Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Mindfulness is gently and quietly paying attention to the moment.  That moment may include what you are doing, what you are looking at, what you are listening to, what you are saying, and what you are thinking.  It is being aware.  Your mind is alert but relaxed; concentrating but not exerting effort.  It is a natural, peaceful state full of calm, compassion, and consideration.  The best analogy is the bamboo shoot—pliable but strong; able to bend but not easily broken. Mindfully wash the dishes or place them in the dishwasher.  Do this with slowness, attention, and intention.  Brush your teeth mindfully, use the toilet mindfully, clean the kitchen mindfully, cut the grass mindfully, and sit at your computer desk mindfully.  You can do all of these activities with equanimity and joy.  Joy doesn't have to be boisterous.  It can be quiet.  Joy is contentment.  You achieve contentment by being there with whatever you are doing.  Set aside your judgments, pay attention, be aware, and accept the moment as it is. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stepping Back

In Japanese Zen there is a concept called eko hensho.  It's most simple translation would be stepping back.  It's longer translation would be turning the light around and shining (or looking) back.  Either way, what it means is that we step back from our current situation and our current thoughts and we look at the situation and the thoughts with a non-attached perspective.  This is hard to do.  Remember that non-attachment is not not caring.  Non-attachment is not giving up, becoming apathetic, or saying whatever happens happens.  This is futilism.  Zen is the anthesis of futilism.  Stepping back means you take a breath, you clean your mind, and you prevent yourself from running head on without looking in all directions into the traffic of imbroglio.  Again, this might either be a situation in our own lives, someone else's live, or your own thoughts.  Whatever it is, step back, wait, reflect, stay quiet and still for awhile, and then proceed forward with equanimity and compassion.  When we turn the light around and shine it back at ourselves, we ahve the opportunity to illuminate our true nature, the nature of equanimity and compassion.  Whenever we can manifest our true nature we will act, think, and speak responsibly and respectfully, mindfully stepping forward.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I once had an experience during meditation where I sensed that the room had disappeared.  I felt as if someone had taken a razor and sliced away everything that was at my sides, my back, my front, above, and below me, and all that left was myself, suspended in the universe.  I was the moment.  Another time during meditation I had the sensation that I was part of everything, that there was no separation between me and the wall and floor and the air outside and the trees and buildings and the town and the entire universe.  There was no me.  There was no tree.  There was simply an interconnected and continuous energy field.  I existed not separate from any of this but because of all of this, as a part of all of this.  I was the moment.  Another time, I was walking in the woods and I had the sensation of being the earth.  I was not a human living on the earth; I was the earth.  I was an organism comprised of earth, no different than a tree, bird, or whale. And even bigger, because the earth is not a part of the universe, but the universe itself, then I was the universe.  Another time, I was chopping vegetables, and suddenly, and only for a couple seconds, there was no separation between me and the vegetables and the chopping of the vegetables.  It was just the moment: being peace, doing peace. 

Sometimes I think these four experiences were just unusual meditative states.  Usually, during meditation, I am much more grounded: aware of my body, my breathing, my surroundings, thinking, wondering, worrying, imagining.  Zazen is about staying close to the moment and becoming more aware of your reality. That is why we don't' close our eyes. It is not about visualizing. It is not about taking ourselves to another realm, a different state of being. It is about being in the moment right here, right now, much as you are when you are typing on a computer or driving a car. You are just doing these things. You are not having a strange out of body experience. 

Sometimes I think these four moments were moments of enlightenment.  In Zen, there is a concept called samadhi.  It is a term that describes a non-dualistic state of consciousness in which the consciousness of the experiencing subject becomes one with the experienced object, and in which the mind becomes still—one-pointed or concentrated.  It is also described as absorption. Like a sponge absorbing water, the consciousness absorbs the moment; becomes the moment; there is no separation; there is no this and that, self and other.  Another closely related concept to samadhi is satori.  The word means understanding. Satori refers to deep or lasting enlightenment.. A third concept related to samadhi and satori is kensho.  Kensho is seeing the nature,  the experience of enlightenment. The word denotes an initial awakening experience, seeing one's awakened nature, that can be enlarged and clarified through further practice in daily life.  If these four moments were moments of enlightenment, then what does that mean for me? That I'm enlightened?  Perhaps.  Most likely not.

