A warrior, who was about to engage in battle, asked the Buddha to sum up his teachings in a word, the Buddha responded, “awareness.” Zen practice is about awareness. It’s that simple. Yet it seems complicated because our minds are complicated. When we practice sitting meditation we are practicing awareness. When we wash the dishes, do the laundry, be a parent or use the toilet, Zen practice is to do all of these things with full body and mind.
Usually when we engage in an activity our minds are spinning about, scattered and distracted, preoccupied with the future, the past, or something other than the task which lies before us. Awareness brings us back into the moment. Even if confusion and anxiety are present, that’s OK, if we are aware that we are “confused and anxious” we will not be consumed and pulled about by these passing emotions or thoughts. As human beings we experience all states from joy to sorrow. But we do not need to identify with them so concretely and immediately feed them and make them grow bigger and more powerful.
Awareness is to watch them dispassionately, and in the light of awareness these states will dissolve on their own. To be aware of your thoughts, feelings and emotional states is worlds away from being unaware of them and being tossed about by them. The key to awareness, as always, is to return your attention to the present moment, with time one can see that in the present moment, all is flux and flow, like a stream. With that insight we can now function and be responsive to our present life situation without being hampered by the usual fears and anxieties that we took for such “solid” and “real” things.
With practice we can become aware of life as it unfolds moment to moment, before our experience “hits our filters” of likes and dislikes, opinions and prejudices. Our minds take hold of reality as it is, and divide it into things that appear solid and graspable, but of course reality is ungraspable, as it is in constant change. Useful as our discriminating minds are, they trap us into taking the concepts and ideas that describe reality, for the living reality itself.
Awareness brings us into the reality of our lives before our experience is “filtered.” This “intimacy” with our experience allows us enormous freedom. No longer “trapped” by our discriminating minds of likes, dislikes, opinions and our self-centered ideas, we can now respond to situations in accordance with reality itself.
Learn To Train The Mind
To practice awareness is nothing special or difficult. You only need to train yourself to watch your mind. When your mind begins to “lean” toward or away from things; thoughts, emotions, feelings or anything at all. All you need to do is notice that it’s doing that. That’s it. You don’t need to try to stop your mind from doing these things, or feel bad about it, or scold yourself when you notice these things. This approach only causes more agitation for your mind. Simply watch the mind, take notice of when it’s leaning and the mind will stop leaning on it’s own. You don’t need to control anything; in fact you cannot control your mind. But in the bright light of awareness, the mind will begin to straighten up itself.
One of the most effective ways to develop awareness is through the practice of Zazen, Zen meditation. If we get into the habit of putting aside a certain time every day to deliberately and intentionally engage in the practice of developing our awareness, we will eventually be able to call upon it at any time in our every day lives. Eventually we will be able to spend more and more time in awareness rather than lost in thought or caught up in some story line our mind has conjured up. Now a full life is possible in the present moment, the only moment where our life takes place. With practice we can touch the ground of our existence, and realise who and what we really are and live out of that realisation, rather than out of some idea we have constructed of what we are and should be.
For more ideas and training examples visit Zen Mountain Monastery.