The practice of embodiment in place (always beginning now)
Open gaze swings down, narrows, relaxes into rippled, rolling textures; a softness eyes can feel. Across the undulating terrain, spindly bodies are tightly packed into a single sprawling presence emerging from the earth below; little leaves reaching up, rubbing neighbors—receptacles for moisture, for bits of breeze-blown detritus, for a passing wave of focused attention that slowly traverses this miniature, mighty realm. Mighty indeed: now a giant foot presses down upon supple stalks, covering half their expansive, communal body, then rises again and swings slowly past, settling next beyond these borders in the neighboring land of hard-packed soil. A neck, high above, swivels just as slowly—eyes still in gentle communion with the mossy mound as it recedes, a step behind and none the worse for wear in the wake of the passing intrusion.
Emerging from this expanded moment, the focus of my attention rises and widens: from the 18-inch circle of moss, to a 20-foot stretch of trail just ahead, and further, into the hundred yards of woods to my right. Thin tree trunks slide ever so slowly past one another, the three-dimensionality of the view slightly accentuated by having time during each gradual step forward to let my gaze meander through the distance from here to the edge of the woods, which give way there to a nearby marsh. Above, the trees are very talkative, their winter-bare branches communing in a soft and clattery connection that sends gentle, diffuse fields of sound rippling through the subtly shifting canopy overhead.
This is a lovely stretch of edge habitat: farm fields on one side, the marsh on the other, boggy vernal pools here and there, with a few old white pines rising above the smaller chattering hardwoods. Yet then again, isn’t this entire landscape functionally edges? Though southern Maine is a mix of small towns and rural spaces between, you’ll rarely find more than a quarter mile between houses, and even remote spots nearly always have a road of some sort within a half mile at most. Ecologically speaking, it’s all edges!
Such are my musings as I take one slow, small step after another along this delightful trail. Today I’m practicing attentiveness to place through slow-walking. My footfalls come close together—about a shoe-length—and at a very modest pace; it takes anywhere from a full second (about half a normal walking rhythm) to three or four seconds to complete each incremental step along the path.
At this pace, nearly all my attention can stay attuned to whatever I’m passing by, and very little is devoted to the trail’s ups and downs, twists and turns, or the tricks of navigating boards across bogs. At a typical walking pace, probably half our attention (or more) needs to stay on the trail itself, but today it’s more like five percent, leaving a luxurious 95% to take in all that surrounds me: roots, plants, and old leaves beside my feet; ice-edged pools or sculpted bark along the trail; little bursts of fluttery bird flight, glimpses of sky, the old farmhouse across a field.
Slow-walking also keeps me more present where I actually am, with far less slipping away into distant thoughts of this-and-that habitual topic or current concern, as so easily happens at a normal walking pace or when stopping altogether to soak in a view or a detail along the way. It’s odd, but I see more, and can better maintain a state of open curiosity and absorption, when I move incrementally slowly rather than simply standing still. There’s something about the added depth of the scene when it’s sliding very slowly by that enhances the quality of active engagement.
Also, though: yes, letting the mind drift at times—a drifting mind is a creative mind, and fresh bits of insight and integration are always welcome. When slow-walking, I am more aware of when I’m drifting, and can more readily choose to return to the here and now—or to let the musings carry on with their meandering. Because of the slow pace, little things continue to catch my eye, even when I’ve drifted away—and so provide the reminder to choose afresh how and where I want to direct my attention.
A final, practical, benefit is that when moving slowly along the trail, far fewer animals are startled away, which is good for them and for me, as well as for any others enjoying the place today (this particular trail is popular with birders). My guess is that when slow-walking at the “fast” one-step-a-second pace, around half the birds hang around long enough for me to at least see them fly away! And at the slower end of the spectrum, only the most skittish critters seem to notice my approach.
Mostly, though, slow-walking simply offers a chance to more fully and deeply meet the place where I am. (and so perhaps to also more fully become the place I am…) The pace of my steps shifts naturally, depending on how absorbed I am in the interwoven layers of perception: my body simultaneously both in contact with the nearby details (like the moss) and in communion with the surrounding landscape (the woods, the marsh). All this becomes simply the enveloping context within which I move, and breathe, and ponder; slow-walking is, in this way, a practice that celebrates and focuses the larger journey of coming alive in the landscape.
