Last month, I talked about letting go of time to be wholly in the present moment. Worrying about a few pieces of the past or future disconnects us from the present moment, and also leads us to ignore the rest of the past and future as well.
Being wholly in the present moment is an experience of mystery and delight; each present moment, taken by itself, connects to all the moments, past and future. The immediacy of the present moment and the eternity of all moments have more in common with each other than they do with our usual ways of understanding and experiencing time.
Meditation can be a way of connecting opposites, both practically and mystically, and can help us see objects, experiences, and even ourselves in a wider context, with a more holistic vision.
Here’s a practical example: beginning drivers often feel overwhelmed with the amount of information coming at them. They feel like they need to be looking in all directions at once, watching every other car, looking for traffic signals and signs, and monitoring the dashboard. Trying to pay attention to everything makes it difficult for them to pay attention to any single thing.
As they learn to drive, they learn to limit their attention to only a few things at a time. They learn where to look to anticipate what’s going to happen, and they learn what parts of their visual field they can ignore. They learn when to check the dashboard and when to keep their eyes up on the road; they know when the rearview mirror is important and when it’s only a distraction.
We all learn ways to filter our attention: we can pay attention to everything, which means we end up not noticing anything, or we can pay attention to some things and ignore others.
Meditation lets us learn to use those filters in different ways. When we narrow our attention to the present moment, we can perceive that moment’s uniqueness. Such perception paradoxically widens our attention; we become more receptive not to the everyday noise that surrounds us but to the broader mystical context of each moment in time.
One meditation technique that I enjoy uses a juxtaposition of opposites and invites contemplation of similarities and differences to both harness the straying nature of the mind and emphasize connections such as this. The first time I did it, I was focusing on an arrangement of stones that consisted of mostly jagged, dark pieces of shale with a few round, clear marbles scattered throughout. Any similar contrast of yin/yang, dark/light, hard/soft, or similar will work.
Start out contemplating one end of the polarity, and when your attention wanders, bring it back to the other end of the polarity. Consider the dark, flat pieces of shale, and then shift to the round, translucent marbles. How do they express polarity? How are they similar? Is there a unity between the differences? As you keep doing this, shifting between the two becomes easier, and eventually the union of the contrasts becomes the main point of contemplation.
This contemplation on contrasts is a way of deliberately shifting what is in the foreground of our vision, what it is we’re paying attention to. When we contemplate one piece of a contrast, the counterpart is in the background; reversing the situation shows us that our attention determines what we perceive as foreground and background.
A beginning drawing exercise is to draw not an object but the shape of the space around it. This is another example of switching one’s focus to the background rather than the foreground. Exploring the contrasts between them, where they meet and interact, lets us understand both better. It leads to a more holistic vision that embraces both.
Starhawk described the difference between this holistic vision and normal awareness as the difference between seeing with a flashlight and seeing by starlight. The starlight vision sees patterns and shapes; it brings out the relationships between things rather than separating the world into foreground (which is attended to) and background (which is ignored).
Cultivating this alternative mode of awareness can give us a different perspective on ourselves as well as on our perception of time. Normally, I have myself in the foreground of my awareness: what am I doing, thinking, feeling? What do I do next?
As Pagans, many of us are familiar with a technique known as “grounding and centering,” and although there are many different ways to do this, most of the ones I’ve encountered are essentially adaptations of this meditation technique to reconnect our selves with our contexts.
Some people prefer to ground and center by getting in touch with the Earth first, usually through visualization, and then to draw on that connection to feel calm, collected, and refreshed within themselves. Others go about it in the opposite order, by sinking into their own consciousness first, and when they’ve touched their own core, then they connect to their surroundings. Either way is valid.
When we ground and center, we recognize how we exist in concert with our surroundings, and being more firmly aware of ourselves helps us connect to our whole world, just as being present in the moment helps us connect to all moments. The extremes, self and all, connect in the same paradoxical way as now and forever. If we widen our attention to our broader context first, we also end up with a better awareness of ourselves as part of that context by shifting our focus of attention away from ourselves.
We are often prompted to “ground and center” when beginning a group working. This instruction is more than a reminder to participants individually; it’s a necessary preface to asking individuals to open up to others. What connects us, after all, is our shared context, and locating ourselves as individuals within that larger situation prepares us to recognize and connect with others in a deeper way than we could if we approached them from only our isolated point of view. Recognizing the shared context lets us see what we already have in common with others, rather than seeing them as totally separate, isolated individuals.
We filter our attention in many ways in everyday life; learning to use those filters for our own purposes gives us valuable tools. Meditation and the specific practice of grounding and centering are ways we can cultivate the holistic vision, the starlight vision, that lets us connect with our context.