Natural awareness

sk3Although you may not be aware of it, September is National Mold Awareness Month. It is also National Pain, Campus Safety, Child Obesity, Lice, and Menopause Awareness Month. That is a lot to be aware of, and the designated objects vary widely. Common to all these constructs, however, is the term awareness and the assumption that we are agreed on what it means.

In ordinary usage awareness refers to a mental faculty compounded of thought, experience, knowledge, and attention. It is sometimes spoken of in vertical metaphors, as when others purport to “raise” our awareness. It may also be framed in horizontal figures, as when we are admonished to “broaden” our awareness, or in quantitative tropes, as when we attempt to “increase” our awareness of this or that. But whatever metaphors might be at work, the common view of awareness is that of a tool which the sovereign ego, the owner and operator of an autonomous self, can direct or otherwise control. And though awareness, in this view, may comprise functions other than thinking, it is essentially an extension of thinking, which the governing mind can train wherever it sees fit. In September we should turn our awareness to mold, pain, campus safety, childhood obesity, lice, and menopause. Having gathered information about those important subjects, we can then digest that information and take whatever action we deem appropriate.

The development of awareness, personal, ethical, and social, is an essential, lifelong project. It can spell the difference between happiness or unhappiness, life or death. And awareness is no less essential in Zen practice, where it is seen as the foundation of morality, insight, and compassionate wisdom. But the term awareness, as used in Buddhist teachings, means something rather different from the concept summarized above. From the Buddhist perspective, awareness is not something we can turn on or off at will or channel in one direction or another. It is not an aspect of thinking. Rather, it is a changeless, luminous presence, common to us all, which embraces our sensations, feelings, thoughts, mental states, and other transitory phenomena. As the Tibetan lama Sogyal Rinpoche puts it, awareness is “something boundless and infinitely spacious, in which the dance of change and impermanence takes place.” The background to whatever we’re experiencing, it has been likened in various contexts to a womb, the ocean, and the open sky.

“Awareness,” writes the Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield, “has no form or color. It is beyond presence or absence, coming or going.” Void of those distinguishing characteristics, awareness also defies description. However concrete or refined our language may be, and however skillfully we may deploy it, it can do no more than point in the direction of awareness, like a finger pointing toward the moon.  As with other ineffable mysteries, the nature of “pure awareness,” as it is sometimes called, lies well beyond our words and concepts.

At the same time, the salient qualities of pure awareness, as directly experienced in our minds and bodies, can be concretely described. In her book True Refuge, Tara Brach, another Vipassana teacher, identifies three such qualities, the first being “emptiness,” or openness. Awareness, she observes, is “devoid of any form, of any center or boundary, of any owner or inherent self, of any solidity.” A second quality is “awakeness,” or “wakefulness,” which Brach describes as “a luminosity of continual knowing.”  And a third is tenderness, or “warmth,” which she defines as “the expression of unconditional love or compassion.” This general term also includes sympathetic joy, appreciation, and the capacity to heal.

Awareness of this kind is sometimes called natural awareness. It stands in no need of being heightened, broadened, or increased, being always present and always sufficient. Buddhist teachers sometimes speak of “cultivating” awareness through continuous mindfulness, but the challenge, in my experience, lies less in cultivating awareness than in gaining access to its healing presence.  One proven way to do that is take the “backward step that illuminates the self,” as Eihei Dogen (1200-1253 CE), founder of the Soto Zen tradition, exhorts us to do. By sitting still and letting “body and mind fall away,” we relinquish all striving for attainment. We rest in the spaciousness of open awareness.

For those inclined toward a more active practice, an alternative may be found in the teachings of Bassui Takusho, a 14th-century Rinzai Zen master. When you encounter a thing, Bassui advises, ask, “What is this?” When you hear a sound, ask, “Who hears the sound?”  By asking those questions, over and again, we can pierce our layers of social conditioning. We can see through our delusions, our dualistic thinking, and our constructed identities and awaken to the boundless dimension of our being. And suddenly or gradually, in a moment’s intuition or after years of practice, we can come home to our natural awareness.


