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Tolstoy: From Anna Karenina

I’m writing this as New York is blanketed by a snow-globe style winter storm; so much for the second day of spring. In the meantime, let’s fast-forward to late summer, the time of harvesting (Bruegelian or otherwise).

The mowing scene from Anna Karenina is a little slice of magic — how Tolstoy manages to make the act of mowing grass so incandescent, so compelling. It’s a quiet little moment in a mammoth book, but also manages to stick out for everyone who reads it; an open secret of Russian literature.

What I love about this particular cut of the scene is how applicable it is to a meditation practice. When we aren’t thinking about the practice itself but rather focusing on our awareness of the breath, we flourish. It’s when we start to become aware of our awareness of awareness that we start to falter. If we’re struggling, we try consciously to do better and that just sets us back further (or, if we’re aware of how “well” we’re doing, that’s prime time to fall flat on our faces just to keep us humble). We start to perpetuate narratives and storylines, our thoughts become discursive, and we fall down the rabbit hole of “I really suck at this meditation business today” to “What was the name of the hawk in The Royal Tenenbaums…?”

(It was Mordecai.)


Today’s Contemplation: Cultivate awareness, without being aware of that cultivation. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes before taking your seat. Notice the environment around you as you sit — either in a chair with feet on the floor or on a cushion. Feeling your sitzbones dig into your seat. Notice the sounds of the room, the sensation of touch. Begin to focus on your breathing, whether it’s focused on the tip of your nose or in the low of your belly. Know when you’re breathing in, know when you’re breathing out. Can you do this without knowing that you know? Can you do it even once? Be aware of the breath, but not aware that you are “Meditating” — with a capital “M” and full-on air quotes.