Sacraments of Sensation

I wrote this little mindfulness manual for the senses in 2006. Just rediscovered it, and it feels even more relevant today. Sharing...

"Eternity was in our lips and eyes..." (Shakespeare)

"Those who gained enlightenment by seeing blossoms or hearing sounds, achieved it through the body." (Dogen, Father of Zen)

These are practices of wonder. Wonder is the one mode of consciousness which computer and nanno technology will never fathom or imitate. I offer these teachings for the healing of the earth, through the reunion of the Spirit and the Body. These practices do not take you above or beyond your body and its sensations. They consecrate the body, the ear, eye and skin. They make a sacrament of sensation. "Taste and see that the Lord is good!" (Psalm 34:8)

Do not romanticize these practices. You don't need a tropical island or a mountain shrine. You are called to attend the stark and the ordinary: a crow on a withered branch, a chimney against the clouds. When you bathe your perception in a breath of compassion and steep it in mere awareness, you open a window between God and creation, through which world-healing powers flow. You are the window.

Use these practices even in the work place to save the mind from fragmentation: the stress caused by information-overload and multi-tasking. "Salvation" means nothing if we cannot save our own awareness. These practices are designed to re-collect your energy and re-connect you to your core-silence. They are momentary Sabbaths. In Hebrew, the word Sabbath does not mean a day of the week; it means, "stop." Do you have the courage to stop rushing into the future and open your heart to what Is?

Do not practice these meditations all day: only for moments, as short bursts of refreshment, expansion, and cleansing. The practices prepare you for sharper focus and on-task clarity as your intellect returns to work. But during the practice itself, the intellect remains at rest, simply witnessing phenomena without analyzing them...


Close your eyes and listen to the faintest furthest sound you can hear. A fruitful time for this practice is early in the morning, as you are waking from sleep and birds are beginning to sing. Let your attention expand to the horizon of hearing. Let the faintest sound's vanishing lead you into deeper silence. Continue to listen in silence. Let each sound that arises be an invitation to the silence that follows it. You cannot be anywhere else but here when you truly listen. In pure listening, past and future vanish. Listening brings you to Presence.


Go outside during a break from work, even if you are in the middle of a city. If you can't go outside, just sit by a window. Look at the sky. Find a patch of blue. Look deeply into the blue of the sky until your eyes gaze beyond the vanishing point. You are gazing at infinity. Your eyes will unfocus and relax. They will focus on no-thing. This relaxes many muscles in your face. Breathe in, then follow your exhalation out through your eyes toward the infinite depth of blue. After a few breaths, close your eyes and experience this same vastness inside you.


In a gathered meditation circle, I do this exercise with grapes. Jesus did it with bread and wine. You can do it with any fresh natural food. Even a sip of water can be magic.

Hold the grape in your hand and look at it carefully. Notice every detail. If this grape were placed in a bowl with a hundred other grapes, what would you look for to recognize this particular grape? Now look even more deeply into the grape. It's liquid contains the rain, the clouds, the sky that watered it. It's skin and meat contain the minerals of the earth. Many trees and flowers and animals have died and returned to the loam to form the nutrients in this grape. The fire of the sun sparkles inside this grape, photons of light from the stars. This grape contains all the elements: earth, water, fire, sky. This grape is full of death and rebirth.

This grape contains humanity too. Many human hands have touched it: hands of laborers, packers, shippers and grocery store clerks. The juice of this grape runs with human toil and tears. The soft meat of this grape is woven from the web of commerce, stretched across a continent to bring you sweetness. Noticing all this is prayer: grace unspoken.

Lift the grape to your nostrils and smell it. Now hold this grape in your palm and honor its gaze. Eat. Taste. Pure wordless sensation, without the label, "grape." Swallow.

Sit quietly and observe sensations in the mouth and tongue, the bouquet blossoming and fading like the colors in a sunset. Follow these flavors and sensations until they dissolve into Presence, into the silence of Being without desire.

The Window of Personhood

You are bringing Spirit into Matter. In the moment of sensation, as the external object enters your senses, your consciousness flows out to meet it, blessing and infusing its material energy with radiance. What if the object of your sensation is not a grape, but a person?

The dynamics of the following process are precisely the same as the dynamics of meditation. You are meditating upon the presence of a person, in the midst of relationship, just as you would meditate upon your own breath, or the face of God in your heart.

There are two aspects to classic Buddhist meditation, called "samatha" (stillness) and "vipassana" (insight). In the Christian tradition these are called "recollection" and "union." First, your awareness becomes empty and free of monologue. You are silently focused on the object of meditation. Secondly, your consciousness penetrates into the object, merging with its energy and essence.

