Walking along a mountain path, the student asked the teacher: “Teacher, how do I enter into Zen?” To which the teacher replied: “Do you hear that distant mountain stream?” The student listened, but couldn’t. The teacher then said, “Listen harder.” After a while the student heard the faint sound of a stream and said “Yes, I hear it now” and the teacher instructed, “ Enter into Zen from there.”
Meditation and mindfulness can be described as the cultivation of a consciousness of egoless awareness. Sometimes, it is also described as choiceless awareness, which amounts to the same thing, for it is ego, that experience of a separate me struggling in a dangerous universe, that is always choosing to attend to what it thinks is important. The egoic mind is always categorizing the world into what it is attracted to, that is, what it wants, and what it experiences as a threat, that which it doesn’t want. So, we are attending in our lives to a very narrow band of possibilities within the vast richness that is Life.
There are several problems with this. First, what we want and don’t want is all a matter of conditioning. Some of the conditioned learning is appropriate, such as; fire is good for warmth, but don’t stick your hand in it. Some of it is deeply problematic, such as; stick to your own kind, you can’t trust people who are different. Our lives are a construct of learned judgments concerning what we want to bring to us for our happiness and what we want to keep away from, fearful that it will take our happiness away.
The second problem with this conditioning is its inherent limitations. While we have some relative clarity about what we want and what we don’t want, we are, by definition, ignorant of all the rest of Creation not included in either of these two judgmental categories. We are paying next to no attention to the category that is neither what we want and like nor what we don’t want and don’t like. This third category encompasses a great deal of Life, particularly its subtler qualities, wherein lie much of the best that Life has to offer.
In his book, Wherever You Go There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. Let us first examine the paying of attention on purpose. We may think we are paying attention, but, in truth, most of us in this culture suffer, more or less, from attention deficit disorder, and, as is the case with diagnosed mental illness, it is only the more extreme cases that get diagnosed and treated within the Western psychological model. The egoic dimension of mind is so immersed in its cravings and its anxieties, that it is shifting focus constantly, both within its stream of thoughts and in the external world, trying to keep track of identifying what it wants and what it doesn’t want. We seldom, really pay attention in a focused, stable way. We must learn to purposefully pay attention if we are going to experience Life fully and experience the richness in individual phenomenon.
Next is the issue of paying attention in the present moment. The egoic mind is a chaotic time-travel machine, always flitting into the past keeping track of its stories of successes and failures, and into the future, strategizing how to be more successful in its agenda. It is seldom focused clearly and for any duration in this moment, where life is actually happening. Again, we are missing most of life, because we simply are not present in a focused, stable way. And if we are focused into the present moment, we are mostly in a state of judgment, deciding whether the contents of the moment are to our liking or not.
Which brings us to paying attention non-judgmentally. We may think we have a pretty good idea of how judgment operates in our lives. We may be able to cite our various pro and con prejudices of what we like and don’t like. But do we really know how pervasive judgment is in our lives? Can we enumerate beyond our obvious prejudices what biases and misperceptions we are unconscious to? Do we know that practically our entire life-experience is a matrix of projected judgments intricately weaved into a world-view? I believe not, for we see the world the way our conditioning has contoured the world, bringing forward for attention what we are conditioned to pay attention to and leaving out as unobserved background, all the rest. This selective perception is a form of judgment.
What makes this so important is, to quote Gestalt psychologist Fritz Perls, “The contours of our neurosis are the same as the contours of our awareness.” To put this in practical terms, the contours of the world as experienced by an angry person is full of reasons to be angry, and the contours of the world as experienced by an anxious person is full of reasons to be anxious. To borrow another Gestalt maxim, “Thou art projection.”
On the other hand then, the contours of a mindful person paying attention purposefully, presently and non-judgmentally are bigger, fuller and thicker with the potential of the world, as-it-is. The mindful person experiences the moment in a way that will begin to dissolve their neurotic limitations precisely because the contours of their awareness have expanded. They are not experiencing the world in an awareness that is locked down into the contours of neurotic egoic conditioning. They can hear the distant mountain stream.
We become saner and more resourceful. We become more responsive to life’s potential and less reactive to our conditioned limitations. Life begins to open into more and more of its subtle potential for satisfying and wise living. How do we enter into Zen? Listen, look, feel and experience Life here-and-now with deliberate egoless openness to the subtleties of the moment. Hear the silence beneath all sound; see the space within which all form exists, experience the stillness beneath all movement. Thus the subtleties of sight, sound and form become richly available. There, we will discover Life. There we discover that we are not only alive, but that we are the awareness of Life itself. We will have entered into Zen.