In a commentary on practice by my teacher Albert Low, I was surprised to read that he recommended looking down rather than at the scenery as one walked in nature, at least for the beginning student, in the “first fifteen or twenty years.” Since much of the long trip I take each summer is taken up with responding to the landscape, I was taken aback. I read carefully as he explained that “it is neither the trees nor the birds, the river nor the blue sky that weaves its magic: it is awareness. When we go out for a walk like this we adopt a particular mind-set, and this is compatible with practice. With the same mindset one can walk through the slums of London and feel the same communion.” One can be open and aware in nature or anywhere. We may hear the rustle of leaves; better, we may hear a police siren.
It is true that when I travel, my mind is more open and attentive, particularly to dramatic and beautiful natural things. Less so, when I am home. It’s not entirely true that I lack attention, since I have worked on being present over the years, but still, there is a differential.
It might be good, I thought, to take a look at my patterns of awareness as I stayed here in Vancouver. Certain things draw my attention on my walks with my dog and cat: flowers and shrubs, bamboo and fern borders, projections in the sidewalk, lawn ornaments, crows.
Animals capture my interest—a cat on the porch swing, ae little spaniel being walked down the block, fish in a koi pond, a dead squirrel this morning, which my cat Murphy sniffed and pawed. The squirrels that leap to tree trunks and Rex follows, jerking me round. Some of the animal-watching is protective—cats and squirrels may inspire a lunge on the lead. Other things are to my advantage too—trash cans to deposit the sack of dog poop, houses with for sale signs and information sheets (I have rarely found one I could afford), cars coming down the streets we cross.
Interesting differences in houses—roof lines, porches, towers and balconies, stonework, latticework, arbors, palm trees, brushy yards with weeds and overgrown hedges and trees hiding whatever is behind, squares of lavender or lily. Folk art—banners and prayer flags, lawn ornaments, screened images of birds (there are several on the walls around the neighborhood), hand-made signs. A child’s table with a single chair in a shady, postage stamp backyard. A paradise of wagons, three-wheelers, plastic playhouses glimpsed through the slats in a back gate.
Food being grown—grapes in arbors and along fences, espaliered apple trees complete with rounding fruit, herbs in raised beds, drying tangles of sugar snap peas, red gleams of cherry tomatoes, blueberry bushes, blackberry patches left to fruit among weeds, containers of lettuce plants and shaggy tomato bushes on decks and balconies, corn in a row along an alley fence with twine holding it upright, bruised apples on the concrete and green balls of English walnut.
Water in any form—the elaborate stream and falls at Anthem Park between apartment buildings a block away, the shine of something spilt along the asphalt near a dumpster, the shrr of water down a backyard fountain. When it rains, puddles and mud and beading on cars.
Stories—the two women, one black, with tight slicked hair, one a haggard blonde, smoking on the curb outside a residential home. The rose with a short stem abandoned on a metal table outside a Subway early on a Sunday. Underwear and jeans discarded beside the sidewalk, now covered with city grit and leaves. I look down into the gardens of Columbia House, which I believe is assisted living, and see an old man turning onto a path in his automated scooter or a group of women under a canopy playing cards. A man stops to let Rex enter the street, then waves and drives on as Rex veers to inspect a sapling. A young neighbor makes his slow way down the sidewalk, letting his cat trail behind. They cross a street and climb the steps to a porch.
Having read my teacher’s comment about everyday awareness, I let my mind open wider this morning. So many colors and textures to the sidewalk—smooth pale gray in newly paved spots, the gritty, moss-embedded dark of sections that date back to the twenties and have been lifted awry by tree roots, fish scale patterns on sloping corners where bicycles and wheel chairs need access, or red-painted metal plates there with raised polkadots for traction. Cracks and concrete patches, lines of grass or moss, a rain-melted wash of chalk, a scattering of dried fir needles. Someone has sprayed mysterious turquoise markings down the center of the alley—repairs intended?
To some degree, I always participate in what Rex sees. What has he pulled toward? what is he sniffing? He has a much different view of the world. The base of trash cans and dumpsters call him, and mysterious scents. He stops at bamboo piled at the side of the alley, and we walk over the blonde blades which have fallen across the alleyway. He sniffs and paws at a spot like any other in the mulch of a flowerbed.
Today as my mind softens, our trip down the alley is a progression of sniffings, at little nubbins of green with purplish flowers, hairlike fibers of flower or weed, the corner of a gate. On my walks I can tell myself stories about what I attend to (why does the family have peace doves and Tibetan prayer flags, are they pacifists? I remember picking brown-eyed Susans like these for my mother.) Rex’s world is full of things I cannot easily put into words. Since I cannot participate in their olfactory significance, they become random dips into the texture of life—arch of grass, board dark with rot, splay of pebbles, shadowy brown irregularity. Rex is showing me the ten thousand things that make up life—really, below the ten thousand things, not to emptiness but at least to things less codeable in language. That is valuable practice, I think. At the least, it feels good to do.
—Sarah Webb, 7/27/2014