June 2010

 

Making the Rooster Crow

We use an alarm clock to rouse us from sleep when we need to wake up. To awaken spiritually, we also need an alarm clock, but it needs to do more than ring once and go silent. We need a rooster that just keeps crowing. 

Our waking day is a long succession of seconds (about 65,000, to be precise). Being awake means being awake for each one of them. While we tend to dwell on large aims—the realization of God, becoming a better person, achieving emotional freedom, making the law of attraction work for us, and so on—without specific efforts these attainments exist only in an abstract and imaginary future. Meanwhile, the seconds keep ticking by. To actually inhabit these many moments as we must, the tool of alarm clocks, or “small aims,” is immensely practical. 

Although small aims can seem like small stuff, it is exactly this anchoring within an individual moment that we most need. Small aims not only reliably bring us into the moment, but they prove to us (if we still need convincing) that our lives are ruled by powerful momentums that often make our dreams of awakening into just that— just dreams. 

For example, I set an aim not to touch my head, and then find myself touching my hair, eyes, nose continually throughout the day. I decide to put my dollar bills all facing the same way in my wallet, only to open it and find them facing in different directions again. This raises real questions. Do we have the will to do what we decide we are going to do? Are we present to our own routine behavior?

Small aims speak to mundane moments, but it is just such moments that make up our lives.

“All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy,
and great things in that which is small.”
Lao-Tzu

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What kind of small, invisible aims can we set? Here are some examples:

  • Say “yes,” not “yeah” (the first step is to hear ourselves speaking).
  • Don’t interrupt a person who is speaking (a challenge even for the meek and mild!).
  • While reading, turn the pages at the top corner (to combat getting lost in words).
  • Each time you grip a doorknob or handle, give it a long squeeze (stop barreling forward!).
  • Keep your elbows off tables and desks (do you know what you are leaning on?).
  • When you hand something to someone, make eye contact with him or her (be a human being, not a forklift).

 

The point is to be creative and persistent.

Creativity requires looking at the range of our behaviors and then setting alarm clocks in different areas. It means addressing specific manifestations of how we speak, move, eat, drive, dress, relax… you name it. Small aims can also be strategically “distributed” among the various settings we routinely inhabit: the bathroom, kitchen, car, office, gym. Aims can also be related to more internal psychological events. For example, we can set an aim to see when we are judging someone, when we are contradicting another, or when we are avoiding something. All of us, even the most apparently controlled among us, regularly enact behaviors that we are not aware of and do not control.

We can also set aims “on the fly.” When driving, we might decide to try to appreciate the variety of trees that we pass. At the computer, we might try to feel the articulation of our fingers as if we were playing the piano, rather than pounding the plastic into submission. The point is to formulate small aims, work with them, and then keep working with them. This is where persistence comes in.

While we must regularly set small aims of our own, in a School some aims are set for us. In the Fellowship of Friends, for example, the teacher has created a continually rotating set of exercises over the past four decades that has penetrated every nook and cranny of our experience.

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One area that has received particular attention is the dining table, a place where our teacher says we most commonly forget our Selves. Our exercises have not addressed what we eat, but rather, how we conduct ourselves in the social and instinctive arena of food-taking.

For example, we’ve had an exercise to keep our feet flat on the floor throughout a meal (and listened to the voice inside that feels cheated of relaxation … and watched how our ankles somehow managed to get crossed again). Another exercise: put the knife and fork down after every three bites. Yet another, do not speak to someone while he or she is chewing. The point, of course, is not to change our external behavior (although obedience has its value, and any self-control we can acquire is beneficial). The point is to learn how to bring our wandering attention into the living present, again and again.

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Over time, the more golden threads of awareness that we weave into the fabric of our day, the more we experience a continuum of mindfulness and presence. With meditation, prayer, or yoga we might focus ourselves temporarily, but the real heat of battle lies in the remaining 60,000 (or so) seconds of our day. In the monastic tradition daily life is ritualized in order to cultivate attention. With small aims we introduce a self-generated, self-motivated dimension of ritual to the more disordered lives that we lead in the modern world. Such aims are like so many prayer beads that we can finger in the course of our day.

Most interestingly, the success we experience as these alarm clocks ring can be monitored and measured. Peter Ouspensky, the student of George Gurdjieff who himself attained the consciousness of a teacher, wrote that we can measure our presence in terms of its frequency, duration, and depth. That is, we can be fleetingly, sporadically present. We can be present for longer moments that are also more frequent. And finally, we can be more deeply present. This deepening of presence is the exciting part. This is where the experience of being present can move from a prosaic, behavioral level to a metaphysical, spiritual level.

The more we become present, the more the many small moments we have claimed acquire a cumulative power that becomes a gateway to consciousness. As our being becomes more focused on the state of presence than on what we are doing while we are present, we increasingly apprehend the spiritual nature of consciousness itself.

Suppose you set an aim to be present while tying your shoes. At first, there may be the awareness of a rushed person tying a shoe in a swift sequence of forced movement. With time and practice, tying your shoes might become something you do differently, something you do while feeling the relaxed entirety of your being. While still “just tying your shoes,” you might now admire the amazing dexterity of your fingers, or appreciate the life story of the shoes you are wearing. You might become aware of the room you are in and the weather outside, the fact that you are alive and that time is passing . . .

Or imagine having this aim: To close the car door, fasten your seat belt, sit back comfortably, take a deep breath, stretch your arms—and then put the key in the ignition. Just think what this kind of aim might yield over time.

These unassuming moments, which are passing even as you read this, constitute the true realm of our spiritual possibility. Not some future evolution, not some future betterment, not some future fulfillment.

The “power of now” has no effect on tomorrow, or even today, but only upon this present moment. And using the “power of small aims” is a practical way to break ourselves of our addiction to an imaginary future.

“The trouble is, you think you have time.”
Buddha

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By performing small aims faithfully, we work against our tendency to sleep while dreaming that we are awake. Best of all, we are no longer lying in bed with our head under the pillow, waiting for the rooster to crow. We have learned how to make the rooster crow, and how to keep it crowing. And while Providence and Higher Help are surely on the side of anyone who strives to awaken, that does not absolve us from making the practical efforts that are within our power, and that hold such great possibilities.

“Truth’s time is now.”
Albert Schweitzer

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