It’s been hard for so many people to get a good sleep at night lately, or to feel at ease during the day. I still wake up 3 or more times a night, mostly for issues common to aging, although there’s nervousness about all the threats in our world today lurking in the background. But how we respond to any event, and the quality of attention we give each moment, shapes the quality of our life overall.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about waking up in the middle of the night and noticing the beauty of moonlight outside my very rural home. Or of distant city lights etching tree limbs against the gray sky⎼ or turning parked cars into mysterious, almost animal shapes. And I’d like to report that when sleep is interrupted and I do this looking-out-the-window practice, intently looking for the beauty that is there, my nights have been more engaging. I’ve become a connoisseur of darkness, a night watcher studying what is seen.
I look forward to the moment of looking. And even the pain and other issues that wake me have become more interesting⎼ or less annoying. Even my dreams have taken up this practice. Last night, my dream-self said that instead of window washing, I was window watching.
And I’ve become a night listener. Like a bird watcher searching for a rare bird or one we love, we can listen for any rare sound to focus on for study. There are few loud sounds at night near my home. Yet, no matter where we live, we can listen to the sounds of the neighborhood, the city, or the forest, for example, as if there was a concert going on outside the window. Or we can listen for trees bending, people talking, cars honking, or leaves spinning in the wind. We watch and listen for the beauty, for patterns, for interconnections.
We can do this not only at night, but all through the day. Sleeping and dreaming help us integrate one day’s thoughts and happenings into a fresh, new morning. The past creates the ground of the present.
Of course, at night, sometimes there is no moon or distant city lights, and our windows become holes into nothing. I like that less, but can study how even emptiness, and my not liking, feels. We often imagine nothingness as a distant event, or thing. But what are we seeing when we notice a hole in our knowing now?
We can also watch the sky during the day. Many of us continually look down, narrowing our attention and reinforcing self-concern. Looking up and out into the distance can spread our awareness, open us up, let us take in more.
One of my favorite books is the classic Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. The first story in the collection is about a university professor visiting a Zen Master named Nan-in. The professor could be anyone full of their own opinions, and sure that what they think is true is the one and only truth.
The professor asks Nan-in about Zen. In response, the Master invites the professor in for tea. After they sit and the tea is ready, Nan-in pours the visitor’s cup full and keeps on pouring. The professor gets nervous while watching and exclaims, “It’s overfull. No more will go in.”
You, too, are overfull⎼ of opinions, not tea, says Nan-in. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
It’s not just when or where we look, but how. …
*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.