A Bigger Pasture

Do you remember your transition from grade school to high school?  His very first day of school, when his mom left him in a classroom with some thirty other six-year olds he’d never seen before, was his first introduction to the world beyond the walls of home.

Home was claustrophobic.  His dad, the baby of his family, was born in that house in 1923.  Dad’s parents lived in the back half of the house, while mom and dad and (eventually) ten kids lived in the front.  He was fourteen years old, average height, overweight.  Smart as a whip, shy as a mouse.  He had a small circle of friends, and a sincere desire to become a Catholic priest – at least, he thought he did.  He was looking forward to a new start in a high school some 400 miles away.

The high school seminary did not have individual rooms.  About eighty-five students all slept on the same floor, freshmen and sophomores on the west end of the third floor, junior and seniors on the east end.  Each seminarian had their own twin size bed.  The metal bed frame included a couple of large metal drawers tucked away under the foot end of the bed.  Each also had their own dorm locker, about five feet tall and maybe two feet wide.

The lockers were lined up down the middle of the 70 foot wide floor, dividing the 140 foot length equally into north and south.  Because there were many more freshmen than sophomores, juniors or seniors, the upper classmen enjoyed slightly larger personal living spaces.  The older students, sophomores on the west side and seniors on the east side, occupied positions nearest the windows; freshmen and juniors were assigned the interior spaces.

Now if you had your own bedroom back home in Detroit or St. Louis or Chicago or Grand Rapids or Kansas City or wherever else in the Midwest you happened to come from, you might have wondered how the hell you were going to manage any degree of personal dignity living with a herd of teenagers not unlike the herds of cows well within sight of the high school.  But if you had shared a bedroom with at least four other brothers for the first fourteen years of your life – in his case, two or three of those years were shared in the same twin size bed with his younger brother – you could not begin to believe your good fortune.  His personal space had gone from something like thirty square feet to a hundred – with his own drawers and his own closet (locker) that belonged to him, that no one else (well, no one other than the fathers, of course) could access.  Yes, he was now part of a larger herd – and this pasture was a whole hell of a lot bigger than his last one.

What Is Your Intention?

When I meditate, I’m asked to notice sensation (“what is your body telling you right now?”), emotion (“what feelings are you experiencing right now?”), and intention (“why are you doing this?”)

The “intention” question strikes at the heart of my Catholic-upbringing, seminary-reinforced idea of meditation.  Within that context, meditation is solely a spiritual exercise, a practice one develops to recognize the larger world oozing and overflowing with God’s joy, love and happiness.

Since then I’ve re-imagined meditation in more exclusively “secular” or “humanistic” ways.  Spiritual meditation is a whole lot like secular “meditation,” although the latter is probably better cast under the term “reflection.”

Reflection, I believe, is a common arena shared by this world and the more-than-this world, where the immanent and the transcendent picnic together, get to know one another.  My move from seminary to philosophy shifted my attention from what it must be like for the other-world picnickers to what it’s like for the picnickers here and now.

But the reflection involved in critical analysis aims to be a purely cognitive activity; noncognitive elements such as joy, pain, suffering, passion, and love are impurities that contaminate thinking.  You could recognize them as variables, but only as other phenomena or experience to bracket, to set aside, so that the horse of reason has full throttle of your investigations.

Daily meditations have allowed me to accept these other aspects of my experience, to value them as much as thinking.  One of meditation’s key assumptions is that the mind tends to be so agitated, so intent on ignoring the emotional AND the physical, that we lose contact with these other core parts of being human.

The person leading the meditations said, “Keep in mind the others in your life; your intention will help you that much more when you want to do this not only for yourself but also for them.”  But not in another “self” way, as if you’re there for a bunch of selves.  What you’re there for is to become more aware of the connections between those selves, between you and your friend, between that friend and her husband, between that husband and his job, between … again and again and again.

The aim to be more mindful of these connections (rather than who or what they connect) for me proved to be a huge help in coping with, dealing with, managing my existence just a little better.

The other caveat I picked up from meditation is that, in becoming more mindful of these connections, it helps to not see yourself at the center of this vast network of connections.  Think of the solar system in relation to the Milky Way galaxy – it’s not at the center of things:  it’s a tiny dot among billions of tiny dots of a starfish swirling around a center defined by the collection of the dots.

That’s what I visualize when I’m asked, “what is your intention?”  My intention, I tell myself, is to become more mindful of the connections that make up this huge galaxy of awareness, human and more than human, me a dot among billions and billions of dots that make the swirling starfish possible in the first place.