Now. Why is it so hard to be here?
I settle down into a comfortable position to meditate, wrapped in soft blankets, and close my eyes.
Lately, I’ve been more distracted than usual, and between sporadic flashes of mental nudging to attend to my breath, I am anywhere but here. I don’t dwell on each memory or thought for long—during meditation, that is—but there is a light, frenetic dance of consciousness in which my breath is just beyond the outer reaches of the galaxy, within my field of awareness, obscured.
I don’t know where exactly this plane of consciousness resides. Part of me wrestles lightly, almost tiptoeing around the halls of now, but breezes come wafting in from all directions; with them, the flotsam of so many of life’s moments.
I fall into my most comfortable trap: thinking.
It’s a salve after my adventures into the muck of seeking clear awareness, and a welcome diversion. I think about writing this very article, about the staggering fact that there is no pure present we can actually verbalize or form concepts around. I love verbalizing and forming concepts. It’s what I do.
I’m seized by a panic; unable to locate, even slightly, who is doing the sitting and thinking right now, and what she possibly has to say.
Who will I find there?
Will I like her?
Can I learn from her?
Can I stop wanting to learn and know, and just be with her?
Can I just be?
The thoughts come flooding in: how bizarre is it that in every single part of our existence we can be aware of what has already vanished? Of course, there is also the future, which always seems willing to be worried about, but all the tools we have in our arsenal of self-identity, everything we tend to believe makes us us, is firmly lodged where we have once been—unreachable except to be available for endless rounds of re-interpretation.
The second we grasp that we are experiencing a present moment, it’s slipped through to that place behind, where it lends itself to becoming a plaything: a memory, a relic, a nostalgia basin.
We self-identify by means of the relics of who we have been.
Is this useful?
To a degree, sure. It allows us to do everything from remember to brush our teeth, hold conversations, go to work every day, and evolve on our paths of growth; even as it also holds us down and sets us firmly within the bounds of self-imposed limitations.
We must want more than to be a living, breathing museum of our former selves.
We watch the future cruise right into the past, sailing down that winding waterways of us without stopping to say hello here and now, wake up!—without checking in with the present moment.
We long for the now, for a pause, a break, a change of pace, a chance to regroup, to breathe life’s wild things.
We know, deeply, that to move forward, we have to find a point of stillness from which to begin. We are not clocks tick-tocking forward ad infinitum, with no purpose other than to mark the passage of something that’s been designated as chronological time.
We consist entirely of who we were: we are fragile, open and hopeful beings who know down to the bones that there’s more to life than time passing. We are lured into hope through absolute stillness. Maybe on a clear, starry night, at the beach gazing at the horizon beyond the sea; maybe hearing crickets at twilight or breathing in the silence in a forest; or maybe looking into the eyes of an old friend, a new lover.
This is when the stream of our lives stops, and fears give way to an offering that proves to be our greatest teacher, and most reliable guide.
What can our future memories consist of, anyway, if our now-moments are restless and polluted with distraction? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to discover who we essentially are in the space of real present awareness, to enrich our lives in ways that have nothing to do with grasping at the Jekyll and Hyde security our memories inspire?
This is what I want to discover. I don’t want to be a gallery retrospective of all the moments that have brought me here. I want only to be here, in a time outside of time, and in a space that branches out much wider than my thinking mind can take me.
I want to meet everyone else there too, in connection free of grasping, by welcoming without judgement.
This is why I sit on my cushion and close my eyes to face the deluge of thoughts, to try and stabilize my mind by remaining in awareness of breath, with hope and optimism for that elusive encounter with now.
“Of all the senses, sight must be the most delightful.” ~ Helen Keller
Eyes invite people in, giving others a glimpse into the deepest parts of ourselves.
It also works the other way around; eyes are our window out onto the visual world. For those of us with functioning vision, it’s estimated that 80% of our sensory information about the world comes through our sense of sight.
Looking into the eyes of those we love, feels like magic.
Really looking at people in the eye can help us connect with them and understand them better.
A whole realm of empathy can form around the simple act of people looking at each other.
In other words, we’re very dependent on seeing, for building our identity and wellbeing. Look how many expressions exist in the English language based on eye metaphors or analogies:
Do you see? Try to look at it through my eyes. An eye for an eye. Do we see eye to eye? To see with the naked eye. Wide-eyed.
It goes on.
Our eyes are very complex mechanisms that link our brains and minds to the visual field. They do incredibly uncanny things, such as helping us to distinguish objects, perceive depth and experience color. It’s almost impossible to fathom that these little pieces of matter, lodged in our heads, can do so much.
It’s very important to consider how and why we make sense of the world the way we do, and why we’re so dependent on our sense of sight (try practicing navigating through the house blindfolded or listening to movies rather than watching them, for example).
It’s also a really good idea to take care of our eyes.
“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again.”
~ Sylvia Plath
We know this intuitively. We ‘look inward’ when we meditate, turning ourselves over to our inner eye, and washing, purifying and strengthening the powers of our ajna chakras, or third eye.
We can only complement this process of inner seeing by nurturing our physical eyes. One of the basic yoga kriyas, or cleansing techniques, you can do every morning, involves cupping your hands, filling them with water and thoroughly rinsing your eyes in it.
A more comprehensive kriya for cleansing the eyes, is Trataka—a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to gaze upon’ or ‘to look.’ Trataka is a fixed-gaze meditation that I like to think of as a natural wonder drug for the eyes.
On a physical level, looking unwaveringly at one object for a substantial duration strengthens the eye muscles and is known to help those with insomnia. It can facilitate improvement in vision, making it an excellent tool for avid readers and chronic computer-users.
Trataka also triggers or prompts physical and emotional release—the idea is that by stilling ourselves, we can allow that proverbial ‘stuff’ to come up and wash away.
Yogis use Trataka to stimulate the third eye and develop concentration skills, considered integral in their own right. This enables them to move into more advanced meditations that would be impossible without an ability to tame distraction and cultivate an ability to focus.
How Trataka works
Note: Trataka can be done using virtually any unmoving object, such as a dot on the wall. I find using the flame of a candle, to be very powerful and intimate.
1: Light a candle; place on the floor, or table, in front of you.
2: Sit in a comfortable position, preferably with your spine straight, and surround yourself with anything you might normally use in meditation or relaxation practices to create a peaceful, conducive atmosphere.
3: Take a few deep breaths; allow your body to relax for a moment and slowly become aware of it.
4: Look at the wick inside the flame—if using a candle—as the centring point, and perform the following movements:
– Move your eyes from left to right several times.
– Look up and then down several times.
– Look diagonally up to the left and down to the right several times.
– Look diagonally up to the right and down to the left several times.
5: Rest your eyes on the wick of the flame and keep your eyes open. Fix your gaze, remaining fully aware of the flame until your eyes grow very tired or start to water.
6: Close your eyes and concentrate on the image of the flame between your eyes in the center of your forehead. Try to keep the image stable. When the image begins to fade, try to bring it back.
7: Open your eyes and repeat steps five and six, one or two more times.
In the beginning, you can concentrate on the flame for one—two minutes, increasing this amount of time with practice. Observe any emotions that arising without thinking about, or judging, them.
You might also notice that this exercise helps you learn to “open your eyes” to your environment in a new and more vibrant way, and the benefits of seeing things anew are, of course, innumerable.
“Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.”
~ Albert Einstein
* This article first appeared in elephant journal.