It’s become something of a tradition. On mornings when I’m scheduled to give consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, I arrive in Cambridge early, park my car at the Zen Center, then take a walk through Central Square, camera in hand. It’s almost a given that I’ll mosey over to Modica Way to see what’s up with the wall, knowing that street art is such a random and ephemeral genre, there will always be something new.
Revisiting the same neighborhood every month or so (for that’s about how often I give interviews at the Zen Center) is an interesting exercise. About ten years ago, when my then-husband and I lived for several years at the Cambridge Zen Center, I walked the streets of Central Square every day, so I had the familiar knowledge of a pedestrian. These days I walk with a camera, so I see the same streets differently. Not only do I now view these once-familiar streets as an occasional visitor rather than regular resident, I now walk my once-daily beat specifically looking for things. When I lived in Central Square, I was typically intent on my destination as I hurried from here to there, then there, then somewhere else. When I lived at the Zen Center, I was so busy juggling the demands of my Zen Center duties, marriage, college teaching, and graduate studies, my attention was often elsewhere as I analyzed or obsessed over yesterday’s failures, tomorrow’s challenges, and today’s to-dos.
These days, I’m still busy…but when I take my occasional Sunday strolls through Central Square, I’m on only one real errand: to see what I can see. Because I’ve walked these streets and sidewalks so often, I can screen out the old and ordinary, those things that were there last time, the time before, and the time before that. It’s not so much that I ignore these usual suspects, but I’ve learned not to be distracted by them. Like a beat cop who’s on a first-name basis with both the innocents and the troublemakers alike, I’ve learned which things I need to keep an eye on and which I can let slide. The way you notice something Really Unusual, I’ve found, is by first learning which things you can let slip from conscious awareness. Once a quick glance reveals a crowd of innocents standing around the T station, shooting the shit as always, you can zero in on the lone troublemaker trying to pass incognito in their midst. “Hey…you! Don’t you have somewhere you ought to be?”
This practice of selective attention–the ability to let the normal stuff slide through conscious awareness so the things that are New and Unusual almost demand your awareness–is something I first learned as a teenage birdwatcher. The way to find a bird in a tree is to look for any color, movement, or shape that doesn’t look like branch, leaf, or sky. New birders are sometimes fooled by wind-fluttered leaves, squirrel nests, or other foreign objects, mistaking tree-snagged plastic bags, for instance, for birds: “What’s that?” Once you’ve seen enough dry leaf clumps, random bits of litter, or branch snags, though, you become familiar with what those things look like, so you teach your brain to associate “bird” or even “something interesting” with “anything that doesn’t look like the usual stuff.” The same process of perceptive elimination works with auditory stimuli as well. If you want to excel at the art of birding by ear, you needn’t learn every possible birdsong or call. Instead, familiarize yourself with the usual ambient soundtrack of your daily neighborhood–the chips of cardinals, chirps of house sparrows, and twitters of finches–so you can sit up, alert, when you hear Something Different.
This all has relevance to meditation practice…but then again, what doesn’t? New practitioners are often dismayed and alarmed by the sheer volume of Stuff that passes through their minds during any meditation session: how can they possibly pay attention to it all? The answer, of course, is that you can’t, so you needn’t try: just as it’s futile to push any given thought away, it’s equally impossible to tend to, touch, or even notice every single thought as it passes. The point of meditation isn’t to stop the flow of thoughts, nor is it to manage it; there will be moments, minutes, and more when “you” get entirely swept into the stream and pop up, suddenly aware, what feels like hours later: “Where was I?” The point of dipping into your own internal slipstream isn’t to keep yourself separate and apart from its murky wetness. Instead, the thing you learn from occasional slips is that your mind is infinitely buoyant, eventually popping back into awareness like a fisherman’s bob automatically finding the surface. Awake!
The more you meditate, the more you’ll come to be on a first-name basis with your own usual suspects, both the innocents and the troublemakers. “Oh, here I go again,” you find yourself thinking mid-meditation. “The same old litany of neuroses, worries, complaints.” On one three-week meditation retreat, for instance, I literally spent days obsessing about food, meditating at first upon a mandala-like pizza with a mouth-watering array of fantasized toppings (“with extra cheese, pepperoni, sausage, and mushrooms, please!”) and then making a truly obscene list of foods I’d eat the second the retreat ended (“And can I get that with hash browns and eggs scrambled with onions, and some pancakes, and a slice of peanut-butter pie, please?”) A saner soul would have called it quits, figuring that anyone who spends so much psychic energy fixating on food simply isn’t cut out for meditation. Instead, I did what any Zen master would recommend. Every time I realized my mind had wandered, again, I brought it back to my mantra, again…and again…and again, welcoming every instance where I brought my mind back as its own kind of awakening: “Oh!”
When you’re a rookie practitioner, new on the beat, you’re on your walkie-talkie calling for backup every time a Food Fantasy, moment of Angry Angst, or another Lustful Interlude walks into your line of sight: “Danger, danger! Come quick!” After you’ve been doing this meditation thing for a while, though, you come to know everyone: “Yeah, kid, I saw that guy. He’s been hanging ’round doing nothing since before you were knee-high to a grasshopper. Let’s get back to looking for bad guys.” It’s not so much that you ignore your thoughts when you meditate: no veteran cop worth his badge ever fails to watch his own (and his rookie partner’s) back. But after you’ve been meditating awhile, your own Psychic Shit doesn’t bother you as much as it used to. You’ve seen it all and survived, so while things still rattle you, you know your inner equilibrium will find “center” eventually.
Like being perfectly aware of the neighbor’s television you can hear through your paper-thin walls but which you’ve learned not to focus on when you’re concentrated on something else, meditation is about training yourself to be aware of the present moment while not being attached to the endless stream of shady characters who amble down the street called Consciousness. Taking an occasional walk through my old Cambridge neighborhood, I don’t have to snap photos of everything. But knowing a little bit about the place, I snap into awareness–Awake!–when I see something that strikes my eyes as new.