through summer marsh grass -
tension within calm
A haiku moment at Barn Island Wildlife Management Area in Stonington, CT, Monday late morning, September 6, 2021:
Roxanne and I were talking about a peaceful place we love to visit but which is hard to paint because there are no focal points. "It is calm in that place because there is nothing to catch the eye, and all the views have long, horizontal lines", she said. The place is an island on the edge of Long Island Sound, and indeed, what she says is true. Wonderfully long horizontal lines of water, distant land, and sky have an enormously calming affect on the mind. It is why that place is so peaceful.
It is the same with quiet prayer. We close our eyes and quiet the mind so that there is little to focus on visually except for awareness itself. When thoughts come (and they always do), we just "catch ourselves" and let it go, gently and without emotion. It is not the quiet part that is the prayer; it is the recurring letting-go of thoughts and focus that is the work . . . it is the practice of returning to quiet that is the point. And so, as calming as quiet prayer is, there is also the slightest bit or tension within it as the thoughts are allowed to come and to be let go.
Barn Island can be like this. The path opens three or four times into open vistas with long horizontal lines of summer-reddened marsh grass, distant land, and clouds. Fortunately for the painter, there are focal points to be found. In this case, a bend in a meandering tidal creek. The water catches the light sky color, contrasting strongly with the dark roots of the marsh grasses on the bank. It is this contrast in tone value between light and dark that naturally attracts the eye, interrupting the calmness of the place with a kind of tension that both disrupts and captures the mind.
Humans seems to be wired to find the focal points . . . the places of greatest contrast . . . the hard edges of things. Somewhere hundreds of thousands of years ago in grasslands long since forgotten, it was this trick of the mind that helped our ancestors survive. The ones who designed modern social media and the "doom-scrolling" phenomena know this! They offer an endless scrolling of focal points down the screen. These seem to carry with them them an assortment of emotions, many of which are not so good. Kittens can bring a smile, but it is the headlines and memes that call up anger, sadness, and fear . . . the stories of greatest contrast between good and evil . . . the hard edges of life.
I wonder if we can see this tidal creek in a way that will, like quiet prayer, help us to receive the tension of the focal point, then gently let it go and return to the calmness of long vista and horizontal lines. Can we know, going into a place, that we will be seduced by the focal points? Can we set our hearts to be gentle with these moments so that we can acknowledge them with kindness, and then let them go and return to the long horizontal lines where calmness and serenity are found? Can we work at letting go?
Painting by Roxanne Steed
Haiku and meditation by Ronald Steed
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