One of my favorite parts of the summer is jumping off the dock near our community boating program in the Penobscot Bay in Maine. Coming off a long weekend commute from Boston or just off a Skype call with thoughts about a student’s essay or college list in mind, the cold saltwater is a perfect reset. Here I am, just swimming and feeling how smoothly my arms and body glide through the water, pulling myself up the ladder, feeling the sun and breeze on my skin as I lie on the warm wooden dock and let my breathing settle back to normal.
Being present is the daily object of my meditation practice, and something I try to extend through my day, but being present outside in the summer is somehow just so natural and effortless. I’ve learned that Buddhists regard thinking as a sixth sense, and in the summer, the dominance of this sense is powerfully offset by splashing water, bird calls through open windows, and the warmth of sun on skin. This understanding inspires me to see things in a new light, with thoughts coming and going as impersonally as clouds in the sky or the sound of a boat’s motor approaching and then fading away. All just sense inputs to take in and to allow space for their natural rhythms, their arising and their fading away. Then, just natural responses — moving arms to stay afloat, putting on sunglasses as the sun breaks through the clouds.
Responding to our thought-sense can be just as natural, but we are often so identified with our thoughts and imbue them with so many added layers, or are so carefully defended, that our natural response is buried. Instead of playing with new ideas and heading off on a new tack as we work on an essay idea, we can’t help but think of the significance of THE COLLEGE ESSAY, and suddenly there’s nothing natural or playful or enjoyable about even something as open-ended and subjective as a ‘Personal Statement.’
I like the saying, ‘The mind is a good servant but a bad master.’ It’s easy for my mind to start spinning with college application strategies, the key factors of certain colleges that I might recommend, a student’s test scores, or the many directions an essay might take. Given too much sway, the churn of my mind can turn a helpful and powerful tool into a distraction that constricts possibilities and solutions instead of adding to them. When this happens, it’s time for me to tune into another sense and its reliable, felt presence in my body. If I can’t jump off the dock, I can sometimes step outside my office and watch the sparrows darting in and out of the thick shrubs that line our sidewalk on Beacon St., or I can feel my stomach rise and fall for a few breaths and the simple weight of my feet on the floor or the warmth of the coffee mug in my hand. The summer sensory reset is the most enjoyable one for me, but even a small dip into what’s going on right here and now, outside of our minds, can provide a reset that will again allow our minds to be effective, even amazing servants of our deepest intentions and most pure and heartfelt goals.
All the things I love about summer help me make this switch to being present in my body so that my thoughts don’t become too dominant and disconnected from what I know, what we all know, about being happy — that kindness and connection to others and doing our best in this world moment by moment is what matters. We can free up our minds and bodies to act naturally, in accord with this wisdom, by letting ourselves slip beneath the multi-layered thought clouds we spin so readily, by tuning in to senses other than our thought-sense, and by living with a healthy dose of forgiveness and understanding for ourselves and others when we are all too human and make mistakes. Even if that mistake is just getting lost for a bit in the churn of our thoughts and the stress that accompany them.