I noticed my cats smelling the air one day. It appeared that they were smelling layers of scents. Their noses twitched, and their heads rose up and down so subtly, one would have to stare as intently as I did to notice the nuances of their body movements.
I tried it! Gliding my head up, down, side to side, aware of sweet and pungent plant fragrances, sour smog smell, notes of exhaust fumes, damp wood. Next, on my hands and knees I smelled grass the way my cats smelled grass — with nostrils brushing each blade. I hoped my neighbors hadn’t seen me crawling in the yard. I could almost taste the candied smell spanning the musty dirt while the feathery strands tickled my nose, buried in the cool green carpet. Wow. Life is vibrant when we pay attention.
How present are we? In Buddhist meditation, mindfulness is practiced during every activity. When eating, just eat. Be aware of taste, texture, flavors, chewing, swallowing. When walking, pay attention to sounds, smells, sensations inside the body and external sensations, such as your feet contacting the ground. Paying attention reshapes our perceptions. Paying attention to my discomfort in Zazen (formal Zen sitting meditation with legs folded in lotus posture) presented a choice. Either resist, squirm, change position until another irritation arose somewhere else in my body and mind, or focus on my breath and pay attention to the feelings present in my legs. I noticed that pain was not constant, but a series of changing sensations rising and fading away. Sometimes the legs tingled, throbbed or burned, and sometimes pain disappeared completely. This is the nature of reality. Nothing is permanent. What we resist persists. We are consciousness, and where we project our consciousness will determine our experiences. When we believe our thoughts or emotions are permanent states and either cling to or resist them, we create suffering for ourselves. We can let our thoughts and emotions toss us around—or we can ride them like a surfer riding waves on an ocean. Our thoughts and tumultuous emotions, like the waves themselves, pass. Our mind, like the ocean, remains untouched. When we stay present with what arises and allow the experience and feeling of an angry emotion to run through us without reacting, repressing or mulling it over forever, we are no longer affected by the anger or any other random wave. Our compassion deepens, because our hearts stay open with whatever hits us, instead of shutting down in isolation, and becoming desensitized to the pain of others.
Our animals are content and balanced when we arrive with surfer mind – a mind that rides the waves – a happy, flexible mind, like their mind! Animals live in their bodies. They are present and allow whatever arises to pass. They are Zen masters. Our resistance creates hell. So when a fly buzzed around my head during another sitting meditation session, I chose to drop the mental fight, the desire for comfort and the impulse to shoo it away. I focused on my breathing as the insect grazed my ear canal. I sat perfectly still, present with the tickling and buzzing, and I dropped fear thoughts of the fly entering my ear or nose. I sat until the annoyance turned into the most melodious, soothing sound bath that I had ever heard. No sooner had I let go of resistance and merged with the insect’s joyful language, it flew away.
Mindfulness is the practice of aliveness. Presence is the spirit in which our animals experience life. Although we have peeks of awareness, we mostly pull inward, feel separate instead of integrated in the whole, and perceive the world from our self-centeredness. Animals receive the world in its wild magnificence and blossom into each day. They live in the moment. They don’t pack their days with negative residues from yesterday or anxieties about tomorrow.
We cannot hold onto the present moment, but we can notice our thoughts, let them pass like clouds in the sky and experience our illusive and eternal nature — peace and joy — the spirit and momentum in our lives, where our animals reside. Mindfulness may be just a crawl toward enlightenment.
Diana Dexter DelMonte
An excerpt, published in The Edge magazine, November 2013, from Diana’s book: Why You Should Listen When Your Animals Don’t: How Your Animal’s Behavior and Health Mirror Who You Are