Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Bodacious Buddha of Bare Attention

by Dawn Downey

I bragged about my prowess in the bare attention department. But a strong gust of awareness knocked the mindfulness crown right off my
head.

It happened in the garden, on a classic fall day. Seventy degrees. Cloudless sky. No humidity. The perfect day to plant a crop of ivy and commune with nature. I imagined spending the day completely present with my surroundings.

I gathered my tool collection, ivy plantings, and mindfulness intention and headed to the back yard. Forty-five minutes into digging holes on the hillside, I stood to stretch. Muscle aches lessened as my body realigned itself. I glanced around the yard and the full glory of the day struck me.

Lost in thought for over an hour, I hadn’t seen the cat walk by, heard the robins sing, or felt the ant crawl up my arm. In meditation, I strive to stand on the bridge of awareness, watching thoughts pass underneath. But I’d built a houseboat from my internal narrative, and had been lying on its deck mindlessly drifting downstream while sipping a piƱa colada.

I stood still—observing, finally awake. Practicing mindfulness of the body, I turned my attention to the objects of my senses. Pain coursed through my muscles. The air brushed against my skin and I felt my weight supported by the earth. My eyes took in crickets and grasshoppers jumping in and out of my field of vision. I heard the chattering of squirrels, and smelled the fresh in the air.

I opened to mindfulness of feelings. When I stretched, the release of my back felt pleasant. The bite of a late-season mosquito—unpleasant. The sound of an airplane overhead—neutral.
I understood then, that I walk through my daily life like Mr. Magoo.

When reaching for a snack, I don’t even notice if I’m actually hungry. What does hunger feel like? If I watch carefully, I’ll sense a menacing emptiness in the midsection. An invisible force presses against my stomach wall just behind the navel. The pressure creates a low rumble that rolls across my interior landscape like the last aftershock of an earthquake.

If I miss these signs, hunger intensifies. Pressure builds on my skull, followed by a little wooziness. It culminates in a headache above my left eye. But rarely do I feel the full range of hungry. I’m not paying attention.

My newfound awareness of my lack of awareness piqued my curiosity. I noticed that eating was preceded by anxiety. Expecting it to pass, I waited. To my surprise, the distress turned to anger. Both were unpleasant. And both, I suddenly realized, accompanied mealtime every day of my life.

Wondering why eating makes me mad, I questioned my older brother about family history. At a time when I was too young to remember, he told me, the family struggled for food. It wasn’t unusual for us to miss a meal. Decades later, I eat before I’m hungry because I’m afraid of becoming hungry.

Lovingly, I lifted the layer of habitual eating and found a lack of hunger, carefully peeked under that layer and discovered anxiety, under that one, anger and finally fear. Careful observation revealed that I eat to relieve fear, not to relieve hunger. Bare attention transformed my relationship with food.

On a recent walk through galleries and craft stores, I felt an urge to buy a painting for my house. My mind was flooded with reasons to buy. It’s the Perfect Thing. It really speaks to me. It has a resonance.
The urge to buy was powerful.

With great difficulty, I walked out empty-handed. I left that store still craving that Perfect Thing—believing the universe had created it just for me. When I got home I continued to obsess. My longing for that watercolor was exactly where I needed to focus my awareness.

I sat quietly and pictured the object of my desire. Thoughts came up, and then a familiar acid burn in the belly.

Noting the rising and falling of sensations and thoughts, I realized that if the house is perfect, people will approve of it and by extension, me. I saw a fear of inadequacy.

Bare attention took me out of the picture. Everyone feels fear, inadequacy and fire in the belly. Sitting still with the discomfort of not buying the Perfect Thing, allowed that anxiety to morph into an impersonal ebb and flow of emotions and sensations. They intensified until I thought I would die or go crazy. The experience burst like a balloon. Mindfulness took me to the source, and the intense desire to buy that Perfect Thing dissolved.

Now that I’ve become more mindful of mindfulness, it’s difficult to stop. Sensations and sights and sounds pop in and out of my awareness. Thoughts rise and fall. Pleasant, unpleasant and neutral blink on and off like neon signs.

Mindfulness leads me to an understanding of the very nature of life.
Life is ever changing. The rising, falling, popping, and blinking never stop. Life is unsatisfactory: Because there’s nothing to hold on to, there’s no external source for lasting contentment. And life is selfless: This is all going on without my control. The lights are on but nobody’s home.

The Bodacious Buddha of Bare Attention ultimately disappears—mindful that there’s no one here being mindful.

Click on the theamericanbuddhistcenter.org to find this and other essays by Dawn Downey, as well information about this Kansas City, MO, meditation center. Other writings by Dawn can also be found on her website by clicking on dawndowney.com. I thank Dawn for sending this excellent essay about mindfully applying mindfulness in everyday life.

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