen and I drop into a more vibrant world. I feel the current of life pass through me as everything becomes unreasonably simple and clear, and I remember I am part of something larger. The shift sometimes feels abrupt, leaving me amazed at how I could have been satisfied with the shallow perception that filled my attention just a moment ago. I wonder, “How could I ever leave this more expanded, peaceful, connected space?”

But leave it I do. I am usually pulled back into ordinary reality fairly quickly.

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It’s the Small Things That Support a Steady Practice          

There’s a funny thing that happens when I sit to meditate. 

All by themselves, my hands find a familiar spot at my waist, one atop the other, turned upward like an open cup, middle fingers nested together at the first knuckle, the tips of my thumbs barely touching, as if they could lightly hold a piece of paper.

I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind when I started to meditate years ago, and that was how Shunryu Suzuki said to place your hands. Now, my hands take this position automatically, almost unnoticed. When I sit, this habit sets a quiet mood. Subtle signals to my brain remind me to relax and open.

This is one of the quiet advantages of keeping a routine in our practice. Our minds like the familiarity of patterns and will draw cues from repetition. Small routines work better than willpower in maintaining a spiritual practice. Setting up an environment that nudges our behavior is more effective than grit.

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Stop, Look, and Let Your Eyes Adjust

I live in Sacramento, a good-sized city. Light pollution from buildings and parking lots clouds the night sky, making star gazing a limited adventure.

I recently went to Crater Lake, Oregon, high in the Cascade mountain range, far from any population centers. At night, the sky was spattered with stars, like confetti littering the street after a Superbowl parade. I could make out the Milky Way, a faint background haze stretching across the black from horizon to horizon.

I was amazed, speechless, mesmerized. Now I know what they mean when they say “star-struck.”

I walked along the rim trail walk away from the lodge, the only lighted building nearby. When I felt the darkness around me was complete, I stopped and did nothing but look for several minutes. As I stared upward, my eyes continued to adjust, and the whole starlight show slowly unfolded. More sparkles appeared with each passing minute. They filled in the spaces where I had thought there was only black. I began to think that if I could see it all, there would be more light than dark.

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Writing to Remember the Things I Mostly Forget

Writing a weekly blog on spiritual growth is fascinating. It has become a consistent morning practice for me. I usually start with pen and paper and ask, “what wants to be written today?”  I love the delicious glide of writing with a fountain pen, watching words flow onto the paper in dark ink. I move to the keyboard once the shape of an idea begins to fill out.

Honest writing is hard work. It’s like throwing a vase on a potter’s wheel, except you don’t know when you start that you’re making a vase, so you do a lot of starting over. The drafting, editing, and re-drafting process forms a playground where I continually discover more about this spiritual road we’re all walking.

I write to clarify my thinking, to retrieve bits of myself that have scattered about, to find some ideas worth sharing with others. But perhaps the main reason I write is because I want to remember the things I mostly forget.

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Aikido – The Art of Peace

I had been practicing Aikido for about two years, which is a dangerous time. You know just enough to think you know what you’re doing. This was the state of my Aikido experience the morning I exited the coffee shop and saw a man harassing a woman.

I had always felt weak as a kid, humiliated by bullies. I stuffed my anger, opting for physical safety – stay small, don’t stand up for yourself, give in. As an adult, I learned Aikido to defend the frightened child still inside me.

Aikido is a martial art with outer and inner elements. Its outer form uses balance, footwork, joint locks, and your opponent’s momentum. Aikido’s inner form uses ki, the abundant life force that exists and flows through all things. 

My Aikido teacher explained that cultivating ki was the true power behind all the physical techniques of Aikido. I wondered if ki was real or just a poetic metaphor, but my sensei assured me it was real and powerful.  

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One Small Act Against Jim Crow Still Ripples Today

How can a quiet act against racism performed a century ago still affect us today?

Let me tell you a story about a college football team and its black quarterback to answer that question.

Washington and Jefferson is a small college near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They had an outstanding football team in the 1920s (they played in the 1922 Rose Bowl, sending only 11 men to California by train and fighting Berkeley to a 0-0 tie, but that’s a story for another time).

Their quarterback was a black man named Charles “Pruner” West.

During the 1923 season, Washington and Jefferson was scheduled to play a segregated team from Virginia. Like many southern colleges, it relied on a “courtesy” where northern schools would agree not to field their black players.  

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The Treasure That Unites the Material and the Spiritual

At my feet, unopened, lies a treasure chest. But I don’t see it. I’m scanning the horizon, looking for treasure.

Every so often, my foot knocks against it, or it starts to hum, or I happen to glance down for no reason. I see the chest, open it, and then I remember.

This is how my spiritual life progresses, through a continual sequence of forgetting and remembering.

I fall asleep, losing touch with my expansive, vibrant connection to life. I slip into a narrow box where I only have the wherewithal to contend with a lesser span of details and desires. My ego self takes over and does what it does so well:  numbing pain and chasing shiny objects.

Then something happens, and I remember the treasure chest.

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Giving Money on the Street – My History of Failure

I live in Sacramento. Like many urban areas, the number of people living in tents under the freeway continues to grow. People wait at intersections or outside stores and ask me for money.

I am moved and want to help, but I don’t know what actual help looks like. The scope of the problem paralyzes me – immense and complex with a confusing mix of structural, societal, economic, medical, psychological and personal factors. The situation requires me to ask, what are the limits of my moral obligation to others?

I feel powerless to affect real change at a large scale, but there must be something I can do at the human scale, a response that alleviates suffering in a meaningful way. I have tried different approaches over the years, struggling to find something that does more good than harm. I never know if I am succeeding.

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