The practice of zazen is ancient, but I think it has a parallel in an entirely modern experience: email. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s interesting to think of the awareness we bring to zazen as like an email inbox. Or, more specifically, an inbox without a spam filter. Every kind of stimulus, every kind of life material bursts into the space of awareness – thoughts, physical sensations, emotions, fragments of memory…all of it. It’s not so different from the inflow of messages arriving in an email inbox: serious and urgent messages, spam, jokes, casual thoughts, reminders…anything and everything.
In zazen, our practice is to keep the mind open and clear without getting tangled up in every thought or mental formation that arises. It’s like trying to eat lunch with my email application open on a laptop next to me, hearing that little “ding” every time a message arrives. It’s hard not to look to see what it is. Usually, we look. And when we look, maybe we just read the subject line or the from line and get back to lunch. But sometimes we can’t resist; we open the email and read it through, even though we’d set our intention on something else… in this case, eating our lunch. And sometimes we decide we have to respond right now! Or we click on a link, which takes us further afield, a place with its own endlessly engaging, stimulating material.
Meeting the stream of what arises in zazen is a little like this. We sit with an intention to develop calm and concentration, to watch the breath without getting tangled in thoughts, feelings, and sensations. At the same time, we’re not trying to shut down. What arises pulls for us to engage and it’s hard not to get caught. How do we deal with this pull? What’s the right thing to do?
Zazen isn’t turning off the mind. We don’t try to eliminate thoughts and feelings (as if we could!). Returning to the email analogy, if we set the spam filter too high, everything is blocked. There’s no flow. There’s no naturalness. We start relating to thoughts and feelings as a problem, as something separate from our practice. Or worse, as dark or dangerous or even shameful. Something to be shunned. Our experience in zazen turns into a reason to feel badly about ourselves. We lock on the idea we’re no good at it, or more darkly, that we’re just no good, period. Otherwise, why would we be having these unpleasant thoughts and feelings that we can’t seem to get rid of?
How we meet what arises in zazen is a model for and in some measure matches and determines how we meet what arises in life off the cushion. We notice what we like and what we don’t. We notice the limits of our patience and the roots of our reactivity. Over time, and it’s a lifetime of time, we learn to watch what arises in our awareness on the cushion and in our life in the world with an increasingly clear mind and compassionate heart. And as we work with the sticky and turbulent material that we meet in zazen, we try different practices.
Sometimes we apply very concentrated attention to breath, constricting the space available for thoughts and feelings. This is like setting tight rules in an email program to deal and dispense with certain classes of messages. At other times, we may find a more relaxed and spacious attitude, casually glancing at what arises without reacting to the details. Another practice is to approach zazen with something of the inquiring spirit of koan practice, shifting attention from the material that’s arising to what we might call the inbox itself.
What’s the nature of the inbox where all these “messages” arrive? In other words, what’s the nature of awareness itself? What’s the nature of mind itself? Shifting attention like this, looking directly at awareness – even while the contents of awareness continue to arise, abide, and dissolve – isn’t so easy. It requires concentration. But it’s a deep practice that arouses a kind of questioning, inquiring focus. These are a few of the ways that we learn to work with what comes our way on the cushion and in life.
The point of all this is that the stream of material is unending – from the world around us, from our thinking machines, from memory, from senses, from our unconscious. We can’t find a shut down button even if we sometimes want to, and sticking to or averting from what arises are equally painful, exhausting, and finally unhelpful. We need to find ways to meet the unending stream of material that is our life with clarity, equanimity, and compassion, and to understand the nature of mind itself, because the fact is that our inboxes are always online.