list of teachings

Take Refuge In No Technique
Larkspur, July 2005

Mindfulness Training

The Chinese transliteration of the original Pali word for mindfulness has two parts: the top character represents “the present moment,” and the bottom character means “heart.” Mindfulness is connected to the heart, to being in the present moment with heart, with warmth, with kindness.

Warmth in our practice is an important quality to remember. Most of us tend to be somewhat hard on ourselves. In mindfulness practice, whatever the present state of our mind and body is, we hold it with compassion. Whatever your mind and body presents to you, hold it and observe it with compassion. This being able to hold yourself, and to observe yourself nonjudgmentally, with compassion, is in itself a major change for most of us, with great transformative power.

Mindfulness is sometimes called "bare attention," or "bare noting." This word “bare” is a good one in that it indicates a quality of awareness that doesn’t judge, resist, or cling to anything. Simple attention is like a mirror, simply reflecting what is there, not judging what it reflects. Mindfulness training is training in a compassionate awareness of the present moment. It is a training in how not to be lost in thoughts, opinions, and reactivity. It is also a training in how to see things as they really are, as opposed to seeing them through the often distorted lens of our preconceived ideas, fears, and emotionality. We cultivate this awareness during sitting meditation and also in the activities of everyday life.

Mindful awareness is sometimes mixed up with a kind of self-judgment, where we judge what we are experiencing against our image of ourselves or what we think we should be experiencing or what we think mindfulness is. “I shouldn’t be angry, I should be mindful and compassionate!” Or we confuse mindfulness with paying attention or with concentration. If we are driving somewhere and we take a wrong turn, we may say, “Shoot! I wasn’t being very mindful!” But mindfulness is not any particular state of mind — it is simply the practice of noting what is present, of noting what our state of mind already is, without judging.  Mindfulness might note: “Took a wrong turn,” and “Now I’m feeling chagrin,” or “I notice anxiety.” At that point, a further thought may arise: “I’m going to be late and people will be upset with me.” or “I’m always forgetting things.” As neutrally as possible, we note those thoughts without falling prey to the judgmentalism of these thoughts. 

During zazen, when we find ourselves lost in a train of thought, when we remember we are lost and are able to let go of it and come back to our sitting, we don’t judge ourselves — “Whoa! BAD meditation; thinking again!” Or if we do judge ourselves, we just let go of that, too. The job of mindfulness is simply to recognize is happening, and to hold it non-judgmentally with our awareness. Mindfulness is not a state of mind to work toward or attain.

What are good opportunities to practice mindfulness? There are many moments in our daily lives where we find ourselves doing nothing, and these are good opportunities for taking stock of ourselves mentally and physically. Standing in line at grocery store. Waiting for a red light. These are also times when we naturally may be feeling impatient. The practice is to focus on breathing for a moment, and physically experience the impatience —what does it feel like in the body? In the heart? In the arms and legs? In the eyes? We may also be having thoughts that we should be calm, we shouldn’t be feeling impatient. We notice these thoughts too. We don’t try to change the impatience. This is a subtle point, and one we have to keep reminding ourselves of. It’s so easy to think of mindfulness as a goal, as something we have to work at to achieve, something other than clear comprehension of what is already present. And yet, there is fruit— just noting various mental states, there will naturally arise some detachment and a greater calm, a groundedness in the present, an appreciation of the present.

One of the reasons we practice zazen meditation is that it is a practice that helps us develop clear comprehension of things as they are, and helps us stay with our lives, stay with reality as it is, stay with our minds as they are. Zazen meditation usually begins with mindfulness of breathing, where we return the attention to the breath without trying to change it, simply attending to it as it is. We use awareness of the breath to anchor us to the present, and to return us to the present when we wander away. Even though the mind becomes distracted again and again with thoughts, by repeatedly coming back to rest in the breath, are training our body and mind to become settled on one thing, at one place. We get practice in simply allowing things to be. Over time we increase our ability to be able to do that with other aspects of our lives.

Zazen is also the practice of mindfulness of body. To take the physical posture — to sit up straight, to hold our hands in meditation mudra, to keep our eyes slightly open —requires mindfulness. More importantly, when we sit in this posture we create with our body a centered, grounded space. Though innumerable mental states come up when we sit in zazen, whatever does come up, it is coming up in this centered, grounded space. Our thoughts, emotions, feelings, come and go. We might feel like we are completely lost in them but our body isn’t lost. Our head feels like a turmoil but our body is still. Because our body is still, our thinking mind and our emotions gradually become stiller. They bubble up again and again, with great energy, but there is no place in the body for them to latch on to, to lodge within, to stick to, so they gradually give up their energy. They gradually evaporate. They become more and more transparent; more and more emptied.

