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Posts Tagged ‘Aliveness’

 

Hermit Thrush JulioM

When thoughts form an endless procession

            I vow with all beings

to notice the spaces between them

and give the thrushes a chance.

Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life

The lines above describe a familiar experience. “Non-stop thinking,” Thich Nhat Hanh called it. Given the pace and volume of our thoughts, how are we to “notice the spaces between them”? How are we to stop—or at least put on pause—our non-stop thinking?

In his book The Path of Aliveness, the Zen teacher Christian Dillo identifies two dimensions of the human mind. The first he calls “content of mind,” by which he means the perceptions, memories, images, and other mental phenomena that traverse our consciousness. The other is the “field of mind,” by which he means our awareness of those mental phenomena. The mind’s contents, he notes, are by nature reactive. Entertaining a memory, a thought, a future scenario, we tend to react to it, whether with desire, aversion, or indifference. By contrast, the “field of mind” is non-reactive. Ever-present and immovable, even when we are agitated, it merely observes what is occurring. When we are having a thought, it knows we are having a thought. And when our thought reflects our uncertainty or fear, our joy or sorrow or elation, it knows that as well.

To “notice the spaces between” our thoughts is to take a break from conceptual thinking and open a portal to the field of mind. Unfortunately, that portal can close, and usually does, almost as soon as it opens. Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2012) was an American Zen master, with decades of meditative experience. That he would frame the noticing of spaces between thoughts as an aspiration rather than a fruit of the practice is very telling. The endless procession of thoughts of which he speaks is the means by which we discriminate between self and other, fact and fantasy, truth and propaganda. It is the faculty with which we analyze and navigate the world. However much we may wish to disengage from “ordinary mind,” as it is called in Zen, and to rest in open awareness, we are unlikely to do so without making a conscious effort.

One way to do that is to stop whatever we are doing and take three conscious breaths. Almost any available sight or sound can serve as a prompt: a red light at an intersection, the call of a mourning dove, the wail of the village siren. Having stopped in our tracks, we can then give full attention to our breathing, noticing such subtleties as the difference in length between breaths, the coolness of the inhalation and the warmth of the exhalation, the tactile experience of tension and release. Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught this technique at his retreats, recommended it as both as a stratagem for reducing stress and a practice for fostering peace within and around us. Based on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a foundational Zen text, this classic method can also provide us access, however brief, to the “field of mind.”

For those who might wish to prolong that access, other, more advanced methods are available. In his book The World Could Be Otherwise, the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi offers these instructions:

Sit down and pay attention to body and breath. Become aware of thoughts, images, memories, whatever arises in your mind. Now become aware of the awareness itself that is the container or background for the content of your mind. Little by little (using your exhale to ease your way into it), shift your attention from the foreground (thoughts, etc.) to the background (awareness itself). Feel the awareness itself as boundless. Feel its infinite generosity.

As both Dillo and Fischer acknowledge, the shift of attention to which these instructions refer requires practice. It will not be accomplished in a single sitting. But in my experience, such a shift is not only possible but practicable in a variety of settings, including walking meditation. And in two important ways, its benefits can reward the commitment involved.

First, by shifting our attention from the “foreground” to the “background” of our minds, we allow ourselves the space and time to reflect on whatever is arising. We train ourselves to respond, appropriately and wisely, rather than impulsively react. And second, by releasing us from the grip of our thoughts, we open ourselves to those sensorial impressions that “non-stop thinking” impedes. Paradoxically, by learning to migrate from the foreground to the background of our minds, we engender greater intimacy between ourselves and our environs. We give the thrushes a chance to be heard and ourselves the freedom to listen.

___

Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life (Wisdom, 2018).

Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022).

Norman Fischer, The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019), 50.

Photo: Hermit Thrush, by JulioM

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