Tag Archives: concentration

From a rock, with my feet in wet sand.

Looking upstream from mouth of creek.

On my drive to the coast today, I listened to “How Satan Deceives People” by Elder Cleopa of Romania. That story certainly set the tone for my visit, to make it even more contemplative than usual.

I had missed my Alone Time on the beach for exactly three weeks. Because wind seemed to be in the forecast a lot, I had been wondering if I would be able to get out there very much this spring, but when the wind died down here, it did there, too. I think the air temperature was about 60 degrees, but the water felt colder than ever; it was the first time I felt it to be somewhat uncomfortable right away.

The water temperature on the beaches I frequent ranges from about 50-55 degrees over the year, with the coldest months being April and May, and the warmest, September. By the time you get as far south as San Francisco the water is five degrees warmer on average. Anyway, that’s not much variation, and I’m wondering if the water felt colder because I am older (not to say old). What I like about that reductive explanation for certain perplexing changes is that it can quickly free up time and mental energy for other more interesting inquiries.

Today I was thinking about too many things to let the water temperature take over my mind, though I walked in the surf as much as ever. Tears came to my eyes, for joy at being there in the elements, my senses refreshed and my mind having encouraging things from Elder Cleopa to rest on. It was convenient that the elements were fairly gentle, and that the tide had gone out just enough to reveal comfortable sitting rocks at the north end of the beach where no other people were. I sat.

The tide had peaked high about two hours before I arrived, and as each wave fell away from the shore, it looked as though it were pulling back on itself; I wonder if that was an optical illusion from me seeing the steep slope of the beach as the wave retracted. The way tides work is pretty complex! I just read this online, when I was looking for the opposite of ebb:

“The incoming tide along the coast and into the bays and estuaries is called a flood current; the outgoing tide is called an ebb current. The strongest flood and ebb currents usually occur before or near the time of the high and low tides. The weakest currents occur between the flood and ebb currents and are called slack tides.”

I learned three things in that short paragraph. If I could find the time to study it, I would like to learn much more, from this book, Tides and the Ocean, that I borrowed from the library. I may have to take it to the beach and sit on a rock to read it, where I have no other books, and few other “tasks” to distract me. Pippin read a bit from it when she was here (away from her own books and usual tasks) and explained to me about some other things that affect the tides, like the sun, and local weather. There are many great diagrams and pictures to help explain everything.

The view from my sitting rock.

One idea from Elder Cleopa’s story that impressed me was that the only thing demons can do to us is suggest thoughts. We think they are our own and we build habits out of them, and follow a path away from repentance leading to salvation.

But God, through our conscience or our Guardian Angel or maybe many means, also gives us promptings, which it’s best to follow hard on. Otherwise the demons will come right along and suggest that we procrastinate. Merely procrastinating doesn’t seem too bad… But watch out!

The kindness of God quite overwhelmed me this afternoon. I got home a little late, with not enough time left to tell you all I had planned, about my outing — especially what I saw on the way home. If I am here tomorrow maybe I will work on that part. It’s easy to get behind in recounting the gifts of our Creator and Lover and Friend.

Nagging that cuts the soul in pieces.

From the book New Media Epidemic:

Jean-Claude Larchet

Spiritual life…requires what is traditionally called recollection, the capacity to turn all one’s faculties inward, away from the world, there in one’s heart to unite and consecrate them to God in meditation and prayer. Recollection is the stage of preparation for prayer that precedes concentration. 

But as we have seen, the new media [cell phones, tablets, internet, etc] push man’s faculties in the opposite sense, always outwards toward the world. They are dispersed by a stream of discordant nagging that cuts the soul in pieces, and destroys the unity and identity of the inner man.

The new media encourage strongly two elements of ancestral sin:

(1) the loss of the inner unity of the faculties, which once were united in knowledge of God and doing His Will, dispersing them among physical objects and their representations (thoughts, memories, and images), or the desires and passions that they arouse;

(2) the resulting division, chopping up, and inner dispersion, which, according to St Maximus the Confessor, “breaks human nature into a thousand fragments.”

As other holy ascetics have said, the intelligence [attention/nous] is then constantly distracted, floating, erring, and wandering here and there in a state of permanent agitation, quite the opposite of the deep peace it experienced in its former contemplation. The thoughts that once were united and concentrated become manifold and multifarious, spreading out in a ceaseless flow. They divide and disperse, leaking out in every direction, dragging and dividing the whole being of man in their wake.

This leads St Maximus the Confessor to speak of: “the scattering of the soul amongst outer forms according to the appearance of sensory things,” for the soul becomes multiple in the image of this sensory multiplicity…which is simply an illusion… Stirred up and excited by a multitude of passions, they pull in many directions, often opposed, at once, and make of man a being divided at every level. This process of the fall of man, described by the Church Fathers of Late Antiquity, continues today faster than ever, driven on by the new media. They offer such a rich and speedy flow of temptations that they multiply the sensory objects that attract the senses…

—Jean-Claude Larchet

(from a church bulletin)

Our tiny playground in the city.

