With a little encouragement from my friend Christopher King, I discovered Buddhism as a way of life in 1989. At the time, I was transitioning out of the Veteran Administration’s outpatient drug and alcohol program in Salt Lake City and I was looking for a practice to sustain me. I was looking for an approach to living that would help me stay sober, positive, healthy, and alive.
“Today, you can decide to walk in freedom. You can choose to walk differently. You can walk as a free person, enjoying every step.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
The therapy I participated in through the VA really help me turn my life around, so I wanted to keep that kind of “born-again” feeling and momentum alive. I wanted to keep it growing.
One of the most powerful realizations I had in therapy was that the crux of my recovery turned on freeing myself from old, psychologically and emotionally crippling ways of thinking. And, what’s more, I discovered I actually could change. I already had what it took to free myself from the harmful and stultifying habits, attitudes, and thoughts that had made my life seem utterly unworkable.
“What you are looking for is what is looking.” ~Joseph Goldstein
The first book I read about Buddhism was Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I have to admit, I didn’t get much of what Suzuki had to say the first ( or even the tenth) time I read it. But what I did get still makes all the sense in the world to me.
In general, Suzuki’s message (and Buddhism’s message) is simple. Ultimately, the difficulties adults encounter in life are not someone else’s fault—you and only you are responsible for your life—you can tackle your difficulties and change. You can do it. You already have what it takes.
“When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire.” ~Shunryu Suzuki
Here is an example of the straight forward simplicity of Suzuki’s teaching. In a talk on the seemingly formidable concept of “emptiness” as it’s presented in what many people think is the equally daunting Heart Sutra, Suzuki says that the word”emptiness” simply points to our capacity to change. It’s a mental attitude or posture or approach we can cultivate.
Suzuki says we can cultivate a fluid, flexible mind, one characterized by what the early texts call “emptiness” because the mind is not fundamentally stuck. Though the mind might seem rigid and unbending from years of judging, opining and thinking in habitual and self stultifying ways, Suzuki reminds us that,
“The important thing… is to have a smooth, free-thinking way of observation. We have to think and observe things without stagnation….Our mind should be soft and open enough to understand things as they are. When our thinking is soft, it is called imperturbable thinking. This kind of thinking is very stable. It is called mindfulness.” ~Reverend Shunryu Suzuki
How do we cultivate this smooth, free-thinking way? How do we cultivate mindfulness?
First, when it comes to mindfulness in everyday activities, simply aim to feel the immediacy and presence of exactly where you are and what you are doing.
For example, if you are sewing, feel the texture of the cloth and thread, the hardness of the needle, the resistance and penetrability of the fabric as you sew. Be with and stay with every detail and sensation of the process. Make every detail and sensation of the process the anchor point for present moment awareness. When the mind wanders away into thoughts about other things, gently let go of those thoughts without judging them good or bad and return to the work at hand.
Our mental posture is the same when it comes to seated meditation, what we call zazen. Here’s a pithy summation of what cultivating mindfulness in zazen is all about from Brad Warner’s Angel City Zen Center site. First take a easy, comfortable, yet dignified and upright seated posture. Then says the website:
“Let thoughts and sensations come and go without getting caught up in them or judging them as good or bad.”
Now, whether we are practicing mindfulness in everyday activities or in seated zazen, it’s this letting thoughts and sensations come and go that is the heartwood of cultivating mindfulness. This letting go is the positive expression of the basic idea that when we get “caught up” in anything that distracts us from where we are and what we’re doing now, we let go and return to what’s happening now–the next stitch if we’re sewing, the next sip of tea, or passing that car on the right if we’re driving.
And this never-ceasing letting-go of distractions and habitual patterns of thought does at least two things that help us discover the smooth, free-thinking mind.
First, letting go actually demonstrates the emptiness of our mental fixations and patterns.
When you let go, let what it feels like to let go touch you. See and feel letting go of wandering distractions as the process it is. Notice that letting go has a pleasant, calming, and soothing texture. You’ll notice this more clearly as you let go over and over again. Letting go of habitual thought patterns is refreshing. It’s a relief. In contrast, the ideas and imaginings that bind to habitual patterns of behavior and thinking feel cramped, irritating, claustrophobic.
With time and practice we notice that letting go is the lived expression of our mind’s smooth, free-functioning. We’re discovering a calming wisdom. What a relief!
Second, when you mindfully return to whatever activity you’re doing after your mind has wandered, the never-stymied ability to start over demonstrates the wide open, empty, welcoming, and freeing quality of each passing moment— and of the mind’s harmonious oneness with each moment.
The moment is completely open to change. Your mind is thoroughly open to change. We are invited to notice this fact.
It’s one of the very central reasons we are invited to cultivate meditation. As you meditate, as you practice mindfulness in your daily activities, notice that you can always change the focus of your attention. You can always begin again. Ask yourself, “What does this feel like?” The moment is not rigid or fixated. The mind is not rigid or set in mental concrete. You can always start over. Everything is workable. You can change. You can do it. What a relief!
“Wisdom is not something to learn. Wisdom is something that will come out of your mindfulness.” ~Reverend Shunryu Suzuki
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We’re located in historic Gloucester which is about 40 miles north of Boston on Cape Ann. Cape Ann is on the far northeastern end of the North Shore of Massachusetts.
The steeple on the left in the photo is on the Gloucester UU Church. That’s where we meet.
I hope your life goes well this month!