Our walk normally takes about an hour, depending on which trails we take. The day we picked up trash recently, it took three hours. Not because we walked that much farther, but because we were that focused. We combed the woods, walking slowly and methodically scanning our own respective side, hoping to catch a glimpse of aluminum shining in the sun, or an unatural color (think Mt. Dew green) that stands out against the earth tones of chestnut and ochre. We were so intent on our mission, and so successful, we collected three bags full. It's always amazing to me what, and how much, we can find.
It seems that most of the time, unless there is a can in front of us on the trail, we don't see the litter. And yet when we focus on it, we find enough to fill three bags. It isn't that the litter isn't there -- but that in essence, we choose not to see it. By letting our attention wander, it's startling what we miss. When we train our attention this carefully, we allow ourselves to see what we believe never existed. We're amazed and wonder where it all could have come from.
This is the kind of focus meditation is made of, the kind that opens us up to a whole new world in terms of remembering who we are and what we're capable of. It allows us to see what we never saw before. And frankly, it is precisely this that scares the pants off of most of us even considering silent time contemplating our own inner workings. To train that kind of attention on ourselves can be disconcerting even in the best of circumstances. Really, who wants to be made aware of the fact that every time they get stressed out they instantly reach for the cigarette, or the drink, or the sugar-fix? Especially when we've worked so hard at leaving these things to our unconscious. Put it back in the dark recesses of the attic -- it doesn't exist if we don't see it, right?
No one likes being presented with their shortcomings. How often do we recognize unhealthy habits in others and can't see them in ourselves? But when we allow ourselves the time and space to meditate in whatever way works for us, we learn to adjust our focus and turn our attention to how our mind works. When we can begin to witness it without condition, we begin to see what we've tried so hard not to see. And then, change can begin.
In previous years, it used to be that picking up trash would depress me, or worse, piss me off. I'd grumble about the state of the world and ask over and over again, "What's wrong with people?!?" Not surprisingly, there is never a satisfying answer to that question. Anxiety would flood me as I tried to stop for the day, knowing there was still so much out there, still so much to do. I never knew my limits and I'd grow obsessed. I never knew where my responsibility ended. Even after picking up bag after bag full, I felt guilty, somehow feeling I should do more. Somehow feeling like whatever contribution I made, it was never enough.
It seems that my anxiety surrounding this annual do-good event stemmed from fear. It's almost as if didn't want to see the trash because I felt an obligation, an overwhelming sense of duty to pick not just that one piece up, but ALL of it. Whether I could see it or not, I felt it was my job to take care of it. While I outwardly trained my attention on seeing trash, it was as if I was saying to myself, "don't see the trash, I don't want to see the trash." If it presented itself, I had to deal with it. This was the way my mind worked -- I had myself so caught up that I felt I had no choice.
Being afraid of seeing -- if I saw, I was obligated -- I actively pushed things away and resisted them. I was living my life with my eyes closed so tightly that I never really knew what it meant to willingly live with my eyes open.
It wasn't until I started meditating regularly that I learned how to invite myself to see whatever I saw -- without condition, without obligation. What I didn't know when I began this project was that it's only when we see something that we are given the power to do something about it. Now, for example, when I see the litter, I recognize that I am being presented with an opportunity -- I can pick it up, or not. I have a choice. It is no longer about deciding whether to open my eyes or keep them closed...it is about knowing that in keeping my eyes open, whatever it is that I see, I can choose how I respond.
Meditation has shown me that once I recognize how my mind works and how it can unconsciously run my behavior if my eyes are closed to it, I am newly informed and can make any number of different choices. There is no obligation or duty per se, just how I choose to respond. Sometimes I may choose to pick up the trash and sometimes I might choose to let it lie...essentially, it doesn't matter. In the end, what matters is that I know I have a choice -- and take responsibility for the choice I have rather than playing the victim, acting as though I have no choice at all.
My time meditating has allowed me to know myself more fully and know where my priorities are, to depend on what I care about, and to respond in kind. By learning to adjust my focus, I now understand that seeing is infinitely more constructive for me than trying so hard not to ever was.
This year as we pick up at the park, I feel much more comfortable -- as if somehow I know my place. I feel connected with the way of things. I trust that it is better that we have picked up trash than if we hadn't and that no matter how much we do, it's always enough. I know that any choice to contribute to the good is a sound choice -- I don't second-guess that anymore. I have faith that to have made the effort is what matters more than how much and how often.
And more than anything, I am sure that it is better to see and choose our focus than to shut our eyes and fear...//