For a Westerner, Zen is an incredibly confusing and often contradictory subject. I mean, how are we supposed to master something while making an effort not to master it? Also, because I am making an effort isn’t that counterintuitive to the process itself?
Mindfulness is an extremely watered-down version of a portion of a Zen discipline, but it is extraordinary in the fact that it works as has been proven scientifically. It is also in typical contradiction, one of the most simple and complicated components of Zen.
In his extraordinary book Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel offers an honest and very European take on trying to understand and apply Zen through the discipline of learning archery from a Japanese master. The book couldn’t possibly be referenced in any substance within a single article but one of the most important learnings the author receives is how much his thinking gets in the way of achieving a result.
Perhaps the biggest gap between ‘Zen thinking’ and traditional thinking is that traditional, Western thinking is formulaic:
In order to achieve something, I need to manage the physical inputs, enhance those inputs and as a result, I will achieve the result required.
Zen thinking says:
Achievement is an illusion. The focus should always be on the simple and specific movements within the exact moment you are experiencing. For example, you are not driving a car – you are pushing down on the pedal, moving a gearstick, turning the wheel. Through focusing on the exact moment you are existing in now – the only moment that really exists – achievement will be a byproduct.
Any mindfulness practitioners will find this familiar. Through focusing on the breath using various techniques such as counting each breath, noting points within the breath and experiencing the breath from the point of view of your nose or belly, you find yourself in the moment, experiencing life as it happens and not through the blurred filter of memory or imagination. For most of us this is an unusual experience, and while there is no statistical measurement around how much of our time is spent in the future or past, it’s easy to imagine that only a tiny portion of our lives is spent genuinely and entirely in the moment within which we are physically inhabiting.
In our daily lives we are constantly being smashed with information externally, and distractions internally. The internal conversation constantly going on our minds is the most important distraction because it takes us away from the moment we are in. Through quieting our minds, we can make better decisions, reduce stress and sleep better.
Luckily, as with everything Zen, this is incredibly simple…and really, really hard.
Let’s try an exercise.
Look at something. Anything. Something that exists around you as a physical object; perhaps a book, maybe a pair of glasses or a laptop…something that doesn’t move unless you choose to move it.
Now, look closer. Look for imperfections, interesting colours, the way the light is reflected from a certain area or perhaps something unusual you haven’t seen on the object before. While you’re doing this, pay attention to your inner monologue. Listen to the commentary that is reactively going on in your mind while you are looking at a completely inanimate object. Don’t judge it, just pay attention to it and when it happens, acknowledge it, and allow it to move on. Keep analysing the object, looking for other things that you have and haven’t notice before. Don’t begin a new commentary by remembering how the book was ripped, or when you bought the object, just acknowledge everything you find for what it is.
A book is a book.
A rip is a rip.
If this is difficult, simply hold the book in your hand and repeat in your mind, “this is a book.” Don’t allow any other words apart from those to enter your conscious reality. Focus on the object in front of you and how it exists – as a book.
Once your mind has quieted – and you’ll know it when you feel it – don’t give yourself a pat on the back or try to, “hold on to the feeling,” which is, when you think about it, completely impossible. Just go back to the object and acknowledge it again, practice being in the moment and get comfortable there – you haven’t spent much time here, so you need to get used to it.
Once you master this simple, yet incredibly difficult process, you will find that you never end up mastering it at all. Sometimes you’re in the moment, and sometimes you’re not. It has far less to do with discipline and hard work that has to do with letting go of assumptions and ego-based goals – who you think you can become through this effort.
Applying Zen to your daily life involves acknowledging things exactly as they are, and through this simple exercise, which can be completed in a meeting or a crowded lift, you can find yourself revitalised, energetic and perhaps even a bit mentally lighter.