Besides, being enlightened still means you take out the trash and change the cat litter and go to work and drive your car and fill your gas tank and eat and poop and laugh and cry and worry.  It just means that maybe you do all that stuff with a more joyous heart; maybe you do all that stuff with more attention, awareness, and appreciation.  Enlightenment isn't what we think it is.  It doesn't radically change your life in the sense that you walk around in a constant blissful state of being and attract millions of people to you like a guru.  Rather it means that you walk around in a content state of being most of the time and go about your business quietly. People might be attracted to you because you are patient, peaceful, and kind, but they wouldn't say, "Oh yes, he's enlightened."  They just notice something different about you, something that seems healthy and happy and wholistic.  As the old saying goes, you chop wood and carry water.  Or to give it a modern twist, you flick a switch and you turn on the faucet.  And you do that over and over and over again, much like kensho. 
And while it is a big deal, it's no big deal.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Reality is Thought

"Everything you need for your venture is, in actuality, already there, waiting for you; you only need to draw in what is needed." 
--from Zen and The Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss

Often we want to do something and we think, How can I? I don't have the talent or the opportunity or the connections or the resources or the know how.  The truth of the matter is that we do.  If we want to do something, then the desire is our impetus, the desire is the action that pushes us forward.

Remember that all reality was once a thought.  Take a chair, for example. We think it's a chair and it is a chair, but what was it before it was a chair?  It was wood.  And what was it before it was wood? It was a thought. Someone thought I am going to design a chair and make a chair (or have a factory make a chair) and then it became a chair.  A book.  What was a book before it was a book? It was a thought in some one's head.  A pro skateboarder wasn't always a pro skateboarder.  He became a pro skateboarder. He thought about it all the time. He practiced. He met other people. He studied skateboarding. He practiced more.  He made it happen. 

So it is with us. If we want something to happen in our lives, if we want to accomplish something, then everything thing we need to accomplish it is there. It is first within us and then without of us.  You just have to look for the opportunities and take them.  Sometimes you have to make them.  Whatever you want to do, then do it.  Pursue it until you reach it.  Success comes to those who continue to pursue their dreams. Sometimes it takes a long time, longer than we expect; sometimes it is more difficult than we expect, but if we view those obstacles as opportunities, then our path is lined with interesting terrain. 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Muddy Thoughts and Clear Minds

Our true mind is a clear mind. We often forget this. We let our thoughts muddy our minds. But our true minds are like a glass of pure water. Put sand in the glass and the sand sinks to the bottom and discolors the water. But the original water is still pure water. So it is with our minds. We just have to remember that our natural state is one of a clear mind. A clear mind is a calm and happy mind. We need to return to this over and over again, and when we know that this is the original nature of our minds, then we simply need to return gently and patiently.

Often when we cloud our minds with worrisome thoughts we just want to get rid of those thoughts as quickly as possible. I know I do. They are not pleasant thoughts. They taint the way we look at everything--our present moment, our imagined future, our remembered past. But sometimes you just have to give them time. You have to accept that this is where your mind is. I used to think that "enlightened" people, Zen teachers, for example, always had clear mind, never worried, and constantly lived with bliss in the present moment. I could not have been farther from the truth. I studied with a Zen teacher for five years, seeing her several times a week. She had studied Zen for almost thirty years, several decades with prominent Zen teachers in America and Japan. She had lived in a Zen monastery in Japan for five years. I assumed she would always have clear and calm mind. But, like every "enlightened" teachers she is still a human being and by nature we as human beings have active minds that often think and over think and worry. The difference is that she, as a Zen priest, understood that this was not her natural mind. Her natural mind was one of purity. She gently and repeatedly returned to this state of mind.

