Mindfulness: The Great Challenge

Mindfulness doesn’t live and die on the cushion.
It’s a journey, an opportunity,
In every moment.
I can be here, present:
Composed and compassionate
Serene and serendipitous
Open and observant
Or I can be lost, confused:
Reactive and restricted
Selfish and selective
Dormant and dogmatic.


The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching §64, Trans. Jonathan Star

The Sage worries not about the journeys or tales of yesterday. Nor does he lose sight of the beginning step while looking at the future destination beyond the horizon. Knowing both, he steps forward, feeling every inch of ground in this step–right here, right now. The Sage’s secret wisdom?–This step is the only step. Each step is the beginning step. Each step is the whole journey. The only step to take is the one underfoot right now. The only journey is the current movement of the leg and foot, and there is no greater miracle than this. The Sage takes this step with awareness and gratitude–not lost, elsewhere, and not attached to any outcome.

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The present is direct and straightforward. Your experience of it is heightened through mindfulness. When you are mindful of your breath in meditation, when you mindful of your thoughts, or when you are mindful of going from the practice of meditation to dealing with the kitchen sink, all those situations are in the present. You don’t borrow ideas from the past, and you don’t try to fundraise from the future. You just stay on the spot, now.

That may be easy to say, but it’s not so easy to do. We often find it satisfying to have a reference point to what might happen in the future or what has happened in the past. We feel more relaxed when we can refer to past experiences to inform what is happening now. We borrow from the past and anticipate the future, and that makes us feel secure and cozy. We may think we are living in the present, but when we are preoccupied with the past and future, we are blind to the current situation.

Living in the present may seem like quite a foreign idea. What does that even mean? If you have a regular schedule, a nine-to-five job, you cycle through your weekly activities from Monday to Friday, doing what is expected of you and what you expect of yourself. If something out of the ordinary occurs, something that is completely outside of the routine of your Monday-to-Friday world, it can be quite disconcerting.

We are bewildered when something unexpected pops up. A flea jumps on your nose. What should you do? You swat at it or you ignore it if you can. If that doesn’t work, then you search for a memory from the past to help you cope. You try to remember how you dealt with the last flea that landed on you. Or you may try to strategize how you’ll prevent insects from bothering you in the future. None of that helps much. We can be much more present if we don’t pay so much attention to the past or expectations of the future. Then, we might discover that we can enjoy the present moment, which is always new and fresh. We might make friends with our fleas.
-Chögyam Trungpa, Mindfulness in Action, pp. 46-47.


May this inspire you to mindful presence in this moment.

Gassho!

 

 

Just This

Here’s one more set of Morning Pages that I wanted to share. The closing staccato of questions was inspired in part by having recently read Toni Packer’s “The Work of this Moment”, a beautiful book that I recommend to all.


Whatever arises. Whoever is here. Attend to them. You’re not in your past anymore. You’re not with future friends or later gatherings today, even. Be here. Now. This coffee shop. These people. They are but one small corner of the universe, and yet, they are the entire thing.

Beautiful and yet just a moment, one small distraction, can send the mind running away from this presence. I just was reminded of a case from yesterday, and my mind started cruising through reactive mode. I feel like there is a great lesson for practice in there for me today. I had anxious, restless, problem-solving dreams again last night.

Such reactivity is not the Way. Yet, I find my mind flying in such directions so readily. In meditation this morning, my mind did the same, and just now, I tumbled into an analysis of my ex’s “story” of what would happen to me in the future. How do we keep focused all the time–or for extended periods–without the constant screechings of monkey mind?

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Zen – Just This

Just this. That’s how. Right now, just writing. Just drinking coffee. This is the heart of mindfulness–just this.

With “just this“, I can be here now in this room full of people coming and going, aware of the fullness of this moment while still single-pointedly focusing on the tip of my pen moving across the paper.

Isn’t that somewhat of a miraculous sensation? I mean–feeling the pen slide across the paper in the grip of my hand? The edge of my hand also brushes along the paper as I glide through each word–one by one. This flows into this, one smooth unfolding of now… Of course, “now” turns this all into empty concept. Yet how do we express in language anything but these semantic boxes of use? There is no other way. Yet “now” is not now.

Perhaps, that is precisely why the teachings of the Dharma are a boat that is not to be held onto when the other side is reached. The teachings–the guiding concepts–would get in the way of actual presence–actual, live prajna–if you were to hold onto them as the key to insight once it has been achieved.

