Walking from here to there on any given day we might encounter, among other things, a broken leaf on the sidewalk. Most likely, we will not see it. Our eyes see it, but our minds are elsewhere, preoccupied with things that matter. The leaf does not matter. Not only is it merely a leaf, it’s a broken leaf. It’s not even worth pressing in a book or capturing in a photo. It doesn’t effect us, it won’t help us accomplish any of our urgent tasks, it’s boring.
Except that the leaf is the entire universe.
There are some valid reasons why we don’t see it. This is the age of inundation. The demands on our time and our attention are overwhelming, and the speed of daily life is increasing. As we find new ways to be efficient we find ourselves more tightly bound to efficiency. Our schedules command our bodies to move swiftly from place to place. Our attention is not only absorbed in our media, our media demands our constant participation. The ocean of entertainment is all around us. We are in the deluge.
It might seem natural and practical that as we navigate this landscape of sensory and intellectual input we do so from a slight distance. Watching and observing the flood of experiences from a remove, we numb our senses and close our minds and hearts to the vast display of life. Imagining our life as a story, we naturally assume ourselves the protagonist. When we experience events that we consider pleasurable, or important to the story, we try to pay attention to them. If we are eating an ice cream cone or proposing marriage, ideally we are really experiencing the moment. But when our experience has no bearing on the story, if we are just waiting for an elevator, or if there is a chilly breeze, we tune out.
That moment, when we decide that our experience is not worthy of our attention, is very meaningful. We may think we are simply judging the broken leaf on the sidewalk as unimportant. But that moment of perception is our moment. For that moment there is nothing else.
In that moment, that experience is our entire life. The Shambhala tradition teaches that our humanity is fundamentally whole, worthy, and good. We have the inherent capacity to be fully alive in each moment of our life. Most of us do not feel complete and fully worthy in our lives. We long for meaning, but we search for it outside of ourselves because we have forgotten the goodness and wholeness that we already possess. On the most basic level, it all comes down to how we relate to our moment by moment experience of being human. As William Carlos Williams wrote,
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
We all have the innocence of fresh, childlike perception within us. It’s simply a matter of rediscovering how to be open, as opposed to preoccupied; alive, as opposed to zombified. It’s not that everyone has to constantly write poems about each white chicken and post pictures of every pretty flower petal on Facebook. It’s a question of whether we feel good as we are, or whether we constantly need some kind of remedy for an unending sense of anxiety.
This is not just a matter of how we feel as individuals. Our entire culture and society revolve around this simple dichotomy. If we feel that on an elemental level we are broken, then the culture and society that we perpetuate will be broken; an elaborate ceremony that continuously reinforces a sense of something missing. On the other hand, knowing we are complete and good in our beings we express and live a world that reflects wholeness and celebrates humanity. We don’t have to seek far and wide to find the wisdom we need to build a better world. It’s present in every instant of our human experience.
Sharing a moment with a broken leaf, we can begin to create an unbroken culture.
Acharya Noel McLellan teaches on meditation, social transformation, education and culture in the Shambhala tradition. This is from his blog broken leaf.