Wanting…..Needing…..

What do you want?  What do you need?  Do you confuse the two?

Yesterday my wife and I spent a few wandering hours in the arboretum at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA  (http://longwoodgardens.org).  When you first enter the arboretum after a very cold and windy walk from the entry building you are literally smashed in the face with warm humid air that smells like spring rain.  In the midst of winter cold and dry and the feeling of a stinging face you feel spectacularly awake and back “in the moment.”  And there before you is this view:

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I think visiting an arboretum in winter is a great antidepressant.  I felt like I was absorbing energy; it was like the chlorophyll in the plants had mercy on me and shared a bit of their abundance!  There’s a children’s garden there that’s a delight, and a vast collection of orchids.  And among all of the ornamental and somewhat exotic plants, there’s a section with garden plants!  What a delight it was to see tomatoes growing again, and to rub our hands on the various herbs (especially the rosemary) and get that delicious smell into our senses.

But I think the best part of the visit happened after we had been strolling about for two hours and sat down in the main atrium.  Here’s the picture I took from my seat:

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I couldn’t help but notice how little the plants needed.  Sunlight, water, soil; the right climate.  That’s all, that’s everything.  The plants are present, asking for nothing but what they need, not really asking of course.  The “asking” is in our imagination, a way to give a bit of our own mindedness to the plants.  The plants grow and become what they are meant to become, and have no desire, no “wanting.”  They are content, again allowing for an injection of a human quality, to simply be, and be themselves as fully as their environment allows.  I think the Catholic monk/poet Thomas Merton captured this quality when he described the ancient carvings of the Buddha and his followers at Polonnaruwa in Ceylon.  Merton wrote about “…the silence of the extraordinary faces.  The great smiles.  Huge and yet subtle.  Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but (the peace) that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything.”

These plants, this arboretum, “knows” what it needs, and is perfect as a result.  It is only us, the spectator, who imagines that “it” wants anything else.  Of course “it” is not what the plants want, but rather our own desire to make the world in our own image and likeness, a heresy in any religion.

Do you know what you need?  Do you know what you want?  Do you know the difference?  If you do, then you know peace.  If you know this peace, then you are mindful, filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, rejecting nothing, not trying to discredit anyone or anything.

Peace,

Jim

The quote from Thomas Merton can be found on page 233 of “The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton,” published by New Directions.  Here’s a photo of one of those extraordinary figures that he described:

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Awareness of Attentional State

The foundation of mindfulness meditation practice is to bring directed attention to some aspect of our experiencing.  Breathing is simplest; always there, noticeable at the tips of the nostrils very viscerally, or in the rising and falling of the belly, even in the movement of the chest muscles.  Attention can also be paid to any number of mental objects, including thoughts, images, sensations, sensory objects, or emotions.  The mind that notices its activity, brings focused attention to that activity, without judging, is the mindful state we seek to develop.

What’s the point of this ongoing practice?  Simply to strengthen the mind’s capacity to be fully present, in this moment, with acceptance.  Why bother?  There are a lot of good reasons, some of them psychological, many of them religious/spiritual, and still more related to our physical health.  This practice is associated with psychological well being, spiritual peace, and stress reduction.  In a nutshell, spending 10 or 15 minutes every day in mindfulness practice is good for you in any way you can imagine.

Today’s (January 19, 2014) NY Times magazine has an excellent article about mindfulness meditation.  Here’s the link to that article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/19/magazine/breathing-in-vs-spacing-out.html?ref=magazine&_r=0

The author, Dan Hurley, makes many of the same points I’ve made about the benefits of mindfulness, but he raises an interesting and important issue about a drawback to the practice.  It turns out that the focused state of mind promoted by mindfulness practice is contrary to the “spaced out frame of mind” that many, including me, find conducive to creativity.  I agree.  My experience with the creative moment is that the mind is free of any fetters, wandering a bit.  There’s a line in the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” (a John Lennon composition) that captures this perfectly:  “Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox, they tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe.”

I don’t think that mindfulness practice inhibits or hampers creativity.  To the contrary, I think it enhances the creative process after the initial stroke of insight that initiates, at least for me, creative work.  I’ve noticed over the years that as my mind has developed the capacity to maintain an evenly divided attention, there’s an underlying awareness of thoughts meandering, without in any way trying to dampen the emerging looseness of associations.  In my counseling work this state of mind seems valuable as a tool to help me to make connections that may be helpful to my therapy clients.  So, in a somewhat paradoxical way, that state of “spacing out” that is associated with creativity seems to combine seamlessly with a noticing mind that makes space for the spacing out.  So as I’m in full blown “wandering mind mode” I’m noticing it mindfully.  Sometimes I notice some novel way of understanding things in that attention to mind wandering.  If I  choose to pursue that novel idea, then being able to concentrate on that idea facilitates the ensuing creative process.

In a way the spaced out mind and the sharply focused mind are two sides of a mental coin, and both can be noticed mindfully.  That seems a bit odd to say; if your mind is wandering or sharply focused, what exactly is doing the noticing?  It’s your own mind noticing of course, your own mind in the act of self awareness; “I am aware that I am aware.”

Well, I hope that makes sense.  In any case, I think this article in the Times is essential reading for those of us who practice mindfulness.  Happy reading!

Peace,

Jim