What is there to hold onto in being awake in this moment? Can I just show up to it without preconception of what it will be–something I’ve held onto from a past encounter? Will any words or concepts reveal this moment more to me, or will they all just try to capture it for expression? Can that be done, or is that just a picture of a rice cake (i.e. not the rice cake itself)? If I’m just here, is there anything left over to take on with me? Can I box up a piece of it and give it to someone else? Isn’t that just me creating a story to give to someone else to story–an ongoing story game of Telephone???


May this inspire you to do your own Zen work and be present to just this.

Gassho!

Showing Up?

I wonder right now how much of our lives are lived waiting for the next moment–in anticipation of something else. I just sipped my coffee, and I realized as the taste hit my tongue along with the tender reaction against the hot fluid that for the most part, these sips are taken automatically–rushing to do the next thing. It’s hardly even noticed because your mind is focused on whatever you are very briefly interrupting by picking up the coffee cup or whatever you will be doing as soon as you set it down.

I just took another sip, and I intentionally slowed down, feeling the heat from the coffee rising up against my face, looking down and seeing my reflection in the coffee: my eyes and nose rippling in the dark. How little are we present to our lives?

You might say that you show up all the time, but most any examples you would give would be the handful of moments that you look forward to–your escape from all the things you don’t want to be present for. It’s easy to show up for things you like. In fact, most people try to handle their lives by trying to make it all something they like, but this doesn’t save them from illness, old age, loss, and death. You’re going to be in moments you don’t want to be in–traffic jams, public restrooms, cat barf, and flubbed orders at restaurants… heartbreak, false friends, body aches, and self-righteous dunces.

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It’s hard to show up for the moments you don’t like

The question: Can you show up to all these moments too? Can you be present to all the things you don’t like? Can you sit with the world as it is with equanimity? Can you let this grow into the tender openness of compassion for all? I dare you to try.


May this help you develop mindful presence in all of life’s situations.

Gassho!

Mantra for Presence

One of the experiences that returns again and again in meditation is the flow of various thoughts.  At times, it can be difficult not to get swept away in the current of them all; rather than watching them wash by, rippling up and disappearing again, you can get pulled along and no longer see them as separate and impermanent. Getting carried away by them like this keeps them going and makes them seem solid, permanent things which are part of “me“.

Keeping a mindful presence is the challenge and boon of meditation. Returning the mind to breathing and sitting can save you from the ongoing rush of thoughts by opening some gaps–gaps of simple attentiveness and peaceful presence. One key to this in shamatha or shikantaza is labeling thoughts as “thinking” or more descriptively, “anger”, “lust”, “escapism”, etc. I’ve found that using the label “elsewhere” as a simple reminder that I’m not staying fully present here with my breath and body is effective. However, sometimes, a little more push can help. The other day, I found the following helpful and thought it worth sharing:

Be a Buddha

As you think this line, let all of your conceptual resonance for “Buddha” (e.g. mindfulness, equanimity, presence, compassion, images of the easy smile, etc.) pull you back to practice. Try to embody these concepts as inspiration for you to return back to your breath and be present to it. Let yourself adopt that gentle smile. It’s very likely that you’ll find you can’t stop…

If you need further focus, say this as well:

Smile at Mara

Mara is the demon that tried to tempt the Buddha and smite him down in the story of his attainment of Enlightenment. Those difficulties we encounter in life can be greeted with a smile: acceptance and equanimity. This transforms the swords and arrows of Mara into flowers, as in the Buddha’s tale. The swords and arrows of our own mind as well as our own tempting thoughts can be metamorphosed into calm and peace–the basic goodness of mind can be recognized as a lotus opening within the rippling thoughts. In saying this line, realize that you don’t have to master the thoughts. Rather, open yourself to them. Surrender to them. Act through inaction. Smile at them. In letting them be and surrendering to their flow, you’ll find that they aren’t solid at all, and they really aren’t about “me”. Rather, your mind is that calm lotus, and the thoughts flow past, impermanent, fluid, ephemeral.

Be a Buddha
Smile at Mara

May these words bring your mind peace.

Gassho


On the night on which he was to attain enlightenment, the Buddha sat under a tree. While he was sitting there, he was attacked by the forces of Mara. The story goes that they shot swords and arrows at him, and that their weapons turned into flowers.

What does this story mean? My understanding of it is that what we habitually regard as obstacles are not really our enemies, but rather our friends. What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck. What may appear to be an arrow or a sword we can actually experience as a flower. Whether we experience what happens to us an obstacle and enemy or as teacher and friend depends entirely on our perception of reality. It depends on our relationship with ourselves.–Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, p. 65