Student: In last evening’s group, you brought our attention to the fact that the stool on the east porch was out of place. I notice that each time you are on the property, you notice some detail that has not been attended to.
Teacher: Yes? So what are you seeing about that?
Student: I have watched a lot of things come up around it: from defensiveness that I didn’t see it, frustration that I/we never seem to get it perfectly right, and now just bewilderment as to why it matters. It’s a stool on the porch after all! If there is nothing wrong, then why is it so important that the stool is in the right place on the porch?
Teacher: Let me ask you to consider this. It’s a stool on the porch. What is it that makes this such a big deal for you? Why does it bother you so much that it’s pointed out?
Everything Matters. Nothing Matters
Awareness Practice teaches us to be in the present moment, paying attention. If we are here, we are aware of what is here. If we are not here, we are not aware of what is here. The east porch of the Monastery is a high traffic area. Many residents pass by the stool several times a day. Not noticing that the stool isn’t in the designated place is perhaps an indication of the level of inattention being practiced. The teacher invites the community to use this simple piece of furniture as a compass for their training.
After each sit, we state why we are all practicing. “We are not here to create and cling to beliefs. We are here to pay attention.” Are we paying attention, in every moment? This is the koan being offered by the stool.
Awareness practice reveals that being lost in a conversation in conditioned mind is what keeps us walking by the stool on the porch and not noticing it. If we see the stool, we are here, paying attention. If we don’t “see” the stool, we are not here.
Some of us, perhaps, have the experience of walking by the stool and seeing it out of place, and then getting stuck in a conversation of what to do about it! What do I do? Should I or shouldn’t I move it? Should I ask first before I move it? Do I really know how it needs to be placed? Why does this place have so many rules? What difference does it make? And, perhaps, finally, This is so stupid. We attend to the conversation and we leave the moment. The stool disappears. If we stayed here, perhaps the stool would tell us something about where it wants to be! By not being present to the stool, we never get to have the experience that the moment has everything we need.
In the moment, there is only what is, right here and right now. It is all there is to attend to. Whatever is in the moment is everything. Now is all there is. Everything matters because there is only this moment. There is no moment that matters more or less than this one, because there isn’t another moment. This is IT. This IS everything. And everything matters.
Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate would have us believe that there are things we should attend to and things we don’t need to attend to, big things and little things, the right way and the wrong way. Debating the pros and cons of what deserves attention simply maintains attention on the conversation. Judgment of “my” performance, defending “my” lack of attention, feeling bad, and being frustrated with the teacher, the practice and the place is simply conditioned mind’s way of distracting us from being here.
In fact, a curious and magical experience is possible if we pursue the teacher’s question and look at the process that prevents us from noticing the stool, that gets worked up when it is exposed, and that resists assistance to come back here. What we see—in the absence of the conversation that creates the world of opposites, that pits right against wrong, good against bad, everything against nothing—is that it is the conversation that creates “something” and “nothing.”
When we practice in this way, we recognize that paying attention is a binary process. We either are or we are not. In other words, it is not possible to practice paying attention if we pay attention sometimes. When we pay attention sometimes, we are practicing “paying attention sometimes.” To be wholeheartedly present in the moment is living without a trace. In the moment, there is nothing left over – no trace of the ego, no voices, no disease of the mind. In the act of paying attention in this way, we can have the experience of “nir-vana” no trace – blown out.
Now we “see” the meaning of “nothing matters” from the perspective of Hui-neng’s, “From the beginning no thing is.” We understand what Seng’Tsan points to in Hsin Hsin Ming: “Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things.” And in that moment of compassionate comprehension, where no-thing matters, everything matters again.
Living wholeheartedly, being here, attending to what is here, offers a “way” to live. Putting the stool back where it belongs on the porch reflects an attitude of mind. It is an act of presence. It is an act of respect for the stool, the practice, and the place. It means that “I” am not here. There is no trace of “me” both physically and spiritually. In leaving no inkling of “my” presence, I am wholly here.
In living without a trace, “no-thing” is. Everything matters and nothing matters.
Practice Tip: For the next 48 hours, practice wholehearted presence. What trace is “I” leaving behind? Notice what conditioned mind talks you into ignoring. What aspect of Life is denied to you? What “appears” in awareness, what do you see, when you pay attention. Record and listen to what arises.
The breath, the blank wall, and having something like the stool on the porch as a compass for our training is helpful as we do this exercise. It’s a helpful way to practice being lived.