"When the soul wishes to experience something,
it throws an image of the experience out ahead
and enters into its own image."
~ Meister Eckhart
The return of bracing cool air heralding the arriving autumn carries an energy of recollection to our doorsteps, be it a life of new school years or closes of summer. Newly noticed invigorating winds are the counterparts of first ice creams in striking May hot sun. Making conscious note of cold air, just as we might suddenly be consoled by familiar and pleasing aromas, tells us we are awake to the elements around us. On this brisk evening, a brilliant and stifling midsummer day a few years back returns to mind. I was in the fields of the Shaker community’s lands, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, photographing the textures of their farms, wooden buildings, and skies- through the monochromatic medium of my five-by-seven field camera. Stacks of large film holders, bulky tripod, and thick black viewing cloth made this quite a labor, but those of us who favor these formats will carry on with unquestioning alacrity. While focusing a shot, from under the black cloth, I heard clinking and rustling sounds interrupting the otherwise silent landscape. To my amazement and gratitude, it was a Shaker, who had traversed the entire field, carrying a pitcher of jingling iced water and one glass for me. This gesture has enduringly stayed with me, not only as a visual memory of hot dry fields, perspired brow, and refreshing water, but as a complete spectrum of immense yet simple grace. It was a gift I would not have considered asking for, yet grander than I would have imagined.
Perhaps it is no longer satisfactory to vaguely look on, when we might choose to really see and observe. Persevering to listen to what speaks to our lives causes us to experience more than perfunctory hearing and hasty interrupting would have obstructed. Indeed, it becomes an easy temptation to sleepwalk through our days, after the most cursory glance at this culture and all that stands to simultaneously bombard and lull the sublime human soul. Rather than to define what it means to be awake, and thus edge into the realm of cliché, my thoughts turn to exploring what such consciousness does. Often I find my steps slowing to a halt, for various reasons, challenging me to break through outdated perceived limitations to my thinking- which is to say a transcendence of obstacles and a calling forth of possibilities. A very plain example is found in the major housecleaning and downsizing of material accumulations I am pursuing: If I’m really awake, I’ll notice the difference between what I still need and what is no longer needed. What is essential and what is expendable. Indeed, beyond sifting through personal possessions, the grander picture is a recognition of what and who is around me. An awakened vision that nurtures a sensitivity to life and rises above cynicism.
Being awake to the sounds, tastes, air, and Spirit that is around me, is a conscious choice. But then, is the state of being attentive a thing that can be switched off and back on again? I don’t believe we can assess things of the spirit quite so mechanically. Perception is cultivated with time and experience, and we can surely motion in the direction of strengthened hearts and minds. And there are surely times when I am more and less aware of the substance of what is happening. My inner life has had some necessary jolts when I’ve been brought to see my life as evolving- rather than in the safety of stagnancy. Eventually, the wavering settles into a more consistent conscientiousness. We begin to innately know the value of varying our routines, seeing things in ways that unfold and reflect, and comprehending how the fine antithesis of retaining is the act of releasing.
"I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.
Nor in great emotion.
It was more like when a man, after a long sleep,
becomes aware that he is awake."
~ C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy