Practising totality, becoming completely with the actions we are performing.
Practising Zen is practising not looking around when we are doing something but being completely one with the present activity, no matters what that activity is. Becoming one with the activity we are doing means devoting 100% of us to it. We might have the tendency to do something whilst thinking of something else. It goes without saying that this creates a split between the body active in the present moment (it could not be otherwise) and the mind occupied with something else; busy in some future fantasy or occupied by some past mulling over. Practising in the present moment, practising the present moment means bringing these two elements, our body and our mind in the same exact place, here and now. Of course, that does not mean that we can’t dedicate time to future plans or think of a past memory, not at all, however, when we need/want to do that, we just dedicate 100% of ourself to do that. No split, no separation, just totally present with the activity we have decided to engage with, whether that is a physical action or a mental action. Can we devote 100% of ourself to all we do? Can we bring the mind and the body in the same very place, this present moment?
Practising Zen is to practise being totally in the present moment. The mind, most likely and most of the time, has a different agenda which is not concerned at all with what is happening here and now. The practice consists of training ourself to just keep coming back, totally, to what we are doing. In the process of this training, we might realise that little by little we are becoming more present with what is in front of us and less distracted by other elements which are not really relevant to what is here and now. We stop looking around, mentally and physically and we start more and more to align with what is really necessary to do.
We can start this type of practice with something easy, like walking, just dedicate yourself totally to walking. Deliberately drop all the mental activities and just rest the mind into the walking activity, become one with walking, just be walking. Then we can pick an activity which we might consider more challenging, perhaps driving or listening to someone without getting distracted, debating with someone by remaining present and open with each moment of the debate and so on. We can start small and little by little it becomes more and more natural to experience total devotion to what we are doing only. We could even call it the practice of no rushing things or the practice of developing patience and enjoying this very present moment, as totally as we can possibly do, moment to moment.
How many days would you give to yourself if you were to learn a new skill? And, how long would you need to develop a healthy habit?
When we practise something for an extended period of time, not only we become good at what we practise, but we also make that practice a habitual element in our life. It becomes part of what we do on a daily basis without having to think about that. In this way, we can develop healthy habits and, by the same token, we can undo unhealthy ones. All it takes is perseverance, courage and mindfulness.
Developing the habit of practising meditation regularly works exactly in this way. You have to patiently build it day by day, with diligence, with resilience and curiosity, with kindness and care. Then, one day, without thinking about it, you find yourself sitting effortlessly on the cushion to explore your inner world, to contemplate your own mind, to simply be present with your thoughts.
The benefits of meditation are numerous. One can easily browse the internet and read tons of scientific reports and articles talking about that. I must say that I have never had the patience to read through many of these reports but, I rather trusted the process and what this process would bring by just observing the people around me who were already meditators. I could see the quality of their actions, their presence when they listened or when they spoke. There was something in them that I wanted to have too and, a part of me was telling that those qualities were the fruit of their meditation practice. That was for me a first hand indication of how meditation and mindfulness were effectively working. Somehow, I could tell that practising meditation and mindfulness was healthy for the body, for the mind and could also have a beneficial effect on people around us. That is what I found out myself during my years of practice.
At times, I struggled to keep my practice going. I experienced a few periods when I even stopped meditating just to find out how things would, in general, feel rougher, I would feel more irritable and less patient. Then, I would start over again until the practice would become again a regular healthy habit. Every time I stopped it, it took me a while to bring the practice back to its ‘habit status’. What I would do was to set targets, perhaps committing for a month, or for a season or for 3 full moons period. I would just set a period of time in which I intended to sit every day. Every time, it worked perfectly well and I would get my practice back to its ‘habit status’.
Sitting for 100 days in a row, seems to be an ideal amount of time to build a solid habit, to turn something that you are perhaps doing occasionally into something that becomes regular in your daily schedule. It can easily be compared to brushing teeth, it is something that you do without thinking, it just feels right to do it and if you were not doing it, it would feel somehow odd.
The beginning of the year seems to be the perfect period to set a resolution. I guess that, as humans, we love to set goals and targets and perhaps, when a new year starts we see in that the opportunity to focus on something we want to change or, on something new to explore. It seems that the new brings new energy, new vitality and determination, that’s great!
For the beginning of 2022, I am going to set my own resolution which is to consolidate my meditation practice and I’d love to invite anyone reading these words to do the same. It is very simple once we set a strong intention to do it. Just start the new year with this strong resolution to meditate for 100 days in a row, doing your very best not to miss a single day. It can be fun to see how all kind of resistances will appear to the surface of your mind. My suggestion here is to be curios and just explore with an open mind, you now have 100 days to become more and more familiar with that and to learn how to respond to these resistances.
