A brilliant Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher was famous for pointing to an image of a bird flying in a clear blue sky and asking, “What do you see?”. The answer would usually be, “A bird”. The teacher would then point to the sky and ask, “Why didn’t you acknowledge the sky, since it makes up 99% of what you see?”
This is simply how the mind works. It is conditioned to pick up on objects and their movement. If you were to look out over an open field, your attention would be drawn to objects and movement appearing in that open field.
When you turn inward in meditation the same thing happens. The mind notices movements, objects, mental formations etc. without including the open field of space and stillness that these contents inhabit.
It gets interesting when you focus on the space in which contents arise; with practice, you can recognize the subtle formation of said contents.
Ever wonder what happens before you notice something? Before something appears, how many layers, how many subtitles, how many impressions can be known? Can you teach yourself to become sensitive to these subtleties?
By the time you or I “see” something, it has manifested in a myriad of subtle formations. These subtle formations offer unique chances to choose to abandon or nurture our attentional involvement with more ease. On the other hand, if we see the world as already formed and concrete, it can be harder to dismantle.
Urgyen Rinpoche often said, “The difference between samsara and nirvana is simply the direction we are looking; looking outward, we are in samsara, looking inward we are in nirvana”. Rinpoche was pointing to the opportunity, here in each moment, to abide in the space in which things arise, and the ability to catch and free yourself if need be.
Being with subtle mental formations and appearances as they arise can be a conscious co-creation of natural process and the choice to be present and allowing. Whether or not you and I have learned how to open to what’s happening influences how it’s ultimately experienced. The good news is, there is always the opportunity to connect with wisdom from the outset, and gather insights along the way.
Ultimately, the goal is to use this keen gentle awareness to be mindful of these subtleties which can guide and benefit you, me, and countless others in this world we share.