MAINTAINING PRESENCE DURING ACTIVITY
Still action. What does this mean? Seated meditation is possibly the best and most essential practice to assist one to find their essential nature and to cut through the delusions of egoic identity that lies at the base of all human suffering. However, for meditation to truly take root in our lives, it is imperative that we not just leave mindful awareness on the meditation cushion, but to endeavor to take that stillness into every-day action. This is not an easy endeavor but one that with patience, and diligent practice can help permeate our lives to a fuller extent.
I recently had the opportunity to receive a pre-publication copy of a wonderful , inspirational and practically useful new book that is just released entitled Still Running by Vanessa Zuisei Goddard: https://vanessazuiseigoddard.org It just so happens that a mutual friend introduced us, since we were both publishing books on Zen with some overlapping messages albeit from different angles and perspectives. For a number of years Vanessa was a monastic in the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism and so has attained a very high level of presence. Of course she would probably never say that. She also has a long-lived passion for running. And so, it is these two passions and experiences that formed the basis of her book in which she provides valuable insights on how to use action, such as running, as a means to access inner stillness. Of course, running is just a metaphor. We all engage in activity and action. So, the paradox is how can one be still and yet in action?
In Taoist philosophy, which merged with Mahayana Buddhism to eventually form Zen, there is the notion of Wei Wu Wei sometimes interpreted as actionless action. The idea is that mental stillness can be achieved in the course of physical action. Stillness is a state of mind, or perhaps better stated, no mind or “mushin” in Chinese. In my years of training in Japanese and Korean martial arts, the masters would emphasize the importance of achieving a state of “no mind” during the execution of forms or sparring. As one master frequently yelled, ”You think…you die!” The point of all the hard training is to be react without thinking or deliberation…just pure action.
So how does one be still in action, while at home, work, socializing, travelling (remember socializing and travelling?) or whatever. A large number of techniques exist to facilitate this practice. One is to maintain focus on one’s breath, physical sensations arising from action, use of a mantra and so on. Anything to help sharpen focus into the moment at hand. The renowned Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn used to admonish his students, “When driving, only drive, when eating, only eat, when working only work.” And so that is the ultimate practice; just pay attention to whatever it is that one is doing. Of course, thinking will occur. One is instructed to not fight or in any way try to control thinking. That is another form of attachment. Rather watch the thinking without getting caught up in it. Thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky.
Stillness does not necessarily mean having no thoughts. This notion is often misunderstood and creates frustration and aborted practice in many would be practitioners. It fuels notions of control and thus feeds the delusion of a central “I” that controls our thoughts and reactions. The more we fight our thoughts, the more we fuel the egoic “I”. Rather, when thoughts arise, simply watch as if from a detached position. Invariably, one will get ensnared back into the drama of mind. But once we recognize we are off in la la land, just come back to presence, time after time, “for 10,000” years. The senior dharma teacher of the Binghamtons, NY Sangha has an app on his iwatch that at random times issues a signal, the purpose of which is to remind the wearer to check his or her mind to see where it is at that moment and to ring it back to now.
In most forms of Zen, practioners practice what is termed “kinkhin” or walking meditation. This is usually practiced between successive periods of seated meditation. It serves to reinvigoratethe mind and get blood recircuating into the legs after long periods of sitting. But it also serves to help the practitioner to extend mental clarity and presence into action. While walking very slowly and deliberately in asingle file, the practitioners are instructed to simply pay attention to the soles of the fet touching the floor with each step. That’s it. Just paying attention to this moment. One will quickly discover how the mind resists staying present for even a brief succession of moments. But every so often, there is just the walking. No “I” is walking.
The hardest part for me is remembering to find presence. One can use a variety of environmental cues to help remind one to come back to now. I have little Buddha statues scattered throughout the house which are used to serve as reminders, One is situated above my kitchen sink to remind me when doing dishes, just do dishes. Turn dishwashing into dishwashing meditation. We are frequently rushing through activities to get to a better moment. But we forget there is only this moment. If we bring the entirety of attention to moment, then it can become a moment of full aliveness, no matter how mundane the action may be.
The senior dharma teacher of the Binghamtons, NY Sangha has an app on his iwatch that at random times issues a signal, the purpose of which is to remind the wearer to check his or her mind to see where it is at that moment and to ring it back to now. Technology can be used to help one to escape mindful presence but increasingly there are applications to help guide us into presence.
My own book , Bronx Dharma, as well as Vanessa’s, and many other fine books, may be helpful guides to guide one to maintain presence from the seat, into action and into the maelstrom of everyday life. In these days of seeming chaos, uncertainty and anguish, what could be more important? It is critical that we maintain equanimity and “before thinking zero point” mind if we are to survive individually and collectively. Modern challenges are a clarion call to growth, or we risk succumbing to despair, fear, confusion and hatred. It is up to each of us to decide which course of action we will take.
For more tips, please refer to a former post on the subject https://blackturtlebooks.com/everyday-mindfulness/
Please feel free to leave questions, comments or ideas for further discussion below!