And here’s the Zen-ish core of it: attending to my attention, with a related layer of simply seeing—and feeling—what’s around me, fresh and as it is. Taking it in; direct sensation; soulful communion; minimal conceptual overlay or habits of mind. Meeting each moment as it arises: always beginning now.
This embodiment in place also involves tuning my attention, and my felt sense of self or identity, to embrace the nested scales of relationship and wholeness within which my life—and the life of all creation—unfolds. Noticing where I am, acknowledging the connections and exchanges taking place, right here in and around me, across the landscape stretching in every direction, and beyond these nearby horizons. Sometimes, I turn to a more formalized breathing and awareness practice that, step by step, grounds me into this expansion of place and self. The framework is just a scaffolding; from there, a playfulness and spontaneity keeps the actual lived-in expression of the practice both alive in the moment and ever-evolving over time.
It begins with the good ol’ first step: a breath. A breath in a body. And another. And on. Like that. Air in nostrils, chest rising and falling. Ah, yes: this body, this moment.
A breath in a body.
A breath in a body here in this marsh. This body, here, amidst bodies of trees, grasses, the bulging tidal waters, mud-buried larvae, young heron-nourishing fish, each and every being and element in relation to the others, all together becoming this place, right now.
A breath in a body here beside this marsh in the coastal plain of southern Maine. This immediate location finding its context within a known region—laced with other places I’ve walked and felt and breathed my way through—and that regional landscape also in relation to its neighboring territories on this continent. Feeling the rocky coast stretching north (long peninsulas and great river mouths) and the gentler southern shoreline to the south, past the rounded rise of Agamenticus and on into the crook-arm of Cape Cod far over the horizon; inland pine forests pocked with farms, rolling up into the old bones of ancient mountains with their glacier-carved Notches and windblown summits. A breath in a body, here at this marsh on the coastal plain of Maine. This body; this place; in its place.
Now feeling the solid, curving planet beneath my feet, the wide sky brushing my face and enveloping the whole globe: A breath in a body, here at a marsh in the coastal plain of southern Maine—on the edge of the earth, at the bottom of the sky. Yes. The body of this marsh in this moment, at the meeting-place of earth and sky. The endless sky, full of towering weather and dazzling light, our tenuous skin—thin, life-giving, water-bearing—this air we all share, enveloping our rocky world. A breath in a body here beside this marsh along the coastal plain of Maine, on the edge of the earth, at the bottom of the sky.
And beyond the sky’s blue and its clouds and its winds, the shining source enlivening all this. There: the great heart of our Solar Body. Ah, indeed, a breath in a body here in this marsh along the coastal plain of southern Maine; on the edge of the earth, at the bottom of the sky; spinning beside our ever-giving star. This beloved star; its light feeding the plants that hiss in the breeze, exuding the oxygen that fires the animal cells of the very lungs now swelling with yet another breath.
Thus the attention that a few short minutes ago was so totally absorbed in a hummocked patch of moss has gradually dilated, spreading wide to touch all these nested scales of life, of bodily wholeness, each in turn. As Simone Weil reminds us:
Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.
And so this day becomes a prayer. Slowly, slowly, surely, bit by bit more fully, these moments of expanded attention, of presence and love, begin to accumulate in my skin and mind, heart and spirit; at least a hint of this now in each breath, a glimmer in every step I take through my days. This prayer of attention giving shape to a life.
As with any spiritual path, these times of communion, these collections of words and concepts (finely crafted or freely improvised), these physical practices and ritualized sequences all flow from and feed into a worldview, a belief system—a way of being in the world in relation to, and in response to, the causative, embracing wholeness that lies beyond and within all we know and all we are.
If my worldview—and my god—is one that encompasses and unifies and flows within these nested scales of body and place and self, then it seems I’m crafting the rudiments of a spiritual practice that can help keep me attuned to this worldview, and in relationship with the enlivening spirit that courses through all these bodily expressions. . . . and so, too, through this warm-blooded fragment here by a marsh, taking one slow step after another, and breathing, and stepping, and breathing, and always beginning now.
top: Jim Cummings
middle: Anasha Cummings