Awareness: Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice
“Be conscious of the Truth, the center of consciousness, and perform your actions selflessly with non-attachment. No matter where you are—in your office, in the kitchen, in the shopping center, or in the midst of a crowd—meditation in action can be practiced. Learn not to forget the center of consciousness within you. Do not allow your mind to be scattered, and whatever you do, do it with full attention. Beneath all your deeds there should be awareness of the center of consciousness within.”
—Swami Rama, Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita
My ten-year-old daughter slams her fingers down on the piano in frustration. “I wish I didn’t have to do scales!” she says vehemently. Upstairs her sister grapples with a particularly difficult three-octave climb on the violin. Our eyes meet in sympathy. I know how she feels, but we both know that only she can do it. She sighs and turns back to the music. I watch her back fondly for a moment, reflecting that practice is often hard and tedious, and we sometimes simply don’t want to do it. We want the benefits of practice, the beautiful music, and we know that the way to do it is by sitting down each day and practicing, but still we are reluctant to do so.
Awareness is a simple concept, but practicing it isn’t always easy. The Bhagavad Gita presents a challenge: How can we carry the stillness of meditation into the clamor of everyday life?
For that short period of time, we hold back the future and the past and live in the present, basking in the beauty of the here and now.
Yoga and meditation teach us to focus our mind and be still. For a few precious minutes of each day we sit, breathe, and remember the consciousness within. It does not always come easily, but the simplicity of the practice can be beautiful. We know that it is important, and we recognize the peace that exists within us. That is why we meditate, why we go to our yoga classes. For that short period of time, we hold back the future and the past and live in the present, basking in the beauty of the here and now.
But what about all the other minutes of our lives? What is meditation for, if not to transform our lives, to allow us to experience the truth through action? Again and again I return to Swami Rama’s passage, and attempt to take up the challenge of the Bhagavad Gita.
In the process, I have discovered a little exercise, simple in itself, that I practice every day. It can be done with almost any activity—making sandwiches, tying your daughter’s shoelaces, typing on the computer. At different times in my day, I practice mindfulness in my actions. Here’s the exercise.
Take your attention to the point at which the action takes place. You’re making coffee for colleagues at work. Fill the kettle, watching the water stream out of the tap. Plug the kettle in, observing which of your senses is involved in the action. Open the coffee jar, spoon the coffee, add the milk. All the time focus on the point at which the action takes place; i.e. your hand, your eye, the water, etc. Observe what happens. Breathe.
Notice how the mind becomes still and one-pointed and how the activity is transformed. By focusing your attention on the action as you are performing it, you are gracing it with your presence. The action becomes skillful and selfless.
Like many yoga practices, the technique is simple. Try it in the marketplace and in the kitchen, in traffic jams and in the office. Mindfulness brings us into the beauty of the present, and transforms the actions that make up our lives into a form of meditation.