Noticing: Thoughts on the Beach

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Walking on the ocean’s edge yesterday, I noticed huge clumps of kelp, all tangled like beached whales. This, I thought, is how thoughts are when they get tumbled in the rough storm of emotion.

The beach was so clear that even the delicate tide lines showed, even the impressions of tidal bubbles left lacey tracks. And I thought: This is like the meditative mind, so quiet that even the most subtle thoughts, emotions and sensations become clearly visible.

I looked at the interwoven smooth and salty surfaces of the maroon and ochre kelp, remembering how as a child I would take that bulbous length and run with it, whipping up the sand for the sheer joy and exuberance of such a vast expanse of space.

In some of the clumps were tangles of turquoise rope. I imagined the small boat from which it came, for this was not a shipboard purchase but the choice made in a boat shop where the color promised tropical sea sailing instead of the cold cruelty of the choppy Bay, Gate and Pacific Ocean. Nearby on the beach there was what looked to be a peach-colored oval stone, but when I picked it up it was light-weight, with four evenly spaced holes and a wedge cut the full length of both sides for line to slide, so I knew it to be nautical in nature. I suppose there are some sloppy sailors, but I noticed how images of some mid-ocean mishap arose within my mind.

There was a dark green plastic garbage can stranded on the beach, without wheels or lid. I noticed how this object launched a long involved fantasy beginning with imagining dragging it along, picking up the detritus of human life, leaving the shore devoid of all but footprints. But there seemed so much, and I thought how it’s a long way to April 22nd, so I imagined an ‘earth day every day’ party where we would don gloves and carry garbage bags to pick up the oil cans, the bottle caps and bags. And people would come to help and come for the tasty picnic part with rich conversation and camaraderie and leave feeling nourished in every way.

Together my husband Will and I imagined a lot of photos we might have taken had we remembered the camera – especially of the dune grasses thatched so decoratively against the russet cliffs in the distance. We framed potential paintings and planned to return, camera in hand, while knowing no moment can ever be recaptured, that the light would shift and the grasses would fade.

We watched, enchanted by the chubby little sanderlings racing on their tiny legs, chasing each receding wave as it exposed choice tidbits, with precious few seconds to poke, suck and swallow before rushing to escape the incoming flow that followed.

And now I share this experience with you, not in the hopes to take you there yesterday at the beach, though it would have been fun, but to offer up this example of a typical mind at work, and all the kinds of thoughts that traverse through it like the kelp through the storm, like the turquoise rope through the oval fitting, that now washed ashore whispers scary stories, like the plastic leavings and the thatched grasses calling up regrets, wishes and plans.

And the shore birds bringing attention back to this moment, as they need — as we need — every moment to be conscious.

So we become conscious of the thoughts that are just the tangled detritus of our nature. And if we find that we are caught in the tight tangle of thoughts, we can, through meditation and metta (loving kindness), give ourselves the spaciousness of the vast expanse of beautiful beach that is contained in our every breath, our every awareness of physical sensation.

The thoughts do not disappear. We simply see them in the context of how the brain functions, a part of the experience of being alive in human form. By broadening our spacious awareness through practice we make room for all of life. And this making room for what is arising in this moment is the key to finding joy and relieving suffering.

But how do we practice it? During meditation we practice opening into the silence, releasing tension, setting intention, and paying compassionate attention to a sensory experience – the breath, the sounds in the room, etc.

What about after we open our eyes? I would like to encourage a continuing of this kind of awareness practice even after the meditation is over. The meditation shows us what’s possible, but if we treat it as a getaway vacation instead of instruction for living our lives, we are peeling the apple, tossing away the most nutritious part.

The most nutritious part of meditation comes outside of formal practice when we continue to maintain a level of awareness. Meditation is training us to be present, but if we don’t practice being present in every moment, then what is the training for?

In our post-meditation discussion this week we did this. And it is something you can do on your own, with friends or in a meditation group.

We adjust our bodies to be relaxed but alert. We stay present with the rising and falling of the breath or other sensory focus, even as we listen to each other, even as we notice our thoughts, our judgments, or questions, our feelings. And in our discussions we actively practice using our language in a way that helps us to continue to recognize the nature of our thoughts. Instead of stating our opinions or facts, we can actually say, “I notice that when you say ________ a judging thought comes up for me, or a question comes up for me, or tension arises in my body, or a feeling of ______ comes up.” Now this is by nature a slow and maybe at times awkward structure, BUT it is a way for us to intensify our practice and bring it into the rest of our lives where it might serve us well.

This process is at once deeply personal yet universal. The thoughts we each have are not our thoughts. They are just the nature of thoughts, and we all experience them as they pass through, given a wide variety of factors, causes and conditions. Perhaps some system of thoughts gets stuck in a holding pattern, like the eddy of a stream where branches get stuck, and it easy to think of them as ours because we become so familiar with them we begin to define ourselves by their existence. But there is no thought that defines who we are. Knowing this frees us to greet thoughts with curiosity and loving kindness, neither grasping them nor pushing them away.

So try this exercise of speaking from your most conscious spacious awareness, bringing to light with loving kindness the process of your thoughts.

Enjoy the spacious beach-ocean-sky of the human mind, including all the thought forms that pass through it!

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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