We are living in a revolutionary cultural moment. The term “mindfulness” and related practices are becoming common language. For the first time in history, masses of people are learning to stand “next to” their mental creations and notice them. Rather than immediately believing in or being identified with these impressions, people are actually witnessing and observing them. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Throughout human history most violence and intolerance came from people’s inability to question their own thoughts and feelings. This is a truly remarkable moment in the evolution of consciousness. Our minds/brains are constantly generating impressions. This is what they do, this is their healthy functioning. The Zen Master Uchiyama Roshi called this “secreting thoughts”. I would say, we are secreting thoughts/feelings/sensations or what I call “impressions”. We can say that from the infinite potential of the next moment “some-thing” is created. Mindfulness is the process of observing these creations. One does not empty the mind, one notices the “somethings”.
While mindfulness is extremely helpful in cultivating a different relationship to mental phenomena, the meditation that I practice and teach emphasizes something quite different. Though we still notice the various ‘arisings’ of mind and body, this noticing is not the center or the purpose of the practice. While this meditation, called “just sitting”, is not the same as mindfulness practice, it is not-not mindfulness. We sit with the paradox that while polishing the mirror (i.e. mindfulness) is essential, the mirror (our true nature) has never been tarnished.
This mirror image is based on a powerful and important story in the history of Zen. This historical event involves the choosing of a successor to the 5th Ancestor.
One day Hung-jen challenged his monks to compose a verse that expressed their understanding of the dharma. If any verse reflects the truth, Hung-jen said, the monk who composed it will receive the robe and bowl and become the Sixth Patriarch.
Shen-hsiu (Shenxiu), the most senior monk, accepted this challenge and wrote this verse on a monastery wall:
“Our body is the bodhi tree And our mind a mirror bright. Carefully we wipe them hour-by-hour And let no dust alight.”
When someone read the verse to the illiterate Huineng, the future Sixth Patriarch knew Shenxiu had missed it. Huineng dictated this verse for another to write for him:
“There is no bodhi tree Nor stand of a mirror bright. Since all is void, Where can the dust alight?”
This illiterate monk knew that true realization was beyond any activity of his mind. Rather, it arose from intimacy with his True nature. Although this intimacy cannot be created by any meditation practice, it can be encouraged by the practice of “just sitting”. As modern Zen teacher Baker Roshi has said, “enlightenment is an accident and zazen (“just sitting”) makes you accident-prone”. Intimacy comes from directly experiencing life itself.
Intimacy, Aliveness, Wholehearted Welcoming
For me, meditation is learning to be intimate with our lives, this intimacy is radically alive. Saying “alive” I do not mean to imply that it is pleasant or unpleasant, exciting or dull or anything in particular, rather that it is authentic and directly experienced. Before our opinions, beyond our preferences, life “just IS”. This “IS” can be sensed directly.
This “is-ness” is dynamic! You learn to surf the waves inherent in the movement of life. If carried off by thinking, one is committed to returning to the living moment. The core practice is wholeheartedly welcoming the moment. This is the practical ground for learning deep acceptance. This is the practical ground for just being yourself.
When there is a voice inside that fights or hates the moment we wholeheartedly welcome that. This meditation requires an attitude of generosity toward the moment, toward the self. We are not “doing” meditation, meditation is alive in itself. How can we know the experience/non-experience of intimacy and aliveness?
Confidence helps. What can we have confidence in? • Confidence that you are much more than the voices in your head. • Confidence that this moment is impermanent and always changing . • Confidence that your habitual, conditioned self is just a small part of you. • Confidence that you are directly connected to a vast field through awareness.
How do we get this confidence? I suggest many, many short moments of pausing and sensing into the background of the living moment. Let go of accomplishing something; sense how you know you are alive right now. This sensing is most directly felt as a bodily experience. Our body is always vibrating with the aliveness of the present moment. Even tiredness or dullness have qualities that can be felt. Sense what is alive right now! This requires a kind of listening and welcoming. Direct experiencing is always ‘right there’ yet it needs our invitation, our participation.
During a daily meditation practice of “just sitting” one can emphasize this resting into aliveness. Directly sensing the way life is known right now, we can rest in the awareness that notices. Mindfully observing the particular phenomena in the moment can be included with a light touch. Do not form the sense of a “solid observer”. Allow a feather-like noting of the momentary impression. Even when you notice a long, involved ‘story’ do not take it so personally, treat it lightly. The impression then dissolves like a snowflake falling into a mountain lake.
Turning the Light Around
When zazen does zazen, you are you. When you are you, zazen can do zazen. This knowing is simple, authentic and direct.
We have the expression “effortless effort”. This means it takes a clear, strong committed intention to rest in the light of “just sitting”. When we turn the light around toward the experience of being alive, the experiencer and the experience dissolve and all that remains is bowing to the intimacy with living.
The point of meditation is not to control the mind or to be mindful. It is to be intimate with self and life. This intimacy is alive because you are alive. You do not “do” meditation. Warmhearted welcoming creates the conditions in which meditation can reveal you to yourself.
I will end with a famous, wonderful dialogue.
A student asked Master Chao Jo (Zhaoruo)
What is zazen?
“It is non-zazen” he replied
“How can zazen be non-zazen?
“Its Alive!", Chao Jo replied
by Russell Delman, January 2013