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I practice, here (or, the importance of the present moment)

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.

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Name the Colors, Blind the Eye [, a] Zen Dialectic

One:
The title is, I’m told, an old Zen saying. In looking at the specifics of a situation, in labeling the elements of an experiences, we are limiting our understanding rather than deepening our awareness. In looking for the specifics or meaning we are keeping ourselves from really seeing.

This is a concept clearly applicable to nearly every situation in life. When we define an idea or a person we have already limited our perception of what is really before us.

The antithesis of this argument is the old adage, “if it quacks like a duck.” My iPhone has the ability to quack. Is it in fact a duck? Perhaps in a former life.

Labeling is a very helpful ability in evolutionary terms. If something looks like a snake we assume it is a snake and know to stay away.

I think to be slow to judge is in fact quite a value. To really understand someone we have to listen and focus on the message transmitted rather than our intuitive desire to just assume.  We have to be willing to shrug off biases and see the individual for who they are.

Unhappiness is always an option. It is easy to create associations between the aspects of life and create a narrative in which we in fact are the poor, sad benefactor of life’s cruel misery. This is, however, not the reality of the situation.

We are a part of the whole. What is misery for us might in fact be a tremendous improvement for another. Life is chance and we roll the dice every morning. We play well or we simply hope the next morning will bring a new configuration.

Two:
But is it up to us to decide our fate in a situation? What about the time when things are truly terrible? If someone in a ski mask is holding a gun to our head are we to ignore the objects on display and try not to assume that we are being mugged? When is it beneficial to make judgments and when is it systemic of a deficiency? Should we always assume the best in people in situations?

We cannot say for sure how a situation will turn out in the end. We pay attention to the colors so we can survive what life throws at us. We are born to survive and reproduce. We are happy when our needs (both natural and assumed) are met. We are not happy when we lack or experience loss.

Three:
The meaning is what is found by looking at the meaning. We create meaning from our judgments. It is in looking at this statement and considering its “truthiness” that gives me the ability to create meaning from its parts. I might say, “Yes, I understand this statement to mean … as being a figurative analogy regarding the way I should live my life.” But in this I am giving weight or purpose to the color of nuance.

I have to realize that the logical must give way in moments to the understandings that are not definable or describable. If I assume a logical understanding of not the statement but rather the intuitive awareness that is created through its reading, I am missing the true intuition that is available as its purpose. I must cease to define the object, even the meaning as an object, to create space for the purpose of the statement.

I picture a simple example: a man, dressed like a thug serving food to the homeless and crying while watching chick flicks. The image conveys meaning. But in this I have created meaning around the simplicity of the meaning. The man might in fact steal food from the soup kitchen out of spite. But I cannot know this. I have to experience the moment and gauge that the situation might not in fact be what it seems – in both the good and the bad. In this sense it is through the reduction of meaning that the meaning becomes clear: it is the moment that matters, not our interpretation.

Only in defining the experience can I know my relationship to the meaning. I am the one who defines the colors and the color of the statement. I am the one who finds meaning in the statement. I define the statement and loose the meaning in phrasing a sentence about its purpose and understanding. It is the individual who is creating, not the creation itself.

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