When I run my mindfulness and meditation courses, I always set this target for the people attending to sit for 100 days straight. After the 100th day, we meet and see how things have been. In general, some people struggle more than others but, it is nice to hear all of the participants talking about the benefits of this long ‘meditation run’. I remember when I first set this target for myself, I would keep count of the days, I would make sure I would not miss a single one and would use all kind of strategies to make sure I would go straight to the final goal. I had my diary where I would write about my meditation and I had reminders set on my phone to make sure I would sit at least once before the end of the day. It was a nice experiment into understanding my own mind, my own blockages, my highs and my lows. I could easily see how the mind can become the best or the worst friend in a matter of seconds. All I had to do was to allow my attention to follow the stream of thoughts and, my energy, my mood, my perception of the world would change accordingly. When that is seen clearly, I could start discerning a little bit more my own thoughts. I realised that I could let go of them, I realised that they didn’t need my full attention, I realised that they had a life on their own which is completely separate from my own. When we spend so many days in a row exploring this, it really becomes natural to have a better understanding of our own mind, our own mental patterns, which life situations trigger certain reactions, which situations make us angry and which situations make us happy. In other words, we tune into our mental unit and see what is healthy and what is less healthy in there. We see more clearly which mental circuits bring happiness and which ones bring misery. It is like becoming an IT expert of our own computer set; our mind. We start working on our hardware and see which parts need substituting, which parts need some reconfiguring and which parts are actually fine the way they are. Who would not want to have the best possible mental unit that could bring us lots of happiness?
As for all things people achieve in life, reaching the 100 days meditation resolution practice will have an amazing impact on your life. And, of course, it will allow to develop a solid healthy habit to meditate regularly. All you need to do is to give it a go and be curious about the whole process. Then something at the mental level will change. This is called Neuroplasticity which, to go back to the hardware analogy, can be compared to the reconfiguration of some of our mental circuits. In fact, our mind is made up of millions and millions of circuits which determine our behaviour, our reactions and responses to situations. When we bring mindfulness to these circuits, we somehow have an effect on them. We start seeing how we behave mechanically in certain situations. We clearly see how the stimulation of certain circuits have developed fixed mental patterns which make us behave in a certain way rather than in others. When mindful of this process, we can start responding to situations more consciously and, as a consequence of that, we start developing new circuits, new mental patterns. In this way, we can change old unhealthy habits into new healthy ones. Old circuits get undone and new ones are created. Without realising it, we start acting differently, in a healthier way. All we need to do is to bring a certain level of mindfulness to our unconscious mind, see what arises all the time and be patient enough to observe that without impulsively and mechanically reacting to what the unconscious part of our brain is ‘offering’ to us. If rather than reacting unconsciously to life situations, we take time for a more conscious and healthy way to respond to them, we begin to change patterns, we begin to modify our circuits. In other words, we can change the way we perceive the world and the way we live in it. All it takes is perseverance, courage and mindfulness.
The mind can be an excellent servant but a terrible master. Developing a meditation practice habit will help us to ’employ’ this excellent servant and will allow us to find the way to dismiss the terrible master. 100 days, give it a go to see whether this is the time it takes to learn this skill and to develop this healthy meditation habit.
On Tuesday January the 4th at 7pm, I will run an ONLINE drop-in meditation session where we can better explore this 100 days meditation New Year’s resolution. Please feel free to join this Zoom meeting below https://zoom.us/j/9981048293
Meeting ID: 998 104 8293
The session will last around 45 minutes and is FREE OF CHARGE
Feel free to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any queries you might have about the session
In October 2018, I attended a course to learn to teach meditation and mindfulness. In October 2018, I attended a course to learn to teach meditation and mindfulness. The course was run by an organisation called Zenways, more specifically, the course was run by one of its members, Seán Collins. The course lasted for a week and I knew, at the end of it, that things would not be the same as before. A major change happened during that week I spent in Forest Row where the course took place. I felt like I gained tons of confidence in myself and in what I could do from then on. Of course, little I knew back then, that the journey would be long (actually the journey, I feel, never ends) at times it can feel arduous and other times it feels enjoyable. I was basically starting to realise a little bit more about myself and how the mind functions. How it, the mind, had power when it came to perceive things in and out of myself. The mind says that something is good, then I act accordingly. The mind says that something is bad, then I act differently. Throughout the life, the mind has built a storehouse of good things and bad things and one acts in accordance to this storehouse, attracted by the good things and repulsing the bad things. So, what changed during that week? It is very difficult to describe it exactly in words but, one way to put it, is that I found the neutral place. The neutral place is a mental awakening that sees things as they are and not as they are determined by the conditioned mind, by the storehouse of good things and bad things. It is a clearer way of seeing things, unfiltered, direct. New potentials seems to be at the horizon.
