Student: While I was meditating this morning, I had an experience that I want to ask about.
Student: I heard the usual, droning voices opining about how I should be leading my life—nothing unusual there. And then I had an exciting idea related to an activity that I’m passionate about. I felt that surge of energy that comes with inspiration, and I knew with clarity that I wanted to pursue this. It took everything I had to stay on the cushion for the rest of the sit!
Teacher: But you did?
Student: Yes, but it was almost impossible to keep attention on the breath. It kept wandering to the exciting idea.
Teacher: You are familiar with the expression, “When you sit, sit. When you stand, stand. Above all don’t wobble?”
Student: Yes I am. The teaching there is that no matter what happens in meditation, the guidance is to return to the breath.
Student: So does that mean I should ignore an exciting idea because it is a distraction in meditation?
Teacher: Not necessarily. Perhaps you can look to see if it is really the idea that is exciting.
Mind of Meditation
Many of us are familiar with the story of Prince Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree, being tempted by the demon Mara. Mara, reportedly, offered passion, lust, fear, boredom, death, failure, and doubt to distract the Buddha-to-be. But none of the “elements of conditioned existence” deflected the Buddha from his meditation. His only response at one point was to touch the earth. “Here, now, this,” that was his choice. In the face of that “understanding,” Mara disappeared, temporarily defeated, supposedly muttering, “This is not over yet!” And, although we seldom hear about it, he continued his attempts to distract the Buddha.
We can take this story as inspiration for our sitting practice. On the cushion, in the compassionate, silent container of a sit, we face down egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate—Mara, the hungry ghosts, the illusion of being separate from Life.
There is a reason to keep the wisdom of the meditation posture (pelvis tilted forward, spine extended, eyes softly unfocused) sacrosanct. It trains us to dissolve the karmic orientation to look to conditioned mind for direction.
The instruction to return to the breath, no matter what the distraction, develops the capacity to be with Life, with the “earth,” with what is so. We train to dissolve the default relationship with egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate and to cultivate intimacy with the Intelligence that Animates. We practice calibrating to Life’s wisdom, while that which separates “us” from the “real-ization” of “our” true nature is worn away.
Attending to the breath—no matter what—symbolizes the willingness to choose freedom over suffering. Attention is either HERE or on the conversation; it is with Life or ego, with Awareness or conditioned mind. Attending to every breath, we practice learning not to “choose something over ending suffering.”
HERE is Exciting
“All beings in the universe appear and disappear in a moment. The term ‘impermanence’ expresses the functioning of the moment. All of us experience a gap between our minds and the reality of time—that’s why we suffer. Even though your mind cannot keep up with the quick changes of time, you already exist in the domain of impermanence, together with everyone and everything. As a human being, you inherently have a great capability that enables you to realize this truth and experience your life with deep joy. To know this joy, we practice looking at ourselves with a calm mind. That is Zen meditation called zazen.”
- Dainin Katagiri
Consider this: Each moment contains the entire universe—all possibilities, all processes, all content, everything. When attention is on awareness, when we are “calm mind,” we are present to this experience, which we would perhaps label bliss, aliveness, joy or excitement, yes?
Conditioned to believe that the “content” in a moment of presence is the source of the excitement, we leave the moment to pursue the content, only to watch the exhilaration drain and the enthusiasm wane. How many relationships start on a high note and end in disappointment? How many projects start with anticipation and end in drudgery? How many weight loss programs, gym memberships, new jobs and New Year’s resolutions litter the path of good intentions?
Without awareness practice, we fail to see that it is presence itself that is exciting. The lens of conditioned mind prevents us from realizing that the rush of energy, that feeling of vibrant possibility, is the function of the moment; it is neither conditional nor dependent on content.
Instead of accepting that boom and bust, trough and crest are the norm, is it possible to practice being in excitement, in delight, in aliveness in each moment? Can we train to bring excitement to whatever we do? Can we reprogram our relationship with attention such that the life force of the moment is not siphoned off by a karmic process into a coffin of content?
The training principle of attending to the breath in the controlled environment of a sit shows us the answer is yes. As we practice, we learn to stay with the tempo and energy of the moment. Bringing the attention back to the breath is the process of getting back into step with Life, short-circuiting the dissipation of the energy through wandering attention. We train to be in the “mind of meditation” through the more challenging gradients of walking and working meditation, in harmony with the pulse of life unfolding as we go about our daily lives. This is the practice of being alive, of living in excitement and deep joy.
Instead of pursuing an exciting idea and hoping it will give us the promised high when it comes to fruition, we can embrace any idea as a training opportunity to bring the process of excitement to whatever we do. The excitement is in practicing excitement. A corollary benefit of practicing excitement is that we wear away the process that divides “what is exciting” from “what is not exciting.“ Then, we are available to steward what Life finds exciting.
Life is the endless creative process of transforming potential to form and form to potential. “As the ocean waves, the universe peoples.” By practicing being here, with Life, through the simple act of returning to the breath, we are invited to experience these lines from the Tao Te Ching.
“Less and less do you need to force things,
until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.”
For the next 48 hours, see if you can apply the mind of meditation as you go about your daily life. What is the experience of “practicing excitement without content”? How is living in the moment, exciting? What is your experience of “non-action”? Record and listen to what arises.
Recommit to your sitting practice with the training perspective offered in this article. Can you bring the process of delight to each breath on the cushion?