Face to face with the mystery of another human being, rest in silence. Spend a few breaths gazing into the eyes of the other, breathing her into your heart. I mean this literally. Breathe in your partner’s face, placing your attention in the region of your heart as you gaze into those eyes. Inhale their pain, their weariness, their sorrow. Soon you will see the little child beneath the lines of anguish in that face. Breathe in the child. Gaze upon that face as you would gaze upon a flower, just as it is, without judgment, without the slightest motive to change or improve.

Now as your exhale, breathe out a wave of compassion and healing. You need not try to feel it. Compassion arises as the gift of emptiness.

As you gaze into her eyes, do not resist the movement out of yourself, into them. Have courage: surrender to your flow into the depths of the other. You will dissolve into the silence, the stillness, at the core of her being. And you will become gently disoriented: for this is the very core of your own being also!

In this moment of pure dissolving, you in relationship, yet beyond relationship. You meditate upon that Being who is both Self and Other. You can"love thy neighbor as thyself," for the other IS your self. This meditation on the heart of relationship will transform both of you into one radiance.

Do this even with a difficult relationship: in the home, on the street corner, or in a business meeting. In a troubled relationship, we usually protect our heart by withdrawing into our head, the artificial world of mind. We construct a gray parallel world of thought, where there is safety in merely commenting on the real world, instead of living in it. Then consciousness gets stuck inside us and cannot flow out into the other.

Feel that stuck-ness. Feel it as a sensation burning and scraping all through your body. You really don't need to think about what you will say, or what the other person says. The “meaning” of the words is quite superficial: it will change according to our emotional state. It is only an interpretation. The words are theirs, but the hearing is ours.

So just for a few moments, it is more fruitful to let go of thoughts and words, and silently observe the other’s face. Abandon your own agenda and be empty. Gaze into the other's eyes, breathing in, breathing out. Observe fear rising in your heart. Just to observe that fear is courage. Then fear dissolves into energy, energy dissolves into calm, and calm gives rise to compassion. In this moment of acceptance, the other's demeanor will soften.

If that person continues to be tense, you can soften the space around them. Let your primary focus shift to the space around their body. No matter how agitated the person is, the space around them is still. Artists call this negative space. Allow your awareness to expand and enfold the other’s body. Infused with your transparency, that space grows soft and quiet. The enfolding cloud of your awareness will penetrate that person's mind and body. Enjoy this practice even with your "enemy." This is secret silent work. You don’t have to let the other know you are doing it.

Thich Nath Hanh once said, “We practice deep listening, compassionate listening, in order to relieve suffering. We don’t listen in order to judge, to blame, to argue: we just listen with all our heart, because we know that the fact of mere listening can bring about transformation and healing.... Compassionate listening is what we desperately need in our world.”

Touching the Sun

You've been working inside, staring at your computer for many hours. Perhaps you've had days and days of gray weather with no sunlight. Then the sun comes out. Is this not grace? Is this not a sacrament? How will you celebrate?

All of your energy comes from the sun. Your food is energized by photons of sunlight. Whatever you use for fuel, its warmth and fire originate in the sun. When you feel depleted, you can use this sunny day to re-energize. I write this on the first day of Spring, 2006, twenty minutes from the vernal equinox!

Go outside. If you can't go out, open the window and stand in the sunlight. Close your eyes and agree to be completely here in your body. Be aware of your breath-body, each breath filling you from the soles of your feet up to your eyeballs. Absorb the radiance dancing through your eyelids, the sun's energy bombarding your nerves with billions of photons. You can "see" this even though your eyes are closed, because the sun's energy will stimulate your optic nerve through the skin. There is nothing esoteric about this, nothing to imagine.

Using your inhalation as a vehicle for the sunlight, breathe the solar fire in through your forehead. This will cleanse and tune the pineal gland and you can feel the energizing tingle in every cell of your brain. Breathe this stream of sunlight down through your lungs, to your heart and solar plexus. It will irradiate your internal organs and nourish every cell in your body.

Exhale through your solar plexus, offering the stream of fire back to the sun. Breathe deeply and slowly, luxuriating in each breath of light. Do it seven times. Seven circles of sunlight in to your forehead and out through your belly. Afterward, spend a few minutes sitting in silence, merged with the sun in your body. Or if you are outside, take a walk, greeting and warming the earth with every footstep.

