I rather enjoy walking down the street in those pre-dawn moments. If the sky is clear, the moon and stars are quite visible. On those mornings, I always check to see where Orion is while treading as mindfully as possible down the pavement. It’s like being up in the middle of the night—a stolen moment while the rest of the world sleeps—only I’m relatively refreshed after seven or eight hours in bed.
I swear, I’m not a morning person, but once I’ve rousted myself from bed and through showering and dressing, I do love experiencing the transition from night to day. I love that after nearly two hours of meditation it’s still not quite 8am, and I’m wide awake and ready to ease into the day.
Many of you, I imagine, have not meditated in pre-dawn darkness, but perhaps you pulled your share of all-nighters in school, or maybe you’ve driven overnight and/or intentionally awakened before dawn for the express purpose of watching the sun rise in some scenic location. At any rate, the other day I was struck by the elusive and allegorical quality of this process.
It’s night…it’s dark…still dark…then: not so dark. A new moment. Not so dark, not so dark…then, wait. When did it become light? The sun still not visible, you notice that the level of light is such that you can’t properly say it’s night-time anymore. In the absence of a discernible, flashy shift, somehow a border has been crossed, without our even noticing.
The other day it struck me that there’s a lesson in this, or at least a pattern. Time passes, our lives pass—slowly, slowly, and then: boom. As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, put it: “The days are long, but the years are short.” Or there’s that classic song from Fiddler on the Roof: “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don’t remember growing older. When did they? Sunrise, sunset…”
Every morning that I walk down the street and sit in the zendo, I get to enact this primal, daily miracle. I awaken, moment by moment, to the first bird calls, the first noticeable lightening of the night sky. I practice staying in the moment, opening to the variations of each succeeding moment. I practice not losing myself in thought, but remaining connected to the ceaseless flow of Now. I want to be awake: when the sunrise comes I want to be present to greet it. I don’t want, as the Pink Floyd song relates, to “one day…find ten years have got behind” me.
Perhaps I’m primed for Zen’s focus on impermanence now that I’m in my mid-40s. (And it occurs to me: how could it be coincidental that Dante set his Divine Comedy “midway along the journey of our life”?) But I suggest you try it sometime: wake up before dawn and go outside; go for a walk, find a nice place to sit; try to notice when night turns to day. Or, if it’s more your style, do the same in reverse, at sundown: see how closely you can follow the course of day becoming night.
Mindfulness is about being present in your life, living in and with the world, the actual world, and not in some fantasy land of thought. It takes concentration and discipline to keep up with life, to keep coming back to it as our attention continually strays. After all, in the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
But the payoff of feeling connected and alive sure seems worth the effort.