Just Sitting

Mindfulness practices—noticing the state of our body, our thoughts, noticing and following our breathing—are our touchstones to return to the present. But it is important to remember that mindfulness practice is not only not a chore, it is just a suggestion to ourselves for how to direct our intention. Most basically, we just sit. Chögyam Trunpa said, “You don’t try specifically to watch and keep track of what is going on. You don’t try to formalize the sitting situation and make it into some special activity that you are performing. You just do sit. And then you begin to feel that sense of groundedness, which is not a product of being deliberate, but is more the force of the actual fact of being there. So you sit. And you sit. And you breathe. Sometimes you think, but still you are thinking sitting thoughts…your thoughts have a flat bottom.” We become aware of our breathing, or our body, but it is a wide awareness, one that we continually let go of, and go on, to the next breath, the next thought. We don’t cling to any particular meditative state of mind.

Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve some kind of transcendental calmness or bliss state, nor is it attempt to change ourselves for the better, to be a better person. It is simply creating a space to stay still, in which to allow whatever arises to arise. Whatever arises, we abide with it, we observe it, we open to it.

Sitting like this, after a while you will just have a pure experience of you sitting there. Just you. Your heart beats, you breathe, thoughts come and go. All kinds of things are happening at once in you. Let that be mindfulness itself, wide mindfulness. You are here, you are alive. You still have your personality and your problems and everything else – but when you are sitting, they are not so important. What you feel more is just the pure simple quality of your being.

No particular motive. Just simply human, just a human being. We find some home ground in zazen, which is why it’s so refreshing. It’s just me, and I’m just here, and it’s OK. And then the bell rings and we let go of that, and the flux of life continues. We let go of zazen and get up, and maybe we go into our complicated mind and our complicated life — anyway, we do it with good spirit. We move on to the next thing with good spirit. And little by little, and maybe we don’t even notice it, the simple pure quality of our being becomes more and more who we are in our everyday life.

We encourage ourselves to practice mindfulness both in zazen and in daily life, but we don’t cling to this practice as something that will save us. This would be taking refuge in a technique.

This practice of Buddhism, this Zen lineage, is pretty strict on this point of not taking too much refuge in any technique. Mainly, we emphasize “just sitting.” This sounds simple but it’s actually a strict practice. We can’t take refuge in some doctrine or set of beliefs that will save us. Though we appreciate and respect those who teach us, this practice does not let us submerge ourselves in a charismatic teacher who causes us to be blissed out in their presence. The practice doesn’t let us take refuge in something esoteric – bliss, enlightenment, some attainment, some state beyond suffering. We don’t talk during zazen, usually, and we don’t do much guided meditation. Guided meditation is a little bit of a trance state – there is a hypnotic aspect to it. Hypnosis and trance states can be very useful. Buddhism traditionally has a rich history of practices that cultivate certain trance states that lead to insights. But we always have to go beyond such states. We don’t cling to them; we don't take refuge in them. They are a tentative, temporary tool.

Psychological understanding can very helpful to us with the difficulties and issues of our lives. Therapy can lead to real insights that alleviate suffering. Psychological insight is part of practice, part of therapy, part of our lives, and a valuable part. An exciting aspect of Buddhism’s development in the West is how Western psychological understanding is influencing how we study and practice Buddhism. Some of most helpful Western teachers make good use of psychological language and psychological insights that speak very directly to us. But even while availing ourselves of such benefits, we want to go deeper.

Our Zen Buddhist practice is strict because it encourages us to ultimately take refuge in bare reality. There is just bare reality. There is just “things as they are.” We take refuge in things as they are… ourselves as we are… the world as it is. There is no escape. There is no perfection. When we really realize this – that there is no special teaching, no truth to search for, nothing to attain, then, we come to perfect freedom. Instead of despair, we become real. We’re not fooled by anything. Even our own mind’s comings and goings.

We’re used to working hard at self-improvement in the West. But you don’t need to improve yourself. It’s OK to still be “crazy after all these years,” as the Paul Simon song says. Actually, the starting point of Buddhism is that everyone is a little crazy. Buddhism accepts that everyone is a little crazy; that we are all neurotic. We are blinded by the three poisons: by the illusion of separateness, by clinging, by aversion. And we don’t find perfect freedom, perfect serenity, by getting rid of being crazy. We realize freedom by seeing clearly our craziness. Clear comprehension of craziness. Mindfulness of our craziness.

It’s almost a cliché in psychology to say, “The way out is through.” This is very good advice: don’t avoid, don’t run away. But “through” may imply that there is another side, where you are “out.” Suppose you are thrashing in a river— “I have to get through” —and then suddenly you realize, “I’m a fish. I can breathe in water!” We stop resisting the water and it becomes our home. This is accepting life as it is, accepting the reality of our life as it is, accepting our mind as it is. It’s OK to be crazy after all these years.

Actually, it’s not so bad. You accept your own craziness, and you come to have a lighter quality, a lighter quality of being. Who you are is just the play of reality. We see the world and our own actions in it in a more playful light, and unmistakable joy arises. This practice naturally will lighten you up on who you think you are, will lighten up on your concerns, your preoccupations. Each time you stand up from a period of zazen you find yourself more empty, more aware, more simple, more warmly present with yourself and others. And as we practice this light, present, accepting quality becomes more and more the way we are in our daily lives.

Layla Smith
Gyokujun Teishin
Pure Forge, Pervading Heart