Learning to see the whole
We are faced with so many things that make peace and compassion (both within and without) seem almost impossible or at least a little foolish to imagine.
We see immense inequality and injustice, and continuing conflict and violence in the world. We are the first people in the history of our species to measure the finitude of natural resources and witness their depletion and destruction from a global perspective.
For these reasons and more, there has perhaps never been a more urgent need to discover afresh the contemplative heart within each of us; to know that we exist within an interrelated, interdependent whole and that we are not in any way separate from this whole.
Put very simply, we are more likely to show more care, to act with more peace and compassion, when we are aware of how deeply, intimately connected we are with something or someone — if we can see beyond our immediate preoccupations and become aware of the bigger picture.
Let’s think a little about this coming to awareness and the practice of meditation with some help from the old saying about not being able to see the wood for the trees.
Not being able to see the wood for the trees usually means being so preoccupied with a single aspect of something that we can’t see anything else, we don’t see that what we are fixating on is just one aspect of a much larger whole.
Let’s think of our thoughts (our mental representations) of reality as the trees. And let’s think of the wood as the undifferentiated whole, the oneness of life. If we spend all our time with our attention riveted on individual trees, we lose sight of the wood. We lose sight of the oneness of life. In meditation, we learn to see the trees and the wood.
Let me try and connect this to our practice, the guidelines for which are very simple. We sit down and assume a solid, erect posture, alert and calm. The body’s physical stillness helps facilitate interior, mental stillness.
We quietly repeat a prayer word (or short phrase) in union with the flow of our breath, bringing our whole attention to this steady repetition and flow. When we notice we have become distracted — that our attention has wrapped its arms around a tree — we just quietly return our attention to our practice, to saying our word in union with the breath.
We don’t try to avoid what we are experiencing. We don’t try not to have thoughts, or to get rid of them when they arise. We don’t attempt any internal de-forestation (sooner or later, it dawns on us that we need the trees to know the wood). We simply notice when we are hugging a tree and let go. We replace the narrow-focus lens of everyday perception with a wide-angle lens and open ourselves to the wider picture.
As we cultivate a more spacious relationship with our thoughts, with all that appears moment by moment in the foreground of our life, we become increasingly aware of the background and context of our life. We begin to see with ever greater clarity the relationship between the particularity of what we encounter and the mysterious oneness in which we and everything is always happening, which some of us call God.
Awareness opens through a quality of attention which notices without grasping or aversion, without choosing, without preferences. Awareness, like the sun, illuminates all things equally.
Savour this beautiful teaching from the famous anthology of teachings on prayer called the Philokalia (which means love of the beautiful):
“Sitting down, collect your mind, lead it into the path of the breath, and maintaining this attention enter the heart with your breath and keep your mind there. But do not leave the mind unoccupied. Instead, give it a prayer word or short phrase. Let this be its constant occupation, never to be abandoned.
The kingdom of God is within us, and for a person who has seen it within, and having found it through pure prayer, has experienced it, it is no longer unpleasant and wearisome for them to be within.
Just as a person who has been away from home is beside themselves with joy at seeing their loved ones again, so the mind, after being disbursed, when it reunites with the soul, is filled with unspeakable sweetness and joy.
These blessed words were given for the purpose of teaching the mind, under the influence of this natural method, to abandon its usual circling, captivity and dispersion and to return through attention to itself; and through such attention to reunite with itself, and in this way to become one with the prayer and, together with the prayer, to descend into the heart and to remain there…”
By means of “this natural method” the mind reunites with the heart of who we are. Like a wave relaxing back into the ocean, we come home to the heart of reality, to the oneness that holds and sustains all things.
As we learn to greet our thoughts and moment-to-moment experience with greater stillness, with greater silence, a space of opportunity opens in which we can better see those around us, their needs, their mysterious beauty and dignity, in which can become places of solidarity, agents of reconciliation and community.
 Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, trans. Kadloubsky and Palmer (Faber and Faber, 1992), pp. 192–195 (translation altered slightly and abbreviated).