Watching the sun rise over a large body of water – the slowly increasing illumination of the sky, the colors captured in thin clouds, the moment the top of the sun first appears and the minutes that pass as the sun makes what appears to be its journey from the waters into the sky – is something I will always take the time to watch. Ideally, that large body of water is the ocean, but living about as far from an ocean as you can get in North America, for me it is more likely Lake Superior, a fine fresh water substitute. While the visual phenomenon of a sunrise is a joy in itself, the sun rising over water is also a central symbol of my spirituality.
Both the sun and water are important symbols in many forms of spirituality. Many early religions equated the sun with a god, which makes sense. The sun is the celestial object that has by far the greatest impact on us. It brings light to the darkness, warmth to the earth, and life from the soil. It marks out day and night and in its solstices and equinoxes mark the seasons.
Of aquatic symbolism, Mircea Eliade writes: “The waters symbolize the universal sum of virtualities; they are fons and origo, ‘spring and origin,’ the reservoir of all the possibilities of existence; they precede every form and support every creation….This is why the symbolism of the waters implies both death and rebirth.” Baptism, which ritualizes the death of the old natural self and rebirth of a new spiritual self, is a use of this symbolism of which we are probably all familiar.
The symbolism of the sun rising over the water contains for me something of these universal symbols of sun and water. But more particularly, I find in it an apt symbol of mindfulness and the practice of meditation.
The foundation of mindfulness is awareness and the ability to focus awareness. Awareness is a kind of “reservoir of all the possibilities of existence.” Insubstantial and intangible, it is a great emptiness into which, in the course of a life, a continuous parade of phenomena enter, do their brief song and dance, and depart again.
The ability to focus awareness is similarly insubstantial, yet it is also something we can cultivate. Mindfulness is largely that cultivation. Through practice we can become more intentional about what we focus on. We can prolong or shorten the song and dance of the phenomena that enters our mind, by increasing our focus or turning our attention elsewhere.
As a symbol, the sun over the water brings to mind these two factors of mindfulness – the water as a symbol of formless awareness and the sun as the active principle that gives form and intentionality to awareness. But more importantly for me, it brings to mind the actual practice and experience of mindfulness.
All forms of spirituality have their central symbols. Such symbols as the yin/yang symbol of Taoism, the symbol for Om in some forms of Hinduism, the tree of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, can provide a gateway to a deep and complex set of ideas and associations. They are gilded gateways to spiritual contemplation.
Is there such a symbol that you find particularly fertile?
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Beyond symbolic possibilities, a sunrise (or sunset) of any kind, if we take the time to be really mindful of it, is an ample beauty in and of itself. One of the many gifts of being mindful is the discovery that the world is rife with such beauty.
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