“A life is just the history of what we give our attention to,” says a character at a funeral in the novel At Last by Edward St. Aubyn. Another character chides him for being so stark—we impact others without knowing it. Yet I know what he means, don’t you?
As the days grow shorter, it’s impossible to miss the impermanence of life. The days slip away into darkness. Often, I’ve had the haunted sensation at the end of a busy day that I didn’t do what I meant to do, and that I didn’t really mean what I did. A feeling can come that is like a call from another world, to come down out of all my thoughts and distractions, to pay attention.
Someone once asked the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano. Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean.”
How do we pick the notes we really mean? How do we feel what we think and think what we feel? Sensation is key. Paying attention fully requires the body. We need to return to a mindful, real-time awareness of all of how it feels to being hearing, sensing, knowing in this body right now. We need to include real-time awareness of reality as it unfolds for us right now. Let me phrase this in a slightly different way for yet more emphasis: for attention to be complete, we need to include an awareness of the body. We need presence.
Meditating and doing some yoga last Sunday in Tarrytown, just up the street from Sleepy Hollow, it was impossible not to make an association with the Headless Horseman. Without mindful awareness, we going charging around heedlessly, driven by our fears and desires. As paradoxical as it may seem, mindfulness grounds us in the body.
Halloween is linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-an or sow-in), which is often called the Celtic New Year. The festival of Samhain celebrated the end of the lighter half of the year and the beginning of the darker half. The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the unknown becomes very thin this time of year, allowing spirits of all kinds to pass through—allowing darkness to enter the light. The spirits of ancestors were welcomed and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off, often by young men dressed in white wearing masks or blackened or veiled faces.
The point of the costumes was to avoid harm by disguising oneself as a fearsome spirit. Most of us have tried this—lashing out in anger or acting fearsome when we feel vulnerable or afraid. Mindfulness can create a thin space. Returning to sensation, to a mindful awareness of the experience of being in a body in real time, can help us be with what scares us.