When the ability to be fully present in our life eludes us, it is usually because we cannot possibly believe the mundane or frustrating experience in front of us merits our attention. This bowl of cereal? This tax form? This stop-and-go traffic? This irritating co-worker? Surely these are just experiences we have to pass through on the way to what really matters.
This approach to life ends up feeling profoundly dissatisfying when a) we realize we are “just passing through” a majority of our experiences, and b) when it begins to seem like “what really matters” is beyond our grasp, impermanent, or not quite what it was cracked up to be.
Zen recommends that we remedy this situation by turning our attention toward every moment of our life, without discriminating about which moments are mundane or frustrating, and which ones really matter. Zen suggests they all matter. But what does this mean?
In Zen mindfulness practice we turn our attention toward our lives, trying to notice the sensations in our hands as we wash the dishes, the feeling of our breath as we wait in traffic, or the parade of emotions that goes through our minds as we have a difficult encounter with someone. At times it feels like we have been “given back” moments of our life that would otherwise have slipped away unappreciated. At other times we encounter resistance from our own mind as it relentlessly jumps away from our present experience to something that seems more exciting, rewarding or significant.
After all, what is the point of paying attention to this present moment, no matter what is going on? That’s fine with we’re gazing at a beautiful sunset, but when we’re waiting in line at the grocery store?
The point of paying attention to this present moment, no matter what is going on, is a radical reorientation of our entire way of being. When we are fully present in our life, we stop interpreting the present moment in terms of its utility in bringing us closer to our desires. Our dreams, goals, hopes and ambitions still exist, but for a moment they are not our frame of reference. We are not gazing past our present experience in anticipation of future pleasure or pain. In this sense mindfulness is not a skill we cultivate with our brains; rather, it is a surrender we make with our whole being.
And when we are able to be fully present for a few moments? What’s good about it?
Amazingly, life experienced without interpretation in terms of our desires is… precious beyond description. Sages have used all kinds of words to describe it: perfect, luminous, complete. But in most of our daily experience this preciousness is experienced as simultaneous with mundane or even frustrating or painful. Full presence doesn’t transform our experience into something “special” – as in different from the usual. It allows us to perceive the sacred in the mundane that is always there.
The ability to be fully present in our life is as much about what we don’t do as it is about what we do. As Zen Master Dogen says in Fukanzazengi, “Why leave behind the seat in your own home to wander in vain through the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one misstep you stumble past what is directly in front of you.”
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