Sogyal Rinpoche, quoted by Tara Brach in True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart (Bantam, 2013), 252.

Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology  (Bantam, 2008), 44.

Brach, True Refuge, 261-263.

Photo: Skaneateles Lake, by Robin Howard.



The whole truth

Hand on BibleIf you have ever testified in a court of law, you have sworn an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And as you may have discovered, that is a tall order. Even if we are trying our best to be honest, our best intentions may be at odds with imperfect memory, the slipperiness of language, and the inherent complexity of human affairs. “The whole truth,” if it exists at all, may be well beyond our comprehension or powers of expression.

In practicing Zen meditation, we also seek the whole truth, though our means are not primarily verbal. Rather than talk, we endeavor to realize ultimate truth through a variety of practices, one of the most essential being that of conscious breathing. Coming home to our breath, time and again, we embody the truth of our lives in general and three kinds of truth in particular.

The truth of unmediated experience

In his book Moon by the Window (Wisdom, 2011), Zen master Shodo Harada coins the term “the ego filter” to describe the lens through which we ordinarily view ourselves and the world. The moon by the window, he reminds us, is always “the same moon.” Not so our perceptions of the moon, which are colored by our preconceptions, judgments, and other forms of conceptual thinking. We filter our experience through such dualistic concepts as “good” and “bad,” “beautiful” and “ugly,” and especially “self” and “other.” However useful or necessary, those concepts mediate between our minds and the objects of our awareness.

By returning to our breathing, we cut through the ego filter. We merge our awareness  with our immediate experience. Although we might employ such conceptual tools as counting our breaths or naming their qualities (shallow or deep, coarse or smooth, etc.), our general aim is to become fully aware of each breath, from beginning to end, and eventually to rest in that awareness. With practice, we learn to recognize the impulse, common among practitioners, to manipulate our breathing or judge a particular method as “right” or “wrong.” And, no less important, we learn to observe the disparity between our conceptions and our actual, unmediated experience. Those are valuable insights, which we can carry into our everyday lives.

The truth of radical impermanence

Few realities are more apparent than the fact of change. Unless we are living in a dream, we know that children grow up, friends grow old, and meetings end in partings. Yet all too often the reality of radical impermanence—the fact that everything is changing, moment by moment—escapes our conscious notice.

By sitting quietly and monitoring our breathing, we directly encounter that reality. The “impermanence of all conditioned things,” as Zen teachings put it, becomes a felt experience. No two breaths, we discover, are quite the same. Breath by breath, the texture, depth, and other qualities of our breathing fluctuate, often in response to thoughts arising or feelings passing through us. Grounded though we are in awareness, we witness a stream of ever-shifting sensations, feelings, thoughts, and mental formations.  Thich Nhat Hanh likens this state to that of a pebble resting on a river bed.

To novice practitioners, the direct experience of radical impermanence may be unnerving.  It can feel as if the bottom is dropping out. For those who persist, however, that experience can be profoundly liberating. Having intimately observed the impermanence of our breath, our bodies, and our most cherished thoughts and feelings, and having realized that ultimately there is nothing substantial to grasp or claim as our own, we can begin to release our resistance to change and our habitual attachments.

The truth of receiving and offering

“Breathe in with gratitude,” exhorts the Zen teacher Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, “breathe out with love. Receiving and offering—this is what we are doing each time we inhale and exhale. To do so with conscious awareness, on a regular basis, is the transformative practice we call Zen.”

In popular images of Zen meditation, the practice is often portrayed as a solitary activity. The Zen disciple sits cross-legged and alone. In reality, however, Zen practice is intrinsically relational. Breathing in, we cultivate gratitude, principally for the gift of “this precious human life” but also for the untold forms of sustenance we receive from other sentient beings, past and present. Breathing out, in a spirit of selfless love, we let go of the “ego filter” and offer whatever stability, clarity, and wisdom, and compassion we have managed to cultivate. Literally as well as symbolically, the act of breathing embodies this continuing exchange.

