Saturday, March 6, 2010

1001; and a Sneeze

If it was 1000 yesterday, it must be 1001 today, and counting... Entries, that is. In The Buddha Diaries. It's a good number. There were, as I recall, 1001 nights...

Anyway, this sneeze. It came during meditation this morning, and I thought it worth writing about, because its sudden arrival reminded me how valuable a sneeze can be. It announces its imminent eruption with a tiny tickle in the back of the nose--a tickle to which it's impossible not to pay attention. It comes as wake-up call to attention particularly in sangha, where you think, oh my god, I'm going to sneeze and disturb every other sitter in this circle. Got to stop it before it happens.

Well, you know how hard it is to stop a sneeze. The tickle persists, grows more insistent the more you try to hold it back. The passing seconds split up into milliseconds as you observe its progress, struggling, but helpless against its inevitability. This is a really good moment to heighten your attentive powers, watching and waiting for the sneeze to reach the surface. It arrives, explodes, sends shock waves throughout the body, and seemingly beyond, out into the surrounding space...

You now have the opportunity to watch the recession of the sneeze as you might watch the recession of the breath, only more dramatically, as a physical sensation. The initial shock waves are strong, wracking the whole system with their intensity. Then, gradually, stage by stage, they come in diminishing strength, like slowly fading ripples on the surface of a pond until, at last, they disappear forever and the body re-establishes its calm.

And sometimes--have you noticed?--it is possible, by dint of very careful, very minute attention to the detail of its presence, to stop the sneeze in mid-path, before it can arrive. It's kind of like catching a speeding bullet.

What a blessing! What a wonderful opportunity to learn better how to observe the breath which, after all, does exactly the same thing but with greater subtlety. It arises, gathers strength as it comes in and reaches a peak before it starts to recede and arrives at its most distant point of departure. If every breath could be a sneeze, we would be far more adept, I think, at paying attention to it.

There. I had not intended to write today. I'm off shortly for a full day's retreat and then, this evening, have a speaking gig downtown. Kind of a twelve-hour day. But then the sneeze came... So, friends, Gesundheit! And have a great weekend!

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