As a meditator, have you ever practiced eating mindfully—let’s say a salad or a baked potato? Perhaps, then, as you tried to stay in touch with each bite, each chew, each subtle flavor of potato, butter, salt, pepper, and chives, you found yourself struggling through a haze of memories, fantasies, and scenarios trying to really be there for the experience of eating.
Now extrapolate from this experience and think: If it’s this hard to stay in touch with a baked potato, how much more difficult must it be to clearly perceive the person I love? After all, my relationship to a potato is fairly straightforward, whereas my perceptions of my wife, for example, are overlaid with all kinds of control issues, power struggles, sexual bonding, primordial needs, and so on. Complicating matters is the fact that, although these forces are as real as gravity, bending my perceptions the way a black hole bends light, they are invisible. Most of the time, I don’t even know they’re there. Zen practice suggests there are many degrees to being present. Just because my eyes are open doesn’t mean I’m awake. It’s possible to look right at someone and still not truly see them. I certainly make every effort to make contact with my wife, Shannon, whom I adore, but I’ve come to realize that I’m almost always peering at her through the invisible haze of my own mind.
Take Sunday. Since I’m a writer, it’s important that I read widely and often, so as I pull a chair into the afternoon shade and open an Elmore Leonard novel, it’s with a clear conscience. Unfortunately, my enjoyment is soon undermined by muffled sounds coming from the basement—Shannon cleaning and reorganizing. She expects me to help her, I realize with a twinge of annoyance. More sounds emanate. Boxes shifting. Sweeping. “It’s always on her schedule,” I grumble, no longer seeing the words on the page. Finally, she appears in the doorway, broom in hand, and stares at me. Oh, all right, all right! I put the book down and stomp to my feet, thinking, She just doesn’t value what I do.
But as I sweep last Sunday’s wood scraps from where I left them on the floor, I realize Shannon’s been stepping over these all week. Wow. Maybe everything’s not “always on her schedule.” Maybe her perceptions, her trajectory through life, are just as valid as mine. “She doesn’t value what I do.” At the time, it sounded almost reasonable. That’s what the mind does. It makes statements and then believes them. “No one loves me.” “He’s a dumb brute.” “You’re the worst kids in the world.” As my Zen teacher would say, it “conceptually ornaments” our experience, adding labels, concepts and judgments to create a story of self and other. Practice is what we do with these thoughts. Do we believe them or let them go? Do we build ever larger conceptual edifices around our loved ones, or do we work to pull them down? How clearly do you see your loved ones?
In the basement, Shannon decides to reposition her work tables, so we take half an hour experimenting with different configurations. As we push the tables this way and that, something interesting happens. I start to feel fonder toward her. This low, cool space is where she spends much of her time, making art, and it’s suddenly become more real to me. I’m taking care of her. I’m a good guy. I spend some time with a couple of her new pieces, appreciating them. Seeing them. You know, she’s not just an inhabitant of my mind; she’s here, in the world, living her separate, parallel life.
I believe we could spend our whole lives together living like bears in a cave, grunting over salmon, sleeping in our nest, and enjoy a deep and intimate bond—but would we have made contact? I want to see past the haze, past my conceptual ornamentations, past this Shannon who’s so familiar I sometimes believe she’s “me” or “mine.” I want to see the real her. But how can I break through?
Talking is a start. “Hey, hon. How about some iced tea?” We go outside. I bring her a tall, beaded glass of tea, again feeling that subtle pleasure of taking care. Just putting the glass in her hand helps me to feel loving. “So, Shan. Do you think you see me clearly?” I ask. She sips her tea, considering. “It’s not something I worry about,” she answers. Oh. “Well, take a moment,” I persist. “How do you think you perceive me?” “Lots of different ways…that all have to do with me. Does that sound selfish?”
You see? I didn’t know what she’d say. I never do. She’s a moving target, constantly changing, frequently surprising me. The truth is, when I pay attention, I find beneath my conventional knowing of her a vast and profound unknowing. It’s an openness that inspires curiosity and leads to contact. So, we sit together, my mind enjoying the not-knowing, on a beautiful late Sunday afternoon. For a moment I see her without ornament.
And, for the record, she in no way resembles a baked potato.
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