Conscious Living in the New Year
The beginning of a new year represents an opportunity to consider how we want to conduct ourselves and to set intention for positive change. The ultimate resolution it seems would be to commit to conscious living in the new year. But in order to really do this we need first acknowledge how we are in the present. We may have to acknowledge the sobering reality that on the main we are largely not fully present and conscious. The state of the world offers ample testimony to the fact that our planet is inhabited by human beings, who are mostly not present on a moment to moment basis. Thus, we are trapped into cycles of emotional reactivity, buffeted by endless impulses to possess, repel, control, act out anger, fear, shame, alienation, loneliness. We are trapped by our limited identity with a false sense of self, narrowly defined by our physical body, race, occupation, age, gender, class, personal history, personality and seemingly limitless self -representations that we tenaciously cling to define a sense of self. This limited “self” is commonly referred to as “little I”, ego etc. But all of these forms of identification are all subject to constantly changing circumstances and conditions and thus have no essential or inherent substance. They are all fleeting manifestations of mind formed by our collective, cultural and personal karma (arising from seeds planted during past thoughts and actions) and conditioning.
So here is a little exercise. Sitting quietly with eyes closed, ask yourself the question, “What am I beyond name and form?” See what answers arise. All sorts of answers may surface. But upon evaluation, you may quickly realize that none of these answers truly identify the essence of who you are. They are all biproducts of thinking but have no independent substance in and of themselves. They are all dependent on other conditions. Are you your name? Are you your body? Job? Marital status? Race? Nationality? Sexual orientation? All those are transient things subject to change, circumstance. Your body will decay and die. Who then are you?
In the Zen Buddhist tradition, a student may be confronted with a koan (a question unanswerable by the rational thinking mind) such as “Show me your face before your mother was born?” Alternatively, a Zen Master in the Kwan Um Korean Zen tradition may present the student with a stick of wood and ask, “Before thinking, are you and this stick same or different? If you say “same” I will hit you thirty times. If you say “different” I will hit you thirty times.” At that moment, the student’s mind is sent reeling as he/she desperately seeks an answer. Of course, no answer is to be found and one may sheepishly answer with “I don’t know.” At that point the master will excitedly exclaim “Very good….keep that don’t know mind!!” In that moment, all thinking is suspended and all one’s concepts born of thinking mind are dashed, leaving one in a very clear space unclouded by mental constructs. One has contacted a different way of knowing and perceiving. But of course, this doesn’t last for more than a few nanoseconds before the mini mind kicks back in with a vengeance.
Even after years of sitting in meditation, and having attended multiple retreats and “solving’ various koans, my mind yet tenaciously clings to its old patterns of thought and identity. I am still buffeted and often react to ceaselessly emerging thoughts, impulses and emotions. To be honest, that can often be frustrating and humbling to recognize the imprisonment of conditioned mind. And then I remember to just watch the comings and goings of those thoughts and reactions. There is nothing to control and nowhere to be except for this very moment. Even the desire for liberation is another form of mental grasping that needs to be put down along with all else. As is stated in the Heart Sutra, a core sutra of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, “There is no attainment with nothing to attain”. And yet, paradoxically, we are encouraged to practice mindful attention. It is stated that we are all already enlightened, however it is obscured from our site just as the clouds can obscure the sun. It is still always there. Everything that we experience are all manifestations of our essential nature.
There are countless paths to awakening. I doubt it matters much which path one chooses. A room with many doors all opens into the same room. Our survival as a species as well as our own individual sense of meaning, wholly depends on our commitment to waking up. History appears to be rapidly approaching a vortex. Our “success” as a species has led to unbridled polulation and technological expansion unregulated by commensurate growth in consciousness, which in turn, has thrown the earth and its ecosystems out of balance. Only by individually finding our true nature can we hope to achieve a collective rebalancing and harmonious living. In the words of the great Vietnamese Zen master Tich Nhat Han, we must each “Be the change”. We cannot hope that governments or policies or any deities, Marvel superheroes or magic can do that for us. Many illuminated masters from a variety of cultures and traditions have shown us the way. But they cannot tread the path for us.
So, it is my hope to help to spread an intention for the opportunity born of a new year. May we each in whatever way, commit to a path of presence, awakening and compassion; to find your true self beyond name and form. And if you earnestly ask for help in that endeavor, such help will most assuredly appear.