Unlike witnesses in a trial, committed Zen practitioners do not take oaths, but they do take what are known as the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows. “However innumerable beings are,” reads the first, “I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.” As impossible of achievement as it is noble in aspiration, this vow epitomizes the spirit of Zen practice.

Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, “What is Zen?” Zen Center of Syracuse website.

The translation of the first Bodhisattva Vow quoted above has been attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh. That vow is more commonly translated as “However innumerable all beings are, we vow to save them all.”

Photo by Ash Carter

Fear and belief


“Nine out of ten people I talk with about retirement,” our family accountant remarked not long ago, “are afraid they will run out of money.” Most of his clients, he went on to explain, have sufficient resources to enjoy a secure if not affluent retirement, but that doesn’t keep them from believing otherwise or fearing future hardship.

The entangled relationship of fear and belief was one of the themes of a retreat I recently conducted at the Olean Meditation Center in Olean, New York. Around thirty people attended this retreat, whose aim was to explore how mindfulness might help us recognize, accept, and release our everyday fears. In this three-hour period we did not purport to address traumas or their aftermaths. That is the job of a qualified therapist. Nor were we attempting, in one Saturday morning, to allay such profound apprehensions as the fear of death. Rather, we had convened to examine whether, in the words of the Zen teacher Zenkei Blanche Hartman, we might “turn toward our fears with warmth and compassion”.

During the first hour we focused on the recognition that fear is present. To initiate that recognition, I invited participants to settle into an upright comfortable posture, bringing their attention to the sensations of breathing.  A few minutes later, I asked everyone to observe the thoughts crossing their minds, first by counting the number of thoughts that arose in a three-minute period (the average was around fifteen), and, second,  by noting the kind of thinking they were doing (remembering, projecting, analyzing, fantasizing, etc.). Last, I asked them to examine the content of their recurrent thoughts. How many pertained to the immediate present? To a past event?  To something that might happen in the future? How many were based in fear?

In the ensuing discussion, participants reported on their findings. Many of the thoughts reported had to do with the past or future, and only a few with the present moment. And many were indeed based in fear. The most nuanced account came from a man who had found himself thinking repeatedly about his son, who in that very hour was driving on the New York State Thruway. Although this worried father’s thoughts had centered on the present moment, they were rooted in fear for his son’s safety.

During the second hour we focused on accepting recognized fears. Difficult as it can be to admit we’re afraid, it can be even more challenging to accept our fear, once it has come to light.  To facilitate that process, I once again instructed participants to assume a stable upright posture and settle into meditative awareness, but this time I asked them to recall a situation in which they had experienced moderate fear. Reliving that situation, they then explored means by which they might allow their fear into their field of awareness. Some people have found it useful to implement such words and phrases as “yes,” or “I consent,” or “this, too.” Others have found it helpful to focus on the physical sensations attendant to fear. By so doing, we can gain awareness of both our constrictive resistance and the openness of heart that comes with accepting what is present.

This active acceptance leads naturally into the third stage of the process, which is to investigate the ways in which our fears comingle with our beliefs. During the third hour, we undertook that inquiry by once again bringing mindfulness to a remembered experience. In this case, however, I asked participants to recall a fearful experience while asking themselves two questions: “What am I believing?” and “Is this belief real, but not true?”

This simple exercise produced some remarkable results. The most dramatic was reported by a participant who had chosen to contemplate an experience from her childhood. One day in school, she recalled, she had sung a song with her classmates. Afterwards, her teacher had told her it would be better if she not sing with the group anymore, because her voice didn’t really fit in. She had accepted that judgment, and over the years she had generalized it beyond its local, original context. It had become a personal belief, which she had carried with her until that morning.

