A Shift of Focus

Biking along the Greenbrier River in West Virginia, my husband spied a red-spotted newt on the trail. After stopping to admire and move it out of harm’s way, we saw a second, then a third, and I became obsessed with not running over the little creatures.

It takes focus to scan the trail ahead and quickly swerve to avoid anything that might be a tiny newt. After concentrating intently for several miles, I realized that I was missing the bigger picture. The river had faded from my awareness altogether and the wildflowers lining the path were just a blur of color. All I could see was the trail surface just ahead of my front wheel.

I began to experiment with carefully scanning the trail in front of me, then broadening my focus to include river, sky, flowers, and the woods through which I was biking. This wasn’t easy. It felt like I was hardwired to pay attention either to the trail or to my surroundings, but not both at once. With a little practice, though, I got better at shifting back and forth. I wasn’t running over newts yet still felt a connection to the landscape through which I was riding. I was able to miss a millipede while also taking in the beauty of bright purple asters as I passed them. A small victory, to be sure, but my enjoyment of that ride was enhanced by my experiment in shifting focus.

The day after we got home from the bike trip, I sat down for my morning meditation. Closing my eyes, I took a few deep breaths and began to tune into the sensations in my body, the sounds of the birds on the feeder, and the damp breeze blowing in the window. Within a few moments it dawned on me that I was facing the same issue I had while biking. There were embodied sensations and the flow of moods, emotions, and thoughts parading through the foreground of my mind—and there was the spacious field of awareness in which all these things arose. Where did I choose to place my focus?

As I continued meditating, I found it was possible to “dial in” any one of these specific perceptions and hold my focus there. I could also be the one who noticed them, and even fade into the field of all possibility that seemed to lie behind or beneath them. Shifting that internal dial was something I could do fairly easily, but could I retain an awareness of the world inside and around me, while also noticing the vastness beyond? In other words, was I limited to an either/or proposition or could it be both/and?

My meditation experiments are ongoing. So far my experience tells me that both/and is the way to go for me. I don’t want to give up being the embodied sensor. But I also want to be the one whose mind lets go into the empty fullness that can’t be named or adequately described. For me it’s both/and, personal and impersonal, unique and universal, small self and vast Self. Shifting focus from one to the other, I’m attempting to hold both at the same time.

In the bigger picture of my life, I want to live joyfully embodied while also being connected to something greater than my egocentric self. A statement in the Bhagavad Gita comes to mind: “The yogi is the knower of the field.” To me, that means I can know the field of the body-mind and the infinite field from which the body-mind arises. Spanning, embracing, and savoring each of these two fields, believing in the possibility of knowing both, is an ongoing practice I have no doubt will last a lifetime.

Register for a yoga and meditation program with Danna Faulds at Kripalu.

Danna Faulds, poet, yoga practitioner, and rail-trail bike enthusiast, has published six books of poetry and a memoir, Into the Heart of Yoga. She is about to retire from her part-time job with Kripalu after 20 years of editing program descriptions.