October 11, 2017
Episode 5: Look Up!
In this episode, Thomas talks about the common issue of "collapse" in mindfulness practice as well as life. Through a vivid metaphor of hiking the Narrows in Zion National Park, he extends an invitation to open up your awareness to its natural spaciousness and enjoy the beauty that abounds.
Hello and welcome to Mindfulness+. I'm your host, Thomas McConkie, thanks so much for joining us today. I want to talk about a phenomenon that occurs in our awareness that creates a lot of suffering and makes our lives unnecessarily challenging. I want to talk about that challenge and I want to talk about a solution or response that we can make to this challenge. And I want to do that by way of telling a story:
Many of you who are local to the Salt Lake City or Utah area will know about Zion National Park and a famous hike called "The Narrows". It's a gorgeous slot canyon down in Zion that people travel from all over the world to see. I remember I got a permit with a friend of mine form Norway to hike this slot canyon a few years ago and I'd heard about the dangers of flash flooding and I went in feeling a little bit nervous going in to the rangers station to pick up my permit and I had all these different things on my mind. Did I have the gear I needed, do I need a helmet? What are the dangers and is it raining this weekend? I had all these things going on in my mind and I think the ranger could read it on my face a little bit because as I picked up the permit I asked her "do you have any final advice for me"? Here I am, this poor soul who's about to venture in to the narrows and is afraid for his life. She kind of smiled at me and she said: "Yeah, don't forget to look up". I thought this was funny advice, It might have been the very last thing on my mind to actually remember to pay attention to the beautiful scenery for this hike that I had gone to great lengths to do and that people come from all over the world to do.
But sure enough the next morning when I got in to the river with my friend, I noticed that the path was really uneven and the further down the canyon we got, the quicker the current got, the deeper the water in some points, and it was hard to keep my footing. At a lot of different points a long the hike (we were probably hiking ten hours that day) I noticed myself staring down at my feet. And I remembered this rangers advice, it was such good advice. Don't forget to look up.
It's occurred to me since then that this is very good advice for living a mindful life as well. In a similar way as hiking the narrows in Zion, there are different things going on in life moment to moment that can trip us up. Things that can absorb our attention and cause our attention to collapse. This is one of the great challenges in human life, in my opinion, that we tend to collapse around a challenging event, something that's getting in our way, and it's really natural to do this, of course. But as we do that, we lose the perspective of the whole, the entirety of what's going on around us.
Another simple example of this: you think about when you stub your toe. All is peachy and dandy moments before and all of a sudden you stub your toe and your attention absolutely collapses in to the throbbing pain in your toe and there's nothing else happening in the world but this throbbing pain. Suddenly, anything you're aware of in previous moments is collapsed in to the problem. And I want to say that it's wonderful that we're actually wired to pay attention to problems, right? if we didn't, we wouldn't survive life in the city. We wouldn't pay any attention to the horn of a bus that's blaring and it would flatten us as we blithely walk out in to the street. So it's very functional and adaptive that our attention is wired to pay attention to problems. the only problem is that we can spend our whole lives attending to problems.
Moment to moment we can get caught in this state of collapse that's ongoing. And that's what I noticed really vividly on this hike in Zion: that if I didn't remember to slow down and take a breath, get my footing, and look up, I would've missed the spectacular scenery that was the whole point of being there. Similarly, as we practice mindfulness we can remember to slow down, take a breath, soften, and look up, so to speak.
It doesn't mean that the ground isn't still uneven. It doesn't mean that there aren't still obstacles and challenges in our environment. What it means is that when we're aware of ourselves looking down or in or collapsing in to the problem that comes up moment to moment, we can remember that rangers advice. We can remember that mindfulness teachers advice to look up. Look out. Relax. And to really let awareness start to sprawl. As we do that, the challenges of the moment are still here but they're held in the context of the whole: all of life. The experience of the experience of the totality of this moment which if you allow your awareness to relax in to it, you'll find is inherently rewarding to pay attention to.
After break we're going to do a little bit of an exercise. We're going to notice how attention collapses into a problem in the moment and we're going to practice looking up. Looking out. Letting our awareness open up to take in the whole. When we return.
Welcome back, everybody. You're listening to mindfulness+ and my name is Thomas McConkie. We are going to practice noticing the way that awareness collapses into a problem and we're going to notice the natural ability of awareness to open back up. To take in and more fully appreciate the whole. So I invite you to find a comfortable place to sit down and to settle in.
Start by bringing awareness to the physical body. Feeling sensation flowing through you; flowing about you. Notice the rise and fall of the breath. And the sensation of breathing. Notice especially on each out-breath the way the body just naturally softens and lets go. Making way for the next breath.
Now, I want you to bring attention to the most challenging aspect of your experience in this moment. It might be discomfort in the body, emotional discomfort, it might be a thought in the mind about a condition in life that's challenging that you would make go away if you could. Just notice where your attention go's and let it go there. Just allow your attention to be absorbed in whatever it is in this moment, the challenge. Really taking it in in its detail. If it's a sensation in the body or an emotion, you can just observe it very closely, noticing its texture, quality, and shape. If it's a condition in your life that you find your mind returning to again and again, you can notice what impact that thought has on the body. What emotion it brings up and what response… fully allowing it to be present. Not pushing on it or struggling with it. Not trying to escape from it but rather enveloping it in awareness in this moment. And you can let the contracted muscle of awareness start to relax a little bit - start to let go. Starting to feel the spaciousness of awareness even as the challenge may persist.
You can notice the physical body in awareness in this moment. Being aware of all of the physical body. You can be aware of emotional activity coming up in awareness in this moment. Letting it rise, linger, and pass; letting awareness fully envelop and surround and permeate all emotional activity. And you can be aware of thoughts coming up in the moment. Thoughts rising in awareness. And you don't have to latch on to them or dive in to them or think about them any further. You can just notice thoughts rising in awareness. Awareness, like the wide open sky, letting it all be present.
If you've closed your eyes, you can open them and notice that the world itself is also rising in your awareness. Feel the vastness, openness, spaciousness of awareness itself, and the way that activity, experience, all naturally arises in the space of this awareness. There's room for it all and room for more. Staying in contact with this spaciousness, you can notice again the problem area where we started, the challenge. And notice that this challenge, notice this stone in the river that we trip on, is just one element in an infinitely beautiful landscape full of other stones. River flowing and tress hanging off the canyon walls. The scenery towering over us, all about us. This moment and every moment is an invitation to look up, look in, to experience the fulness of this moment, noticing when awareness collapses. We're reminded to open back up in to this spaciousness of awareness that is always already the case.
Thank you so much for joining us today on Mindfulness+. If you're enjoying these exercises and the learning of the mindfulness practice, I invite you to share this free resource with a friend or family member and to join us next time. Thank you.