The Act of Awareness
A walk, an old man, and an ancient Chinese text on the art of living
On a recent walk with my dog, I spotted an old man on the small front porch of a little wooden bungalow not far from my home. He leaned against the railing. White hair, white beard. Hunched. Lit a cigarette, spotted me, and gave a quiet, waist-high wave.
“How’s it going?” I called from across the street.
He offered a wry smile, struck a match, and said, “Ah. Just livin’ the dream.”
Returning a smile, I said “I can see that.”
I’m pretty certain his comment was sarcasm. Still, he seemed reasonably happy, content, as far as I could tell in that fleeting moment. Maybe he really is living the dream. Maybe he is content and happy. Why would I assume he’s not? Is that what we do now, assume that most of us are disillusioned, that most of us accept the malaise of living, that most of us are not livin’ the dream?
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” —Henry David Thoreau.
Yes, you could sum up my encounter with Thoreau’s immortal words. But I wonder if it might be more beneficial to think of another Thoreau quote.
“They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself.”
Maybe I was witnessing the beginning of the old man’s spring. It seemed a simple even forgettable encounter. But after more thought, I realized how much more it meant.
I have been a terribly inconsistent Buddha. I know meditation works for me but sticking to it has always been my difficulty. Recently, however, I began again. The renewal came through a number of things. I’m rereading the English translation of the ancient text Tao Te Ching by Stephen Mitchell. I also spent some time reading again about the Beatles’ experience with Transcendental Meditation in the 1960s. The Fab Four’s connection to the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi didn’t go as well as they had first thought, but it did turn into a lifelong practice for George Harrison. Then there was a lengthy interview with the famed music producer Rick Rubin in a recent edition of the New York Times about his personal meditation practice.
“…if you were to meditate every day, twice a day, for 40 days, at the end of 40 days, I’d be surprised if you didn’t feel like a different person than the person who started.” —Rick Rubin.
Committing, as I have experienced for myself, is the biggest hurdle. Forty days is a long time to stay with anything. Human beings—we are so difficult, impatient, and easily distracted. I get it. But for whatever reason, I recommitted. I like to think that all those other times I tried to find a practice, I simply was not ready for meditation. This time I believe medication was ready for me. The light bulb went off, or at least started to flicker more brightly especially when Rubin spoke of the act of awareness.
“It seems the awareness practices in meditation are probably the best way to get there. And once you have an awareness practice, expanding it from the meditation cushion into the world, to where you’re living in a constant state of awareness.”
I have been a writer, an amateur songwriter, a creative in some form or another for a long time. What leads me to the words I write is the act of awareness. I try to pay close attention to people, to nature, to my everyday experiences, and to the magic it can bring. And so, when I read Rubin’s words and linked this to my world, well, things started to come together. I am already a person who tries to be aware. So, why don’t I simply flip the process and connect my everyday awareness with the practice of meditation?
Days later, after beginning to ponder this, I went on that walk, saw the old man, and wondered about his place in the world. There I was, being aware and connecting with that process of paying attention. I’m certain I would have said hello without considering its link to a practice of meditation. But now, it all somehow made sense. Now when I sit quietly, close my eyes, and silently repeat a simple Sanskrit mantra, it means more, it’s deeper, because it connects directly to my creative life. Meditation is not separate from my world. It’s not something I go do. It’s something I am.
I took another path back home on my walk that day and had no chance to see the old man again. But if I do see him some time, I might just thank him. He has no idea how his act of a waving hello opened my heart to the understanding of what I have always been doing—the simple, innate act of being aware.
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever he wants.” —Lao-tzu.
Connect that quote from Tao Te Ching with the typed quote I have taped to the wall of the shed where I write.
“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” —Henry Miller
It’s taken me a long time to see this. But here I am.
Yes, David Awareness, and sometimes we do not even recognize that our path-whatever manner it has unfolded- has always been leading us into Greater Awareness. I Love all the quotes you have shared here (💜Thoreau) and all carry pieces of truths that live in the experience of our journeys. I will add a note: at this time our collective consciousness is shifting & greater awareness is inevitably linked with our human evolution.
Being aware is something I would really like to work on. Thank you !