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Attentiveness and the Soul

You know how if you repeat an ordinary word out loud over and over, at some point it seems to lose its meaning and become just a succession of sounds that don’t seem like they connect to each other or to anything else? It’s a curious experience, possibly unsettling, but also peaceful in a way. And even though the meaning seems to get separated from the sounds, you never lose the confidence that you still have access to the meaning somewhere inside you if you need it, though it’s just out of active consciousness in this moment.

If you’ve never done this, try it! Use any word that comes to you—table, flower, beauty—and say it out loud (maybe when you’re by yourself) over and over. Don’t look for anything; don’t expect anything; don’t try to make anything happen. Just say the word and then say it again, and keep doing that, and see what happens. It usually doesn’t take that long. And if you start to experience what I’m describing, keep going for a while to really explore the experience. Try hard not to get too much in your head—like trying to figure out what’s happening, or even labeling or describing what’s happening—just repeat the word and let the exploration of it come to you. Let yourself become the follower here, not the leader or director. Your part is to repeat the word; the rest happens by itself, and the more you can stay out of its way and just observe, the deeper you will go into the experience.

I used to do this a lot when I was a kid, trying to figure out what made a particular collection of sounds have a particular meaning and marveling at how a very familiar word could be reduced to something almost unrecognizable just by repeating it. I had no idea that that was effectively a form of meditation. Later, when I learned Transcendental Meditation, I discovered that that practice is very similar, though it uses a syllable (mantra) that doesn’t have any particular meaning, and the repetition is done silently. But the effect is the same—at some point, the mantra loses whatever sense you had of it being a coherent “thing,” and you settle into a state of stillness and deep peace.

In addition to the many benefits of meditation that I’ve talked about many times before, it’s also just a really fascinating look at the world we know well—including ourselves—but at a level that is not ordinarily visible or otherwise accessible. That is the level of our authentic selves—perhaps we could call it the soul—and it lives in wonderment at the vastness, awesomeness, peacefulness, and joy of being alive in this world.

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