Nearly every day Raj and I spend quite a bit of time on the balcony of the 13th-floor apartment where his family lives. It’s above a major intersection with a couple dozen lanes of traffic meeting and surging with cars, trucks and buses most of the day. To the east between the high-rises we can see a slice of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. When my grandson sees a jet take off he squeals; a few seconds later we see it emerge from behind tall buildings to the north, and much smaller to the eye. But he is still watching it.

Emergency vehicles sound their sirens in the neighborhood at least a couple of times every day, and sometimes we will hurry out and try to spot them. If not, we’re sure to see one or several of Raj’s favorite Metro buses waiting at a stop light just below. We’ve shared the delights of cement mixers, dump trucks, car transports and motorcycles. Once it was three police cars in a line, lights flashing. On the balcony itself is Daddy’s bicycle, a vehicle he can  even put his hands on, and examine small parts like wheel, reflector and pedals.

All of that transportation stuff would be exciting enough for a toddler, but there are a surprising number of experiences of flora and fauna as well. Pigeons and sparrows land on the rail. Spiders spin webs during the night and in the morning the birds swoop down and eat the spiders. One day we watched a slender and elegant fly as it crawled along the edge of the balcony for several feet, and as it made a left turn to cross the span and continue up the wall of the building. We watched it go all the way to the top of a window and disappear into a crack, and Raj waved good-bye. Then it came out of the crack again! He never lost his focus on that creature until it vanished again for good.

Raj doesn’t talk yet, but he uses many signs to communicate; some of these are standard sign language that many parents nowadays teach their babies, and others he has invented himself. By signs he can say “please,” “thank you,” “more,” “all done,” “Daddy,” “hot,” “cold,” “I like this food,” and at least several other things I can’t think of or that he doesn’t use as often. One experience he can indicate is of the wind.

Many times when we are looking over the balcony, a breeze will come up, and a few times when that happened I have mentioned it to him. One day we were standing at the railing in silent contemplation, punctuated by the occasional “Hmm!” from Raj that seems to be his    comment on anything positive. This time, when the wind came up, he was the one who first noted it, by making sweeping, large and circular movements with his arms.

The balcony is the place to experience (and “talk” about) the heat of the metal wall at one end, when he runs the length of its patio and bangs on it with both little hands. There is an overhang above — perhaps the balcony of the next apartment up? — but not extending so far that one can’t stretch an arm into falling rain, or find very shallow puddles to splash in. Even with many high-rise buildings all around, the sky is huge and ever changing, often with clouds that are well worth talking about.

Our boy is never on the balcony without an adult companion, and from my first time out there with him we have enjoyed and refined our game of copy-cat. First, he would merely run full speed from one end to the other and back, and I would follow exactly. Raj added a certain arm-swing to his choreography, and the next day dance-y hops. Lately he likes to lead me in walking backward the whole way, sometimes stopping suddenly to line up our feet just-so, so that we can look at our toes side-by-side.

I’ve been impressed with the richness of this child’s life overall — full of stimulation and human warmth and at the same time very ordered and routine. Having a nanny to push you to the park almost every day is a boon, and currently several adults to make sure that you can eat and sleep at regular times even when there is a new baby in the house.

For a short time in his life, his days will include this simple balcony with no furniture typical of a patio area. His parents don’t want any items that he might learn to climb up on. Until this week when a larger plastic fire truck came into the household, no toys were allowed out there, because they could fall through the spaces or be thrown over the top.

For an even shorter time Raj has this grandma to play our particular balcony games with him. That space is simple and plain, and many adults not carrying a phone wouldn’t know what to do there. But it’s a fun playground where a toddler can exercise not only his short legs but his attention span. He can tune his senses to the life of the city and participate in a vast world.

Slipping from the tedious plane.

I was telling Mr. Greenjeans about how An American Childhood by Annie Dillard encouraged me in my writing. He comes from the author’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is the backdrop for her growing-up adventures told from her vividly revealing point of view. I took the book off the shelf to put aside for him, and turned the pages a while, seeing passages I’d marked long ago.

Hers is a unique point of view, of course, as each of us is an unrepeatable individual looking out on our world. Whether it is her perspective that is unusual as well, or only her ability to convey it in words, I don’t know. I do know that few children today have the liberty of youth that Dillard describes as regularly offering periods of time so deep and distraction-free that you can “lose yourself.” In a chapter on her love of books and reading, she tells how she felt:

The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. The very boring body seems to require an inordinately big, very boring world to keep it up, a world where you have to spend far too much time, have to do time like a prisoner, always looking for a chance to slip away, to escape back home to books, or to escape back home to any concentration–fanciful, mental, or physical–where you can lose your self at last. Although I was hungry all the time, I could not bear to hold still and eat; it was too dull a thing to do, and had no appeal either to courage or to imagination. The blinding sway of their inner lives makes children immoral. They find things good insofar as they are thrilling, insofar as they render them ever more feverish and breathless, ever more limp and senseless on the bed.

-Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood