Monday, October 8, 2007

A Brief Thought Exercise

As my acquaintance Anne said, “Academics are like psychedelic drugs. They force you to see patterns where there are none.”

I invite you now to do a short centering exercise. I will assure you before you even start that completing this exercise is all but impossible, so do not be worried when you fail. Failing at the task is part of the wonderful mystery of performing it. We are accustomed to avoid failure at all costs rather than accepting its gifts. Failure is a gift. I will say more about this later.

I encountered this exercise during a healing prayer retreat, not with a seventies guru, but with a kindly retired UCC minister and one time friend of my aunt. I spent a beautiful week amid redwoods, fields and the Navarre River in Sonoma County failing at this exercise and I loved it so much that I have since taught it to hundreds of people.

You need only three simple things to complete it: a rock, a clock and a quiet place to sit. The point is to look at the rock for 10 minutes and think of nothing but the rock as a rock. You may look at it from any angle. You may turn it in your hands and examine it closely. You may even close your eyes and savor its textures. But you cannot turn it into anything but that which it already is: a rock.

To prepare for the exercise, it helps to settle onself in the quiet place and take a few deep breaths. If possible, say some comforting and simple words to banish any thoughts that may be troubling you. Acknowledge them and let them go. The same with any noises that may be drifting through the window: the mockingbird under the eaves, the crows that call out from the tree next door, the swish of cars moving up and down the street, that baby across the street who is always having tantrums. Acknowledge them and let them go.

If your clock has an alarm, set it for ten minutes hence.

Now focus all your concentration upon the rock.

When your ten minutes are up, reflect on what you saw.

That is all.


I cannot look at a rock for ten minutes without telling a story. For me, rocks turn into narrative, the universe in microcosm. I have a piece of charcoal colored granite veined with quartz which always turns into pictograms which in turn takes me into the desert and causes me to ponder lost ceremonies. I have a second piece of granite that when I hold it just so, a wolf’s head emerges from its top and at the bottom I can just barely make out a den of puppies. This rock tells a cautionary tale. Long ago, a wolf mother was out hunting to feed her brood when a pair of cruel little boys came upon her innocent puppies. They began to tease and torment them. Hearing their cries from far away, the mother cried out to her mother earth who took pity upon them and turned them all to stone until humans should become a kinder race. And as it sits in my hand, I ponder whether I have learned the kindness to awaken them.

“It’s a rock, stupid,” I now say. “It is you who are making it into stories. It’s a rock.”

So the next time I do it, I pick up the dullest rock in my bowl. It is a very dull medium gray and smoothed at all its edges. There are no veins of color anywhere. It is an almost perfect ellipse, symmetrical, elegantly balanced in the palm of my hand, no edges or angles. I sit and breathe. Hardly two minutes pass before the rock begins to sparkle as if a night sky were emerging from its depths.

And God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.”

“No, it is not the imprint of the stars upon a stone left too long in the river. It’s a rock, stupid.”

The next day, I find a rock that is so dull that it defines dull. Of no particular shape and yellow brown in color, it is the kind of rock that escapes our notice at the side of the road, a dust crusted rock, a quarry chunk. Within two minutes I am seeing the history of the earth recapitulated in its tiny, even minuscule folds and pondering the mystery of the rejected one.

Human beings have an irresistible need to make patterns. Patterns aid us against the terrors of the unknown. Patterns are what give us all the best stories and theories and equations and fractals. My patterns are a window into my soul. But my patterns may or may not be true. They may be nothing more than habits, or assumptions or desires, or even denial. Patterns are just as good as hiding things as revealing them.

It is in this tension between rock and not rock that the truth is to be found.

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