In the weeks to come after the course, emotions started to pour. It seemed that things inside me started to disentangle and were being freed somehow. As they freed themselves, they would manifest in tears and, I would find myself crying and crying. No sad crying, no happy crying either, just crying. Beautiful and liberating. I could easily observe all of this outpour in a way which I would define detached. It was definitely happening but not happening to someone in particular, it was just happening. And, of course, it goes without saying that when one becomes detached from the inner turmoils, they don’t get so caught and so enslaved by them. I have learned with time that when I am not attached to what it is going internally, I don’t suffer, I can see what is going on without being overwhelmed by it. I guess that I started to have a first hand experience on how meditation and mindfulness worked in practice, I am not sure, I am just guessing here. Before then, I had lots of theory in my mind and by practice meditation regularly I was experiencing the array of benefits that meditation can offer; feeling calmer, being kinder, being more patience and so on. Now, I was starting to enjoy a different way to relate to myself and to things and/or people that were around me.
I remember I enjoyed the book very much and got attracted, among other things, by the fact that Daizan run an organisation or Sangha, a community where people practiced Zen Buddhism, I’d wanted to join that. I had never explored Buddhism before and I knew very little (nothing) about Zen either. I soon wanted to know more about them, Buddhism and Zen so after the course in Forest Row, I joined Zenways. My guess is that my ‘opening’ which occurred during the week of the course, lead me straight to go to the source of what I believed caused this opening in the first place. Perhaps a sense of gratitude, curiosity, excitement.
I joined Zenways and wanted to meet Daizan as soon as I could so I went down to the dojo in London, Campberwell, and finally met him. I went to speak to him in a private meeting which in the Zen tradition is called Sanzen. In these meetings, Zen students can tell their teacher about their practice, normally, but not only that. I remember that all I could tell Daizan was ‘thank you!’ or something along those words. I just wanted to convey my gratitude for the ‘shift’ or ‘opening’ that happened just a couple of months before.
From that moment onwards, I got more and more involved with Zenways and their activities. Becoming a member of Zenways, means becoming a Zen student. Becoming a Zen student, in this case, meant to study Zen or to practice Zen under the supervision of Daizan. That is what I did, I started practicing Zen which meant, in my case, having a daily meditation sitting or two daily meditation sittings. Also, I started reading the vast Zen literature which has really been helping me to understand or, try to understand, where or what all the Zen masters of the past and present point at. It does feel right to say that all this practice, reading, applying mindfulness and so on started to develop a Zen mind or no-mind, whatever that means.
Also, little by little, I realised that Zen can be practised in an endless number of ways. All activities we find ourselves involved in, can be used to practice Zen and, possibly, the first and still to me, most important lesson has been that, when doing something, do it totally, become the action, be totally available, wholeheartedly. By becoming one with the action, one is no concerned with what is going on in the mind (likes, dislikes, resistances and so on) but they become just concerned with what is necessary to do. As I heard many times, we break down that wall of separation which makes us feel separate from the universe, makes us feel a separate entity, a ‘struggling’ entity, a ‘fighting’ entity, a tiny entity that is about to be crashed by the universe. Zen, in my own understanding, helps us to see that this split, this separation is just illusory, it is created by our own mind, by the storehouse of ‘good things’ and ‘bad things’. In reality, we are part of the moving universe, we are that universe in fact. The self and this idea of a separate self is an empty idea, no real. It stays together because of our habitual way of thinking about ourself and the rest. Little by little, this understanding or knowing becomes experiential but, I still have to work hard at times to bypass the habitual mind which do not allow me to see this Truth. It is a constant reminding myself of this, moment to moment, no split, no separation, just acting as required by the situation.
This is in a nutshell, the training that I have been doing with Zenways. There is more than this but for me at the moment, this is the core teaching/practice. Also, in these years with Zenways, I realised why it is called Zenways. The reason is very simple, there are many ways to practice Zen, not only one. Zen can be practiced whilst walking, working, running, speaking, looking into a mirror, working with a Koan…… Zen is no separation in the many different ways we manifest our presence in action. And then, of course, Zen would not allow any definition of Zen……
I know every wrinkle on my face, every scar, indentation, valleys and rises as I stared in a mirror for 5 consecutive days.
