I’m participating in Sharon Salzberg’s 28-Day Real Happiness Meditation Challenge again this year, and my plan for this blog series is to write a poem or reflection on each day’s practice. You can find all the responses on the landing page.
Sharon says (I’ve slightly rearranged the order of her sentences): “You can use a quiet mental notation, of in, out, or rising, falling, to support the awareness of the breath. Or perhaps there’s a word that evokes some particular meaning for you, like love or peace, or now, whatever word you might choose. But let your attention actually rest in the sensations of breathing.”
For more than 25 years I’ve used Body Electric workouts (televised on PBS, sold on VHS tape, DVD, and through streaming) three or four hours weekly. They’re exercises for strength training, flexibility, and balance. Margaret Richard, the fitness instructor (who is now 76), rarely counted repetitions, and a few times in the 500 or so shows she produced over 20 years she mentions that “counting is boring,” that moving to the music — songs of about 3-1/2 minutes for each exercise — is more motivating, at least for her.
Constant long-term exposure to Richard not counting repetitions but instead simply reminding us of correct form — focusing our attention on the safe and effective way to do the exercise — changed my exercise process, and it changed how I do a lot of other things, too. Instead of focusing awareness on quantity, days, hours, and minutes, numbers, or percentage of time elapsed and percentage of time left, I learned through almost unconscious habit to just notice my what I feel, in my body, with my senses, and to notice what those feelings feel like, without reactively pushing them away or seeking to hold onto them.
Supporting our awareness by noting or counting, whether meditating or working out (and often those feel identical to me) can help us return our focus when it wanders, so they’re useful tools. At the same time, letting our attention actually rest in the sensations of our experience is where life is.
There’s such nuance in all of this. I’ve spent years practicing paying attention to my experience, to what my senses are telling me — but there are moments, days, maybe even weeks and months, when the support is welcome, when I’m distracted and distractable and need a little something to gently redirect my gaze. The word now, which Sharon suggests, reminds me, and so does my breath itself.
Meditation, by providing time and space and tools to bring my attention to rest lightly, helps me tap into the vastness of experience, all of life (and death, part of the cycle), the entire energy of the universe, which is in that space (or non-space) where attention rests: the infinite present. Similarly, looking closely at a gull’s bill, standing outside and letting the sensations wash over me, listening to the howling wind, feeling my body as I use my strength to move it through space — all these help bring me back, again and again, to the present, to the particular, universal sensation of now.