So must we, over and over again. It takes practice. It takes effort. It means looking at our minds and understanding our minds. It means accepting our minds when they muddy themselves. It's not always easy to accept our minds or our situations. But sometimes for a clear mind to occur we must. For example, where I live I hear the sound of traffic from a prominent four lane highway about a mile away and the sonic boom of jet airplanes as they pass overhead on their way to the airport about five miles away. Both of these sounds have always bothered me. They intrude upon my idea of peace, which is one with more silence. But that is an important admission: it is my idea of peace. Someone else might not care about the traffic and jet sounds. I can either let it bother me and make me unhappy and discontent or I can accept it as what is happening right now, right here.

It is the same with our thoughts. If we find ourselves thinking constantly in angry, fearful, depressed, or discontent ways than we shouldn't accept this as "the way we are" and just continue thinking these thoughts. This is resignation to a pattern of thinking that is not healthy for us mentally or physically and certainly doesn't create a life fully lived. What we have to do is examine, investigate, and analyze those thoughts. Where do they come from? When do they creep into our lives? Why do they appear? Why do we continue to think like this? Once we can identify and categorize them we have more power over them. We can accept them because we understand them. We shouldn't try to get rid of them as soon as they appear because they will just keep reappearing. We have to deal with them. And we deal with them by looking at them and naming them. We deal with them by asking ourselves what is a different way of thinking about this situation? What change do I need to make in myself or my situation to prevent this thought or feeling from sullying my clear mind again? When we can do that then more often than not we can have the clear mind that is our true nature.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Accepting Reality Through Serenity

Accepting our reality, the present moment, is often difficult. Acceptance takes great effort. Acceptance requires great patience. Acceptance becomes our practice, the practice of Zen. Sometimes we never accept aspects of our reality. We are annoyed and irritated by a condition or situation. This is stress. This is suffering. There will always be stress. There will always be suffering. This is the first truth the Buddha taught. To hope for a life where there is so stress or suffering is unrealistic and impossible. However, how we react to that stress and suffering is why we practice Zen meditation and mindfulness. This is not to say we should be able to transcend our reality and accept all stress and suffering and reach a state of constant state of peace and contentment. Rather, what we do is work with our thoughts and emotions and accept those circumstances that stress us. We do our best to accept our thoughts and emotions and when we can’t, we accept that we can’t.

I was recently in a store and saw the famous Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr and was struck by the “zen” of its first line: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Reading it, I thought this simple sentence is all we need to know in life; is the dharma in a nutshell. When we contemplate its meaning, however, we realize it isn’t that simple.

God. In Zen, we might call God Nothingness, Emptiness, the Universe, our Original Nature, Interbeing, Impermanence.

The serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Can we reach that serenity in our fast paced, technology driven twenty first century society? If so, how? Zen would offer that acceptance is through meditation and mindfulness in everything we do. We must give ourselves the time to do. this We must make meditation and mindfulness a permanent fixture of our practice.

To accept the things I cannot change. That’s hard to do under any circumstances. And yet, we must accept life as it is and not as it was or as we wish it would be. We do this one breath at t a time, one step as time. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Peace is every step of the way.”

The courage to change. To change does take courage. To change means feeling the fear and doing it anyway. To change means taking a leap of faith and trusting that the net will appear. What is that net? Or friends, our family, the new people and opportunities that come into our lives to give us what we need to find contentment and confidence—our sangha, the universe unfolding itself.

To change the things I can. Knowing what to change, what we can change means thinking critically and contemplatively and creativity about our lives. Again, we must find time and make time to do this. This thinking is not monkey mind thinking, not inactive, not paralysis by analysis. Rather, it is dynamic. It is a mindfulness that comes from a combination of introspection, intuition and instinct.

The wisdom to know the difference. Wisdom is the knowledge of the heart and mind after years of experience and contemplation. Wisdom is awareness that all is impermanence and that this impermanence is interdependent. Wisdom is to know the difference between what we can change and what we can’t change. Not always easy to do, and yet, if we can know the difference then we get closer to accepting our reality.

The Dalai Lama has often states that the purpose of life is to be happy. Happiness is our awakened nature. We strive toward happiness, always remembering that happiness isn’t the destination, it is the journey, just like we always remember that acceptance isn’t the destination; acceptance is the journey. Serenity is what we do and think and feel right now and right here as we accept our reality, one breath at a time, one step at a time, in the midst of life as it is, whatever it is, because it is our one and only reality.