I remember reading somewhere for a developmental psychology class a description of how a baby learns language. Picture the little one sitting in her crib on a summer morning, experiencing the sunlight dappling the walls, the feel of the breeze coming in the open window on her skin, the pressure of the mattress under her bottom, feel and smell of her forearm resting against her chubby thigh. Maybe there is the sound of birdsong also coming through the window, the sound of the curtain fluttering gently. There is the temperature in the room, warm but refreshing. And there are the smells of sunlight on wood, grass freshly mown in its green-ness, smell of roses perhaps just coming into bloom. And all the human smells of a baby’s room. Meanwhile she is feeling pleasure, perhaps anticipation as a bird approaches the window, perhaps delight in the movement of the dappled shadows on her bedroom wall. Baby is having a multidimensional, multisensory experience, rich in color and texture, sound, smell, depth, shape, feeling; rich in ways we can no longer even imagine.
Then mother comes in, sees the baby looking at the window. She delights in her baby and this opportunity to teach. “See the sun? That’s the sunlight coming in. Yellow sun.” In order to learn the language of her mother, in order to join the human race as a socialized, communicative being, the baby must divorce herself from the richness of the experience of the current moment, and focus her attention on the more limited visual concepts of “yellow sun.” There is no choice for the baby, as there was no choice for the mother, or her mother before her, or the many mothers before them. It is how we learn to communicate – by separating ourselves from our sensory and internal reality and incorporating words to describe those experiences so that others can understand us.
We all have experienced this separation from the garden of Eden. There is an inward remembrance of what it was like to live in this incredibly rich, multidimensional world in which we experienced all that is. We hold that remembrance under layers of words, concepts, intellectual schema, belief systems, cultural mores, social constructs, and intentional learning. If we are blessed to have a spiritual awareness, we may seek the experience of intimate knowing in nonphysical ways, through experience of Spirit, God, or Universe. And yet, there continues to be this rich, physical world of which we are only infinitesimally aware. And because we are physical creatures, with bodies that sense, we are lonely for that experience of intimate physical knowing.
We spend the rest of our lives trying to regain it. But we get confused about what it is we want. We thrill our senses with extreme sports, drugs, sex, driving too fast; and for some of us, this even becomes removed from our personal physical experience through the use of telecommunications and the entertainment industry. Yet while it thrills, the thrill doesn’t seem to satisfy for long. Perhaps, if we are spiritually inclined, we come to believe that the world of spirit is superior to the world of body, that what we seek can only be gained through connecting to the world of the unseen.
But that is a false solution, a partial truth. The world of the unseen is important and precious and transcendent. We should cherish the life of the Spirit, and reverence it, and open our hearts and minds to it, be stilled by it, led by it, taught by it, and prodded to action by it. But we are not yet living wholly in the world of Spirit. Our spirits are living in bodies right now, in a three-dimensional reality. We are not only transcendent beings, but immanent ones. And I believe we have these sensing bodies for a reason. There is something critical about learning to love and be present to the physical reality of the senses.
Mindfulness helps me learn to reclaim that rich sensory experience of the prelingual baby. Mindfulness practice, breathing in and noticing, breathing out and noticing, is helping me learn to be fully present to the physical reality of the moment I find myself in. It is my hope that it is helping me learn to love better.
Breathing in, I notice the green of the spring grass. Breathing out, I feel the grass between my toes. Breathing in, I feel the moisture of the grass, the slightly sharp edges of its texture. Breathing out, I feel tender love for the tender grass. Breathing in, I notice the pain on a stranger’s face. Breathing out, I pray for her. Breathing in, I feel the sun on my arm. Breathing out, I notice the sun is my relation.
Brother Lawrence called it practicing the presence of God. The Zen Buddhists and the therapy models call it mindfulness. Whatever we call it, it can help us regain the garden of Eden – now, here, in this life, and in this body. It can help us become as little children again. Blessed be.