Stopped in My Tracks
By Dana DePalma, Spirit Rock Meditation Center Dharma Teacher
On the street in front of my daughter’s school, there is a crosswalk mid-block. During the busy times before and after school hours, there are a lot of cars, parents and students coming and going. The kids are everywhere—running, eating, and, in many cases, half-asleep.
In my daughter's kindergarten and first grade years, there was a crossing guard who was sometimes diligent, sometimes not. His job was to stand in the road with his big red stop sign helping children to safely cross the street, but sometimes he would get distracted listening to talk radio and not pay attention at all. Sometimes, you might even see him dozing in his lawn chair.
Last week was my daughter's first week back at school after the summer. She's now in the second grade. In the early afternoon I was walking down the street leading to the school, eager to see her and find out how her first day back had gone, when I met our school's new crossing guard. Just as I was about to dart across the street to get to the school, a woman in a neon yellow vest and black boots arose out of nowhere holding her palm out in front of her, her voice booming an emphatic, "STOP!"
Of course, I obeyed immediately. It was not a suggestion. Suddenly I was aware of my body, feet planted on the earth. "Wait until I'm out in the middle," the woman said. She calmly walked to the middle of the street, and looked both ways to determine that it was safe to cross. She held up her big red stop sign, aimed towards the street, and said, "Now you may come.”
When I was safely across, she said, with an impish smile, "I'm practicing." It was her first week on the job.
At Spirit Rock Meditation Center, we sometimes use the initials "S.T.O.P." to help remember a short mindfulness practice that can be done in daily life:
T ake a breath
O pen to experience
Let me expand:
S top means stop. This is a deliberate choice to pause. We often experience some resistance to pausing, but once we do it, we're glad we did.
T ake a breath means we take a conscious breath (or two or three). Pay attention to the sensations of breathing. Mindfulness of breathing helps calm and compose the mind. It supports feelings of well-being to arise.
O pen to our present moment experience, especially as known directly through the senses of the body. With mindfulness, we learn to differentiate our direct experience from our conceptual thinking. With mindfulness, we also learn to differentiate habitual reactions, based on grasping and aversion, with our responses, which come out of our intelligence, creativity and caring.
Path - This is an invitation to notice the path we're on. Said another way, to notice how we are relating to experience. If it serves us, we continue. If not, we choose to start over; choose another, wiser way, as best as we can.
The practice of S.T.O.P. can be done as a short practice in daily life. It can be done sitting at your desk or waiting in line at the bank. You can do it with your eyes open or closed. I invite you to experiment. No one has to know you're doing it.
The practice of S.T.O.P. is a short taste of what happens in a longer meditation period or on retreat. For a sitting—or on retreat, for a day or a week or a month or more—we pause, we turn inward. We learn to calm down and compose ourselves enough to be present. We learn to bring a careful, kind, interested mindfulness to our experience. We pay attention in order to learn. We pay attention in order to have insights arise. And insights do arise. In the space of caring attention, we have insights about how the human heart and mind get entangled and how we can have more and more freedom in our lives.
The Buddha offered a path of practice that leads to waking up to the truth of how things are, including who and what we are, and to what he called "the sure heart's release." He did not choose to teach dogma, or fixed world-views, but rather offered a path of practice. The Buddha discouraged blindly following anyone’s words, including his own; instead he encouraged direct investigation and experience. "Come and see for yourself," he said. That's what the path of practice is all about.
I like to think of an inner figure with a big, red stop sign, reminding us that we can choose. We can choose, over and over, to align ourselves with our deepest values, with our caring for life. Not from a place of attempting to control, but from a place of remembering what is important. You might imagine a crossing guard as you do this practice—someone firm, but kind. She’s keeping what really matters present and available to us. She's there, ready to step out and stop us in our tracks whenever we're getting out ahead of ourselves, whenever we're forgetting to practice taking care.
The next time I saw the new crossing guard at my daughter’s school, it was the same drill: "Stop. Wait. Look both ways. Now you may come." Only this time we smiled at each other in recognition. And as we walked a few steps together in the middle of the intersection, she said, almost more to herself but quite audibly, "I am looking after your precious life."
It's true. This is a precious life. Each life is precious. All life is precious. Recognizing this, we naturally want to look after each other. May our new crossing guard offer you some wisdom, as she did to me, and may you be supported in your life by remembering to stop, take a breath, open to experience, and then choose your path.