Shifting on a low wooden bench, knees tight from the unusual position, my mind wrestles with focus. This is not uncommon, but rather the feel of something ordinary, regular but unnoticed, like the cadence of a subway turnstile in a busy manhattan station.
One thought passes through, a memory from earlier that day. I picture the scene and sift through the critical few moments. The scene is altered, I react differently this time, my mind practicing for the next occurrence.
The flicker of a candle reminds me of where I am and the practice at hand. From somewhere aware I remind myself to let the thought subside, to dwindle out. I first force it away and then calm my attitude, letting it settle out like a candle at the end of it’s wick. It isn’t the result that matters but the action. The goal isn’t an empty mind, but one disciplined to not fixate and focus on the internal world.
Zen is not a practice performed in a group setting, in a room with Asian motifs on every wall. It is, from what I can best ascertain after just two years of experience, a practice of intentional living, the mind trained to be present in each moment. But this does not mean you shouldn’t think of the past or forget what has happened; it means you don’t dwell there.
And this dwelling is the central point and the reason for this writing. When I sit I practice so later I can be more aware of the moment and my place within. Why am I reacting to strongly to the person next to me? Why do I object so strongly to an idea proposed by my wife or a peer? Where am I unintentionally (or even intentionally) deceiving my self or others? Did I even see the new building being built next door?
It will be obvious to most the impact our devices have had on our ability to be present. But this is nothing new. Humanity has seemingly always had books and events and games, among other experiences, distracting us from the moment. Roman leaders would provide food and entertainment to citizens at key moments to distract from the turmoil or gain key political advantage, leading to the expression “bread and circuses”. As long as we are fixated on something more enjoyable we are free from seeing the subtle and nuance, good or bad.
But the now is filled with nuance that is often overlooked. As I write I am looking at a crumpled paper towel. It’s folds and creases unique and original, shadows cast on the side away from the window. Patterns formed in manufacturing create a textured look that could be simply tactile in function or provide for better absorption. In touching the surface in a quiet room a sound is produced, barely audible unless close to my ear. I am reminded of the unmistakable sound of a burning cigarette as an actor in a film takes a long, purposeful draw, its glowing amber reflected in the sound it makes, the volume increased drastically for noticeable effect. I hear the sound of leather shoes on marble flooring (truly one of my very favorite sounds), taking on the rhythmic vocabulary of horse and rider but with the clear and distinct audible aroma of wealth and power.
This moment would have never happened had I been fixated on yesterday, or a recent issue with someone close, my mind plagued and overrun with the memory.
I do not use the word plague lightly. A thought can be truly overwhelming, overtaking all other thoughts and plunging the body into a physiological reaction. As someone with diagnosed OCD, I know this feeling well. Perfectly comfortable in bed at night, lights off, drifting off to sleep, I often get up and check the door again to ensure it is still locked from the last time I checked minutes ago. The thought of insecurity and “what if” permeates and courses through my mind like red dye in a glass of clear water, my body raising my heart rate and releasing cortisol. Until I react I can not go to sleep, I believe. It seems or feels out of my control.
It is difficult to know how we will feel or react to a situation. Sometimes the mind is treated as a separate entity in the way we might refer to our bodies as separate but connected. The mind seems to, well, have a mind of its own. The lion will never be tamed, but it can be trained. This may seem like a limitation, but it is not. In training we might have a full experience, not limited to what ever mental conditioning we have been subjected to that has gone on unchecked for so long it feels natural and normal.
With practice I create space and room to breathe. My emotions and thoughts are expressions, or tenants, rather than owners. I let them come and go. I see the value and benefit to feeling them but I do not let them invade and take over.
The more we see these moments for what they are, our emotions and reactions too, the closer we come to seeing ourselves for who we really are. Who am I?
These are things I notice and am learning as I practice, here.