When I was 19 years old, I traveled to India with a one-way ticket and no luggage. At that point, I hadn’t learned how to be a human yet, let alone an adult human, and honestly, I didn’t really want to be a human—I wanted to be some kind of spiritual being. After completing my first ten-day meditation course in Dharamsala, I fell in love with meditation, and in a characteristically grandiose adolescent way, I decided to head off to the caves. After all, that was what yogis did (or so I believed). I walked out of Dharamsala straight up into the hills. I was terrified. I didn’t have any food or blankets, and I had no idea what I was doing, but I thought that was the whole point.
Luckily, I ran into an old sadhu, who asked me where I was going. I told him, “I’m off to the cave to meditate.” He rolled his eyes and said, “Why don’t you go across that valley and up that path? You’ll find this one Baba living there. He has a little place. Maybe you can stay with him.”
I went across the valley and up the path to ask the Baba if I could stay with him. He told me I could sleep there for three nights, and I ended up staying for most of the next three years. He never actually instructed me in meditation—he knew I had taken a meditation course, so he said I could keep practicing as I had been. In fact, he never tried to teach me anything at all, but I learned a lot just by being in his presence.
Mindfulness can sound like a technique, which is one reason I prefer to use the term “presence.” I learned about presence from Babaji by osmosis, simply witnessing the way he made tea, the way he moved a piece of firewood around, the way he undid the lid of a jar, or the way we washed pots together. It was like everything was worthy of attention. Everything was worthy of care. And in my scattered, adolescent mind full of overly complicated ideas about meditation, it was incredibly relieving and educational to be bringing my practice into the way I unscrewed the tea lid. On the one hand, I felt very clumsy and awkward next to Babaji, but on the other, I also felt like he was relentlessly kind and forgiving and generous-spirited to me, and that helped invite me to become attentive in a quiet way.
One day, when I was living with Babaji, I decided to repaint the ashram windows. I was very enthusiastic about it and worked eagerly. After the first day, Babaji said to me, “Your problem is you’re trying to paint the windows. Just stop. Just take care of the brushstrokes, and let God paint the windows. It’s not your responsibility. You just take care.” Then I started to notice the smell and the way the light caught the paint. I began to give myself to the process.
After four or five days of sanding and painting, as I stood back and saw the red shutters on the windows of the ashram, I was in awe. Sure enough, I had taken care of the brushstrokes, and God had painted the windows. Babaji taught me how to let go of worrying about the fruits of my actions and instead pay attention to the quality of care with which I engaged in them. This attention is just another word for love. You could say, “I’m giving attention to my breath,” or “I’m giving attention to painting the windows,” but it’s equally, “I’m learning how to love this in-breath, learning how to love this brushstroke.” The practice of attention is learning how to love.
Excerpted from “Coming Back to Embodiment,” an episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle’s podcast with James Shaheen and Sharon Salzberg.
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