I went to a Sesshin last month, a meditation retreat in the Zen tradition. During this period of intense practice (meditation practice), one follows a very rigid schedule; sitting meditation, walking meditation, working meditation, eating mindfully, mindful movements, chanting and silence, lots of silence. And, it was from the shadow of this silence that I got to see very clearly what was going on in the mind when I attended the various scheduled activities. I could not distract myself by chatting to someone else but I had to live totally with my own thoughts, feelings, emotions. Resistances, likes, dislikes, wanting to move, scratching, rushing to get some food, not considering others, getting upset because food run out…… In silence, all these things are clearly seen, they are clearly heard like a scream in the dark, one can’t pretend to not have heard it.
Don’t get me wrong, there is also great beauty in spending so much time in silence, especially for a person like me that feels at times inadequate when being around people. I didn’t have to talk, I just had to get on with the various tasks, my own inner stuff and my face reflected in a mirror, not such a bad thing after all.
At the Noddfa centre, around 30 people moved inside the boundaries of the rigid Sesshin schedule, focussed on themselves; noticing their thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes. Noticing without reacting, that is one of the qualities of a mindful mind. Noticing what arises, allowing space without grasping. The more I allow, the more there is a sense of space expanding (well, that’s what it feels like). In the moment I try to grasp a thought, for instance, the same space shuts down around that thought, I am caught, my attention is caught. Is there anything wrong when the attention gets caught? No, nothing is neither wrong or right for that matter but I am limiting myself within claustrophobic boundaries whilst missing out on the actual experience that is unfolding around me. I am holding on to something, not letting go, fixated on a concept or an idea, very intellectual and not really experiential. Of course, there are times when I need to focus on thoughts, I need to analyse or work something out or when I speak to someone and I want to know exactly what to say. However, when meditating we want to allow thoughts to arise without us ‘disturbing’ them. Thoughts are not a problem at all but what we do with them can create the conditions for some potential disharmony with how we deal with situations, people and ourselves too. We all know how one thought leads on to the next one and the next one again in an endless thread that carries us down the spiral of our own creative, corrupted, conditioned, individual story about how things are. This spiralling is what we call the world of separation, our story versus what is out there, the ‘hostile’ world. Rather than experiencing things, we think about them, what we like or don’t like about them, how we can twist them to try to ‘gain’ something, how to avoid or how to have more. Thoughts are gauging the actual experience of life, they are not the experience itself, they are ideas about it. My experience with Zen is that we are practising to break down this illusory wall that separates us from the ‘hostile’ universe. Once the wall is down, there is no separation, we are the universe, there is neither hostility nor no-hostility, we are just what we are. However, why did we stare in a mirror for 5 consecutive days then?
The Mirror Zen Sesshin is based around the practice of sitting and facing yourselves in a mirror. Practice which was developed in a Japanese temple called Tokei-ji in the Kamakura period by female Zen master Kakuzan Shido. Kakuzan Shido would meditate before the mirror to see into her own nature. In the same way, later generations of nuns and us at the Noddfa centre have been meditating on various koans associated to the mirror image and reflections. I can kind of imagine Kakuzan Shido walking towards a mirror; thoughts must have popped into her mind whilst she was getting closer to it. As she got very near to it, she must have clearly seen that those thoughts were not reflected in the mirror, they were reflected by an inner mirror which we commonly call mind. Possibly, she saw the reality that laid in front of her reflected in the mirror and the reality of her own thoughts. Two separate realities. There were thoughts about how she saw things, how she believed things were. Clearly, she realised that the 2 realities were not matching. What was seen by her own eyes was different or corrupted by what her mind was saying. The mind had ideas about what she was seeing and these ideas were clearly subjective, conditioned, dependent by factors such as mood, lightness, darkness and so on and so forth. For that reason, I guess, she carried on with this Mirror Zen practice, she refined it and passed it down to other students. This is my reading of how things went which I am sure is very far from what really inspired Kakuzan Shido.
Is the mirror showing the content of my own mind? Where in the mirror are the thoughts which appear in my mind? Can I see them? These were some of the questions that naturally arose and sustained me during my practice of seeing into my own nature. If thoughts are not in the mirror, where are they coming from? These questions help breaking our logical way of seeing things and open up to a different way of experiencing life in general; not so much an intellectual endeavour but rather an experiential experience, a moment to moment experience, from a philosophical approach to things to a more practical one, from an intellectual way to relate to things, to a more intuitive one.
What did I take home from this retreat? I am not sure that I took home something specific from the retreat. Definitely lots of inspiration to keep practicing and admiration for all of those who practice. Gratitude towards Kakuzan Shido and 22 generations of practitioners after her who kept this specific practice alive. What was apparent in the mirror of my mind were those thoughts of inadequacy that at times take over. Being able to let go of those fears and of that sense of me, personal me, separate me, that illusory sense of separation in general. That is what showed up very strongly at the end of the retreat. So ‘full speed ahead’……