The best part of my new teaching gig is how it has me back in New York City on a regular basis. I moved upstate just before baby number two came along, 16 years ago. Over time, my life has become firmly rooted up here, friends have moved away and I’ve had fewer and fewer reasons to commute down to the city.
I remember my meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, came to New York a few days after 9/11 from her home in Western Mass. Word spread quickly about a group of us meeting up with her somewhere around Washington Square Park. I walked from my apartment on 20th street. The remains of the World Trade Center were still oozing smoke into the sky south of the park like a sore that refused to stop bleeding. Or a smoldering fire that just couldn’t be put all the way out.
The city, in general, felt absolutely shell shocked and upside down.
What I remember most vividly from that day was Sharon sitting before us, taking a deep breath and then saying how "relieved" she felt to be in the city with us, her NYC community. It wasn’t what I expected her to say and for some reason that sentiment, which she probably said off the cuff, has stayed with me firmly over the years. I’ve reflected back on it many times. She didn’t lead the group meditation by talking about the horrors that had just taken place. She started off by acknowledging something that has felt deeply true to me throughout my life: I would rather be in the thick of it than watching things unfold from a safe distance.
Watching from a distance feels out of control. It can add a layer of loneliness or misunderstanding to a situation.
I didn’t realize how much I’ve been missing the city until I started regularly visiting again. I’d been allowing the broad stroke reports about what a mess it is post-pandemic to color my perspective to such an extent that no blank spaces had been left for my own experience.
We tend to do this with people too. It’s called “totalizing”. We sum another person up so thoroughly, with judgements or assumptions, that there is no room left for the full, delicate spectrum of their nuances or humanity.
I sent a friend a picture I’d taken on a dog walk once. It was a chilly winter day but there was a rock with the most vibrant green moss poking through the snow. I loved the contrast of aliveness in the midst of hibernation time. She wrote back: Your eyes are open to beauty today.
I was thinking of this sweet phrase as I walked across 83rd street toward Central Park last Thursday. My eyes were open to beauty. And I kept finding it everywhere as a result:
The displays of pumpkins and purple mums on townhouse stoops, groups of pigeons flying from one side of the street to another, a little girl pushing her doll in a toy stroller next to her nanny who pushed a real baby in a full size one, the fountain rising and falling in front of the Met, the displays of roses and lilies at the corner deli, the strangers who looked back and traded smiles with me, the two older men playing chess at an outdoor cafe and a girl my daughter’s age checking herself out in the subway as the doors closed and the dark tunnel turned every glass panel into a mirror.
There were ugly, sad things I noticed too that day in the city but I was committed to keeping my eyes open to beauty and allowing that beauty to pierce my heart. One doesn’t have to negate the other. In fact, either/or thinking like this is scarce and problematic for us. I could allow both to be true: the tough stuff and the beauty.
And I could observe, as you may notice in yourself too, that when I focused on the things that moved me, I felt more whole, more connected, more at peace. And when I felt my focus pulled toward the negative, my mood followed quickly, like a cart behind a horse.
There’s a premise in quantum physics that says: the way we look at a thing changes the thing we look at. I think the way we look at a thing changes us, too.
We consider our moods to be somewhat random but they’re way less random than we realize. Our thinking and our feelings are always deeply connected to one another.
The point here is not to split off and deny our reality when things are legitimately hard or frightening or overwhelming and impose wishful, rose-colored thinking. The point is to become aware of how powerful our focus is and to recognize that we are the ones who get to choose where we aim it, for how long, with what kind of accompanying narrative.
When we allow ourselves to be intimate with our lives, we feel more connected to the events unfolding in our experience and with the timing of our destiny as well.
I hope your eyes will be open to beauty this week. And that you allow what you see to move you, into ever-deepening alignment with your own healing.