In Egyptian mythology, the Phoenix is the symbol of renewal. This creature, beautiful to behold, a bird of magnificent plumage, lived in the desert for hundreds of years. On completing its life cycle, it was consumed in flames and then renewed itself from the ashes.
There are times in our lives when we need to commit ourselves to renewal. Perhaps the way we have been living our lives isn’t working for us anymore. We seem to have completed something, or gone as far as we can with a particular path in life. At such times, the image of the Phoenix can be helpful.
To renew our lives, we must first honestly assess them. We must be courageous enough to listen to the truth about what we know but would prefer not to acknowledge. We must be willing to see the paths that have become habits that lead to frustration rather than fulfillment. In accomplishing assessment and renewal, Mindfulness is a very useful skill.
Mindfulness is a practice from the Vipassana tradition of meditation, a precursor to Zen. Vipassana translates as “insight.” To practice mindfulness is to practice the development of insight into the true nature of life and our part in it. With the focus of a cat watching a mouse hole, mindfulness trains us to watch and be aware of our mental activity, our conduct, our interactions and our experience of the world. In this way we develop a new level of awareness about who we are, who others are and what the world is really about.
You might think that concentrating awareness on how we experience the world would be painful, but paradoxically, the opposite is true. Once we begin to experience how unnecessarily self- conscious and self-absorbed we are in our lives, we can learn to drop this way and begin to just be in the world. Self-absorption and self-consciousness begin to be replaced with a new level of personal awareness that is complimented with a vibrant awareness of the world outside of ourselves. This awareness is like the flames of a pyre, burning away the habits and mental attitudes we have developed over the course of our lives and replacing them with a rich and fulfilling relationship with life.
Our motivation might be a deep unhappiness or simply a yearning to have a more fulfilling and profound life. Either way, when we come to see that we are running on automatic and playing the same neurotic patterns over and over, we begin to see the way to a life free of those patterns. An excellent way out is to learn to quiet our mental activity. This can be done by focusing awareness into the physical reality of the present moment. When we are in present moment awareness, mostly as experienced through the senses, the mind stops its crazy talking and reacting. It becomes clear. Present moment awareness is the key. Mindfulness is life experienced from present moment awareness. Here. This moment. Life is not inside your head, your craziness is. Life is out there, in the World.
Try it. Put down this paper, and turn the same focused awareness you were using to read this article into your physical surroundings. Experience vividly the world that is around you and experience your own physical body and senses. Make note of how your mind wants to distract you. Gently, pay it no attention. Instead, feel what it is to be you in the physical reality of this moment. Pay attention to what you see and hear and feel. Notice your breathing. Don’t think about it. Just experience it. Do this for the next thirty seconds.
Now that you have picked the paper back up, what did you notice? I assume that was a pretty interesting experience for many of you.
When we experience our lives with relaxed focus from the vantagepoint of the physical moment, there is a calm that our lives usually lack. There is a clarity of perception about what feels nurturing and what is and isn’t right in our world– what inspires us and what is out of integrity with what we might call our true nature. We can pay close attention to our reactions and note how we are usually caught up in our own mental experience rather than a clear awareness of what is actually occurring, both within and outside of us. We can learn about our craziness by watching it drag us out of the present moment and into our neurotic routines of thought and interaction, and our assumptions about what is occurring. Watch how this happens over and over. Learn from it. If we can learn about it, we can change it.
A classical question from teacher to student in traditional Zen literature is, This moment, what is lacking? This koan is capable of bestowing enlightenment on the one who grasps its deep meaning, for once it is understood that in the purity of the moment, nothing is lacking, we are returned to union with life. We are freed from our neurotic minds and ushered into a deep, meaningful and spontaneous relationship with life.
Our minds are neurotic largely because they are obsessively locked into patterns of regretting the past and worrying about the future. In a never-ending babble of regret and worry, our minds distract and torture us, off in the past or future, measuring whether we are good enough and whether our ego is satisfied or injured. This is the source of much of our craziness.
Life does not have to be like this. Burn away tired patterns of the mind with the flame of awareness. Breathe, and know that you are breathing in life. Hear, and know that you are hearing life. See, and know that you are seeing life. Don’t think about it. Experience it. Engage even the most mundane activity with absolute concentration and you will experience a satisfying and deep sense of well being that is exceeding rare in this world. Share the moment with another person and really be aware that you are sharing the moment. Be aware that you are giving full and not distracted attention– that you are not caught up in measuring the other person and worrying about how they are measuring you. Here. In this moment. Be as authentic as you can be. A new you is being born.