We talk about “being in the moment,” the present moment. We call it “mindfulness” What exactly does that mean? Thich Nhat Hahn says,
[Mindfulness means] to be truly present in the moment. When you eat, you know that you are eating. When you walk, you know that you are walking. The opposite of mindfulness is forgetfulness. You eat but you don’t know that you are eating, because your mind is elsewhere.”*
The real mindfulness we’re trying to realize is the mindfulness of daily life, mindfulness while engaged in daily activities. It is the product, the fruit of the mindfulness that we cultivate through meditation practice.
Mindfulness meditation is not about forgetfulness, either. Rather, it’s narrowing our awareness to our breath or some other subject of meditation for a certain period of time. In Chih-kuan for Beginners, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i wrote, “During meditation, beginners find that not even a single thought arising in the mind will stay for an instant.” We use the breath as a tool to stop the mind from wandering and control the discursive thoughts that prevent us from being truly present in the moment.
Awareness of our breath or being present in the breath develops a deeper, more enduring awareness that we should be able to take with us when we get up from the meditation mat.
A FaceBook friend put the poster you see to the right on his timeline. It’s from the Santa Cruz Zen Center. I really like this attitude. To chase after attainments, exalted states of mind, stages of accomplishment such as arhatship, even Buddhahood, has always seemed counter-productive to me. It causes people to seize on these objectives and cling to them, when non-seizing, non-clinging is what frees our mind.
I would call the Santa Cruz Zen Center’s approach a wu-wei approach. Wu-wei, or “not-doing,” that I have written about often, is the way of letting things happen naturally. The Buddha said that when mindfulness flows like a steady stream, then mindfulness as a cause for awakening becomes aroused. It happens naturally. There’s no reason to run after it.
Of course, aiming to sit in meditation without any ideas is having a idea, a objective. It is impossible to be without ideas or aims of any kind. However, just as we can narrow our awareness to the breath, we can also narrow our objectives.
But can this approach also be an opportunity for seizing and clinging?
Chih-i also wrote, “You should know that whoever clings to the wu-wei state will never develop the awakening mind, which is free from differentiation.”
Well, whoever clings to anything, period. It’s a bitter irony that we can never be completely free from the trap of conceptual thinking, nor realize total non-attachment. And yet, that’s no reason why we can’t really be present in the moment, the only moment we have, or follow the way of wu-wei, the art of keeping it simple.
From innumerable complexities we must grow to simplicity . . .”
– Jiddu Krishnamurti
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* Thich Nhat Hanh, be free where you are, Parallax Press, 2002