New Dharma Talk: Attention is the Beginning of Devotion

As “devotion” is a loaded of a word some, we can also define it as loving attention and dedication. If you’re a familiar with Mary Oliver’s poetry, you’ll recognize “attention is the beginning of devotion” as a quote from her. In the talk I include a few of her poems that so perfectly reflect how attention leads to devotion through even the everyday elements of life and nature. I also talk about how devotion can be a balancing factor of heart and mind.

Cleaning Up the Junkyard

Over time, if we don’t cultivate awareness through a consistent mindfulness and meditation practice, our minds may become cluttered like a junkyard. Maybe long ago the junkyard was just a pretty field in the country surrounded by trees, grass, and flowers in the spring. Then gradually we began to collect old thoughts, like tarnished, broken down cars. If we grow too accustomed to them, we may even cling to them like ancient treasures.

Slowly they begin to rust and old fluids leak into the ground, polluting the soil so that nothing can grow. But we may not even notice until the day we decide to plant a garden. Taking a fresh view of the yard, all we can see is junk from one end to the other: not one spot for planting

 With this perspective we have to take a closer look at our collection of old thoughts and beliefs, to find a way to make space for a garden. But how? It’s not as simple as doing a quick clean up and replacing all the old rotting cars we’ve accumulated for years or decades with a nourishing vegetable garden. We have to start with what we’ve already got—to take time and really see the junk in the yard, to spend time with it, to live there for while. Not to drink the contaminated water in the ground, but to make our way through the clutter, to see each and every thing we’ve clung to and refused to let go.

The amazing thing about this practice is that we don’t need to make an aggressive project of clearing out the junkyard, even if we’re totally surrounded. Once we begin the practice of genuinely seeing our mess, but not adding to it, the debris begins clearing out on its own. Soon there’s a little spot for a garden, and new plants grow that nourish us. Pretty soon the field has more open patches as the junk inhabits a smaller space. Some debris is still there, and that’s ok. We don’t have to have to clear the entire yard to begin growing our garden. Even if we’re still left with some old hardware, we may appreciate the patterns and colors of the rust, and we may find uses for the old tires.  Perhaps a tree swing would be nice, just over the garden.


A bird in a secluded grove sings like a flute.

Willows sway gracefully with their golden threads.

The mountain valley grows the quieter as the clouds return.

A breeze brings along the fragrance of the apricot flowers.

For a whole day I have sat here encompassed by peace,

Till my mind is cleansed in and out of all cares and idle thoughts.

I wish to tell you how I feel, but words fail me.

If you come to this grove, we can compare notes.

Ch’an master Fa-yen

Wisdom on The Rocks

On a cool, sunny June afternoon I started one of my frequent hikes at Radnor Lake. There’s a steep paved road just past the parking lot that leads to the lake.  In one area, damaged by a major flood, the road is all gravel and a bit bumpy to traverse. As I approached the graveled area, I saw a young man in a wheelchair suddenly grab his wheels and try to turn back toward the parking lot. He protested loudly about riding over the gravel and appeared quite frightened. One of his companions calmly encouraged him not to be afraid, reminding him that the lake was just past the gravel so he needed to go through it to enjoy the scenery. This seemed to calm him down a bit and he let go of his efforts to escape the gravel. At that point he had already ridden halfway through anyway, so either going or returning meant equal contact with the gravel.

As I walked past, he appeared more relaxed as one of his companions moved him forward in the chair.  Suddenly he opened his mouth and allowed the sound of his voice to reflect the bumpiness of the gravel. It was as if his whole body had become one with the gravel, completely connected with the experience of going over the rocks. I realized he was giving a wonderful dharma talk – directly reflecting how he had let go of aversion and was allowing himself to experience the moment fully. There was no fear in his voice, just a manifestation of the moment’s bumpiness.

I smiled as a deep gratitude arose in my heart for the inherent wisdom we can all access through the simple, yet often challenging act of letting go. This young man was intellectually disabled in a way that kept him from communicating as freely and easily as most of us. Yet in facing his fear and releasing his efforts to escape the gravel, he relaxed into the moment and allowed the bumpiness to penetrate his whole body. Soon he was back on the smooth pavement and had the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful lake just ahead.

May we all find the wisdom to let our whole hearts and bodies meet the gravel when it comes and to enjoy the serene, deep lake that follows.

by Lisa Ernst