Some time ago, one of my good friends from college offered me a meditation exercise he had come across in a Buddhist text. Close your eyes, he told me, and imagine you are standing somewhere outside. You can envision yourself anywhere— standing in your backyard, in a rainforest, even atop a skyscraper. You simply have to open your eyes in this new world and take note of every detail, every noise. This teaches focus, my friend said, so watch closely.
Reader, I want to invite you to my exercise. Although I write this blog in the comfort of my room, I invite you to join me for a moment in this imagining as I remember myself atop a tower built of stone. You sit on the top steps of the twentieth station at this section of the Great Wall (长城). Listen, first— I want you to hear the scraping of every footstep as other visitors climb up and down the slanted steps. Hear the excited conversation and the tired breathing of the scattered crowd that circles you now— the tinkling of bamboo flutes that play from a speaker further down the wall. Hear the wind.
Now, open your eyes. Push past the screen and these sentences, and you will find the curve of the green mountain that was always there, with or without your gaze. See the horizon line that bends beneath the blue sky and the clouds that spread their white limbs as they float down the heaven line. In the distance, the wall runs through the mountain like a fissure in a raw piece of jade. See how the sun carves shadows into the face of the mountain, changing the colors from emerald to darker shades of a swaying green.
Closer, now— follow the line of the wall and end up looking at the roof of the station you just passed. Gray stone. Brown brick. Move your eyes along the bobbing heads of the visitors and teachers and friends until you end up at your own sneakers, the ones that have taken you up the wall and all this way.
Taste the crunchy seaweed and sweet shrimp paste in the onigiri that you packed for yourself today. Sip your water. Offer some of your chips with your friends, the ones who practice their Chinese with you every day, the ones who encourage you to keep going one further than the nineteenth station. Chew slow and wipe the sweat from your eyes. Keep looking.
Are you still with me? When my college friend taught me this exercise, I had a hard time getting a stable, mental picture of where I stood. Too many things to keep track of. It was like I was standing in front of a giant painting by Vincent Van Gogh or Monet, and my instructor told me to focus on just one dot of paint, one stroke. My mind prefers to amble about in aimless droves, and when I tried this exercise for the first time, it took me some time before I could even pin my eyes to a single leaf on the ground.
It took some time, but not forever. I am still not good at this exercise, but as I imagine the scene atop the Great Wall, I naturally begin to focus on the present moment. Not just the past— I focus on the scene I am living in right now. My time in China is limited, but by taking careful notice of all the moving parts of the city that I witness every day, it’s as if I can slow the track of time by just a single millisecond. Just enough to ease my restless mind and breathe and remember to take part in the life I am living, to not let it pass without making some effort to notice the details, everything that extends between and beyond my gaze. I won’t let this pass without trying my best in this regard.
But I have strayed a little from the exercise— I hope you haven’t. You should keep imagining yourself atop the station. Don’t take your eyes away from the mountains and the wall. Don’t worry! The exercise is almost complete. I have passed on the first step, but still, there is another. I remember that when I was with my college friend, and I had finally fixed my eyes on my scene, I proudly exclaimed, I did it! How quickly I heard him chuckle. So then, he said, now you know where you are. Maybe you learned a little about focus.
But keep looking, he told me. I want you to take note of every detail, everything you see. Now, once you feel that you are satisfied with what you see, all you have to do is take one step forward. What has changed? What has been revealed to you that was previously concealed? And what has stayed the same? All I ask is that you keep your eyes open and take one step forward into the scene you are living in.
Just one step forward. That’s all you need to start again.