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Ethan Nichtern

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A Meditation for the Fall

Posted: 09/09/2012 10:17 am

I always consider Labor Day and the beginning of September to be a more pragmatic and realistic New Year's occasion than whatever happens in January. In fact, many people who question our Gregorian calendar point to the fact that New Year's in January simply makes no sense, considering the rhythm of the seasons, or the way our cultural and economic cycles of activity are actually arranged. Now is the end of summer, harvest time. From that point of view, Labor Day is a chance to harvest the results of whatever has happened in our lives this year. For many people I have spoken to (myself included), this harvest feels exceptionally rough and emotional. A lot of things fell apart this summer.

Now is a good time to clear out some mental baggage, purify any sense of guilt or remorse about what we did or didn't do over the summer, and reset our intention for the fall.

According to the teachings on karma and mindfulness, clarity around our intention, along with developing a realistic view, sets the stage for everything else that we are able to do. Intention, sankalpa in Sanskrit, is at the very start of the path of awakening, and deserves primary attention because all of our thoughts, expressions, and actions are born of the invisible scaffolding of our intention. In fact, whenever you feel like nothing is going your way and despair that you can't control a single outcome in the external world, that moment of nihilism is the best time to focus on intention, which is the greatest long-term force at our disposal. Sometimes the link between intention and any visible outcome feels like a turtle traversing the distance between Earth and Alpha Centauri. But nothing is hopeless -- to be on the path of mindfulness is to get over our addiction to short-term fixes and to always become a student of long-term contentment. To be a student of meditation is to take to heart that short-term fixes are usually illusions. To make real change, we need an actual path. Any genuine path takes time.

I find that with intention, it's not only a matter of clarity; it's also a matter of simplicity. Most of the time, we simply want to practice more things than we can practice, take on more than we can take on, achieve more than is possible to achieve. This is especially true if you live in an exciting and overstimulating city. The wish to do more things than we can actually do comes from a positive place -- it's because we love life, recognize impermanence and want to experience as much as we possibly can before it all slips on by. That's why we end up doing WAY too many things and driving ourselves nuts with busy-ness. Sadly, when we try to do everything, we find ourselves doing much less than if we just took on a few things.

Here's the exercise in simplicity and clarity of intention that I often introduce to students when I work with them closely. Let's say that each day you can only do five things. Each of these five things must be done with the view of a practice, a process that we engage in to develop our heartminds and cultivate the qualities we want to embody in this precious and not-long-enough life of ours. You can only do five practices every day. Not six, not eight. Five.

Let's assume for the purpose of this exercise that the basics -- such as food, shelter, and medicine -- are all taken care of each day. Let's assume that after that, you can do five things, each of which is viewed as a practice, which means each is a process where daily engagement in the process is considered more important than outcome. If you only had five practices for the fall, what would they be? Just for fun -- here are my five. Good luck!

1) The daily practice and study of meditation and yoga -- I know that if I don't do these, nothing else is going to go very well.

2) Being as present as I can for family and close friends.

3) Writing a little bit every day.

4) Preparing as well as I can for teaching and relating to students.

5) Engaging as mindfully and compassionately as I can in this important and transformative political season.

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