Then, Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.
–The Bāhiya Sutta
As we’ve written here before, several members of the Triratna-NYC sangha have taken to making vows, and then offering encouragement to one another throughout the week. The very first vow we took was to meditate every day. I know… it seems kind of lame, because it’s something so basic to Buddhist practice, and yet life gets in the way, and before you know it a day has passed, and you haven’t made even ten minutes of space for meditation. I have to admit that I was a bit relieved to hear even “seasoned” Buddhists sharing this experience. It was such a common complaint, and so fundamental, that we made it our first vow. We kept an email thread up that first week, reporting in every day, sharing hurdles, making congratulations, and listing the unlikely places we found that we could make time and space for meditation. It was both inspirational and motivational, so we’ve kept the practice going.
Not too long ago I found myself in a situation where life had indeed gotten in the way, and this ongoing vow came to the rescue. Honestly without the images of my sangha mates in my head, I would have let the day pass by without even a few minutes of mindfulness, let alone meditation. The only problem was that I needed to be a little creative and bring mindfulness to my routine rather than stop my routine to sit and be mindful, because when it hit me that I hadn’t meditated, it was already too late for anything but, what was for me at least, a bit of improvisation.
I was getting ready to go out to an event for the evening, and it was going to be a late night. There was just no way I was going to be in any frame of mind to sit and meditate when I got home. I had just enough time to get myself together: I had to shower, I had to brush my teeth, I had to get dressed, I had to iron a shirt and polish my shoes. I had to do all of those things that we do so often and so mechanically that they’re probably the least mindful activities of our day. How present are we when we’re showering or brushing our teeth or buttoning a shirt? That’s when my mind is anywhere and everywhere but where my body is, and my thoughts are the most detached from what my senses are telling me. Nonetheless, necessity being the mother of invention, I had my meditation: The Mindfulness of Getting Ready.
Of course I’d read and heard many times, from many people, that just about anything can be a kind of meditation – walking, doing the dishes, cooking, even eating – as long as we do it with mindfulness, as long as we remain present in exactly that moment, as long as we observe our mind as it tries to go elsewhere and gently bring it back to take in the smells, textures, tastes, sights, and sounds of what we’re doing at that moment, and nothing more. As long as, as the Buddha advised Bāhiya, we don’t embellish our experiences with anything that isn’t really there.
I’d tried that before, but with things that seemed more special, more full of potential significance. Looking at a tree or flower, closing my eyes in a field and listening to the birds and insects, smelling the damp earth in the woods after a rainfall. Never with something so mundane as getting ready to go out. But all of those mundane, mechanical experiences became something richer, and at the same time something simpler. Instead of careening through to-do lists or conjuring up anxieties, I stood in the shower and really felt the hot water fall onto my shoulders, trying to identify individual drops of water land and roll over my skin. Later I felt the texture of the towel as I dried off, and then tasted the toothpaste while I felt the bristles of the tooth brush. All of these small parts of my routine – the sound of the iron as it releases steam, the feel of a button between my fingers, the sheen of my (very rarely nicely polished) shoes – became much bigger. I was taking in sense input from just those ‘insignificant’ moments, and there was more than enough to occupy my mind, or to call it back when it drifted off into all of the other stuff that it usually occupies itself with. For a few minutes, I didn’t plan, I didn’t worry, I didn’t wallow in wrongs that have been done to me, I didn’t tweak recipes or compose emails or try to think of the name of that actor who did that one film way back when…
I’m trying to do this more often now. As simple as it sounds, it’s very difficult, not just to remember to do it, but to let go of the internal narrative and just let the external sensory input be what it is, nothing more. There’s definitely something special in being fully present in these small moments we take for granted, but what’s really special is what is not there – all of the baggage that we assail ourselves with, robbing ourselves of the simple pleasure of feeling hot water drum against our backs.