“How do you feel at this moment?” I asked.

“Free,” she quietly replied.

To be sure, the contemplation of fear is not for everyone. It is easier in the short run to ignore, deny, or suppress our fears, or to distract ourselves with busyness and entertainment. But as Jack Kornfield has observed, “A fearful situation turns to anger when we can’t admit that we’re afraid.” By learning to stop and look into our fears, we can increase the likelihood that our future choices will be based on clear seeing, emotional stability, and alignment with things as they are—three of the fruits of meditative practice–rather than on fear, anger, or fear-infused belief.

In designing this retreat, I drew upon the practice of “R.AI.N.,” as developed by the Vipassana teacher Michele McDonald, and especially on the pioneering work of Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. I am indebted to these teachers, both for specific methods and for general inspiration.

Photo: “A frightened and an angry face,” engraving c. 1760, after C. Le Brun.

Comparações_planetárias“Have you been comparing?” ask Rodgers and Hart in their 1932 ballad “You Are Too Beautiful.” I suspect that most of us, if we are being honest and sufficiently self-aware, would have to answer in the affirmative. “Comparison,” observed Mark Twain, whose vein of dark wisdom ran as deep as his humor, “is the death of joy.” Yet on we go, comparing whatever is at hand, be it brands of dental floss or newly listed homes or presidential candidates. A product of our education and social conditioning, the mental habit of comparison is as ingrained as it is necessary for survival. Regrettably, however, if left unexamined that habit can also rob us of happiness and hinder us from appreciating our present lives. Continue Reading »

Ummon Bun'en Drawing by Hakuin Ekaku

Ummon Bun’en
Drawing by Hakuin Ekaku

Among the cryptic sayings associated with the Zen tradition, none is better known than that of Ummon Bun’en (862-949), who famously declared that “every day is a good day.” Yeah, right, the weary, seasoned mind replies. Tell that to the commuter caught in gridlock or the stressed-out parent nursing a sick child. Superficially construed, Ummon’s remark sounds both naive and culpably aloof.

Yet, if examined in the light of Zen teachings, this adage is neither foolish nor untrue. The key component of Case 6 of the Blue Cliff Record, a classic collection of Zen koans, Ummon’s pronouncement is a fiction that points to an underlying reality, a construct that discloses a deeper truth. If we wish to probe that truth, we can consult the host of commentaries Case 6 has accrued, beginning with that of Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), compiler of Zen koans, who called this particular koan “cold,” meaning austere and challenging to contemplate. But if we wish to explore Ummon’s saying in a warmer light, we can begin by reflecting on how we know, or think we know, the things of this world, and how we determine whether a given day is good or bad. Continue Reading »

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg, 1988

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the Zen proverb, and for many it may be true. In my case, however, I was neither ready nor expectant. And my first guide on the path of meditation was an unlikely candidate for the position.

Allen Ginsberg visited Alfred University in October 1978.  It was a relatively tranquil time, especially when contrasted with our present era. A few weeks earlier, the Camp David Accords had been signed under the watchful eye of President Jimmy Carter. In Western New York the fall colors were at their peak. Continue Reading »


Zoketsu Norman Fischer

“Why do we like being Irish?” asks the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) in his poem Autumn Journal (1939). In subsequent lines, he answers his own question:

Partly because

      It gives us a hold on the sentimental English

As members of a world that never was,

      Baptized with fairy water;

And partly because Ireland is small enough

     To be still thought of with a family feeling,

And because the waves are rough

     That split her from a more commercial culture;

And because one feels that here at least one can

     Do local work which is not at the world’s mercy

And that on this tiny stage with luck a man

     Might see the end of one particular action.

Because Ireland is a relatively small country, and because in MacNeice’s time families tended to stay put for as long as economic conditions allowed, Irish people could reasonably hope to see the “end”–the consequences as well as the completion–of any particular action. Continue Reading »