Touching the Planet

"Nowadays people breath through their nostrils. In ancient times, the masters breathed through the soles of their feet." ~Earliest Chinese text on Tai Chi

Your skin is an organ, the largest organ in your body. When we speak of touching, we usually wait for something or someone to press our skin. We are not used to being in constant touch with the air, the sun, the moisture around us. Some of us are so de-sensitized and numb, we can't even feel the ground when we walk on the earth. A great Buddhist teacher, Thich Nat Hanh, said that the real miracle is not to walk on water, but to walk on the earth. Sioux Indian sage, Black Elk, gave us this advice: "Let every step you take upon the earth be as a prayer."

Go outside in the hour before dawn, or early in the day when the grass is still wet with dew. Take off your shoes. Stand with eyes closed in the cool grass and breath. Don't just breathe through your nose. Imagine that you are breathing through the soles of your feet. Let the breath of the earth flow up into your legs, hips and belly. As you exhale, release the pent-up tensions in your muscles. Feel the release from your face down to your ankles. Watch the tension discharge into the ground. It makes good manure.

Exhale stale thoughts and worries of yesterday. Pour them into the wet grass. Breathing yesterday out, right down into your feet, let the touch of the earth and the sting of the dew awaken today. This is the only day. This is the only world. Why not stand in dignity, without trying to be anywhere else?
Become aware of the bottoms of your feet and the touch of the ground. Imagine your feet taking root, your roots penetrating to the center of the earth, chords of conscious energy. Breathe in and out through these roots.

Now open your eyes and begin to walk slowly, barefoot in the wet grass, with your attention in the soles of your feet. Very slowly, walk without destination. Walk without a goal. Walk just to taste your body moving, drinking the milk of space. Today is enough. Has it ever occurred to you that the purpose of life is just To Be? If we are truly alive, truly walking, we need no other purpose. We are pilgrims ever-arriving in the temple of Presence.

Feel every sensation as one foot lightens and lifts into the cool air, the other foot pressing into the grass to gradually receive the sacred weight of your body. Feel the foot widen to hold the earth like a hand. Feel your weight roll from the heel toward the ball of the foot. Feel your toes gently grasp the earth, one last caress, as the foot leaves the ground. Walk like this for three minutes, that's all. It’s not meant to be a rigorous discipline, but a respite of wonder. Be a toddler just learning the dignity of walking on this earth. You will feel grounded and whole for the rest of the day.


"Breathing in with the whole body, breathing out with the whole body.”
~Buddha, Satipatthana Sutra

Breathing is the purest prayer. In awareness of breath, we dissolve the gap between mind and body, heaven and earth, the ideal and the real.

If you sat back from your desk at the office and practiced the following exercise for three minutes, giving yourself to it 100%, you would be re-energized, relaxed, and re-newed for several hours.

A common expression is: "Stop and take a breather." But we seldom actually do. We stop to gossip at the water cooler. We stop to douse our nerves with caffeine. We go to the gym and work our breath into a heavy pant. But have you ever actually stopped to breathe, noticing the feathery touch of air in your nostrils and throat? Noticing breath descend into your chest, expanding the rib cage in slow majesty? Have you allowed warm breath to bathe your heart? Have you let breath swell the belly and abdomen muscles, drawing awareness right down to your sit-bone, grounding you to the earth?

Then, exhaling, have you consciously felt the gentle contraction of those abdomenal muscles, watching the breath flow up the torso into the throat? Have you become aware of your jaw and cheeks and tongue relaxing into the face you had when you were a child?

Have you noticed your nostrils quiver to attention like the nostrils of a deer? Have you watched breath rise and dissolve like a wisp of smoke in your forehead, leaving awareness free from the chatter of thoughts? Have you offered your exhalation through the baby’s soft spot in your crown, and poured yourself gently back into the sky?

Now, at the end of the exhalation, in the moment between this breath and next, surrender. Merge your attention in the silence between exhalation and inhalation. Abandon the little "me" that is merely a thought. Dare to be no one, just for a moment, and become the boundless sky.

Boundlessness is the gift of every exhalation, as one breath dies into the birth of the next. Your breath can teach you to dissolve your entire history, and to be reborn. As scripture says, "All that matters is to be created afresh!" Every breath is the new creation.

Now observe who is breathing... Are you breathing? Or is the Almighty breathing you? Breath is a gift, is it not? A gift given without your slightest effort. To witness your  inhalation is the revelation of Grace. What is your response to Grace? Just offer it back: exhale. That’s all you can do. Each breath is the whole story of salvation: God's gift, your response. To breathe is prayer.

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