MANY YEARS AGO someone I worked with asked
me why I practiced meditation. Thinking about it, I wrote the
following three answers:
1. Certainly the first and most important
thing about Zen is its emphasis on being conscious. That is,
awake. Right here, right now, with your attention focused on
the present moment. The practice of Zen is called "zazen."
Zazen is very simple, but very difficult. It is pure observation
of the present moment. That's all it is. It is a patient, non-judgmental
perception of the reality existing right now. Nothing could be
more simple and direct. Yet to only observe the present
moment is incredibly difficult for someone with no training because
he habitually, compulsively (meaning he can't stop himself from
doing it) adds stuff to the present moment that isn't actually
What he adds are his plans for the future,
his opinions or judgments about reality, his memories, and on
and on. We add so many things to just what's right here, right
now that we essentially distract ourselves from it so much that
we miss most of our lives. It goes by us while we are in our
After practicing zazen for some time, you
start to realize that almost all the stuff you have your attention
on is not real. We pretty much ignore reality and occupy
our attention with our thoughts, wishes, fantasies, judgments,
opinions, mental rehearsals, memories, etc. Most of us are only
You are probably thinking, "Not me."
Instead of believing your own opinion, let's test reality: Set
an alarm for five minutes. For the full five minutes, try to
keep your attention only on your breathing. If you try this experiment,
you will know your opinion is "not me" but the reality
is "yes, you" and this proves my exact point.
After attempting to keep your attention
on reality, even for five minutes, even just the small amount
of reality as your own breathing, you should be astonished at
how entranced you are by your own mind. We are so entranced,
we can't seem to observe reality. We keep getting sucked back
into the compelling tornado of our own thoughts.
Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with
thoughts per se, but most thoughts are worse than worthless.
Most thoughts don't have any effect on your life. Worse, they
distract you from your life.
Through patient observation, the Zen practitioner
learns to distinguish between useless mind chatter and effective
thinking, and gains enough control of his own mind that he can
drop out the useless chatter, which turns out to be about ninety
percent of what goes on in his mind. This frees up an enormous
amount of attention, which he can then use to observe his actual
reality. This makes him seem extremely wise to other people,
and makes his actions amazingly (by sleepwalkers' standards)
appropriate and fitting to the actual situations in which he
Since what is right here, right now is
all we can actually deal with, it's a pretty compelling argument
to assert that the first and most important thing to learn in
life is the ability to keep your attention fully in the present.
After all, this present moment is your life.
2. When a person starts improving her ability
to be conscious, she begins to experience many things which have
always been there unnoticed. One of these unnoticed things, and
a very important one, is her feelings. There are endocrinological and visceral responses (gut feelings) occurring
constantly in her body of which she is habitually unaware. These
feelings are a source of useful information, but only if she
is conscious of them. When she is not conscious of them,
they have more power over her behavior than they ought to. She
acts from the feelings without knowing the source of her
Acting from feelings to which she is numb
makes her actions lack a certain amount of intelligence. Her
actions have a reactionary flavor, an unthinking quality. She
has the feeling that she "can't help it." Her reactions
that stem from unfelt feelings are somewhat compulsive, blind,
The source of her reactions may very well
be (and often are) conditioned responses from her childhood which
are now unsuitable for her present situation. It is useful to
be conscious of these feelings and experience them, and learn
from them, instead of acting them out.
Another way that being conscious of your
feelings is useful is in being aware of your true feelings
(as opposed to your conditioned feelings). Being conscious of
your true feelings is important for many healthy reasons. As
one example, let's look at those activities and relationships
that would be healthy for you to be involved with. These activities
and relationships feel right, but unless we're conscious
of that right feeling, we may avoid those activities and relationships
and choose other, less healthy activities and relationships because
of our conditioning and habits.
A person's visceral and endocrinological
responses can tell her a great deal if she is aware of
them. For example, her nervous system perceives and records many
things of which she isn't conscious. Let's say she's having a
conversation with a man. She many not consciously detect the
changes in his breathing, subtle changes in the timbre of his
voice, the small changes of blood flow on the surface of his
face, the small changes in the pupil dilation of his eyes as
the conversation goes along, but these changes are being perceived
and recorded by her nervous system. And her nervous system has
been observing this kind of data for a long time. It just knows
things sometimes, and that knowing is reflected in her visceral
and endocrinological responses moment to moment.
If she is awake to those feelings, she'll
know more about what's going on than she would otherwise. In
a sense, then, a person's actions are more informed, more intelligent,
when she is conscious of her feelings than when she isn't.
3. The third way Zen is the answer to life
is the social implications of a conscious population. I'll bet
it could be proven that a more conscious person would choose
her spouse better than a relatively unconscious person. Think
of the consequences of this one thing in the next generation
of children. The conscious person would have a better grasp of
the actual reality of her potential husband, and because of the
nature of Zen training, she would know the difference between
reality and her beliefs, opinions, and fantasies about
reality. In this way she can see more clearly than an unconscious
person. In fact, because of her superior ability to perceive
reality, including the reality of her own feelings, her choice
of career would also be more "right." She would get
along better with people than a less-conscious person too, since
she is dealing with the reality of the actual people, rather
than the projections, the fantasies, and the transference that
muddle up our usual perceptions of people.
Her relationships with her spouse and kids
would be better, and she would be a model of conscious living
for her children, who might then go forth and multiply in kind
until all people on the earth were happy and alive and living
in peace and harmony forever amen. Okay, I've gone too far.
Actually, I have a hard time imagining
a large population of people on the earth being conscious, mainly
because it is difficult to do. But it would be good. There would
be more patience and tolerance, less lying and pretense, more
appropriate activities, more balance, less consumption for the
sake of production for the sake of consumption for the...etc.
Talking about the social implications of
Zen is kind of a foolish indulgence for me to engage in anyway
because "society" is a concept. It isn't real in the
same sense that you are real right here and now. What there is
in reality is you reading this. I know you can be more conscious,
and my reality as I write this is that I could be more conscious,
and if we were more conscious, I suspect our lives would be better
and the people we have relationships with, their lives
would be better (happier, healthier, more honest, more peaceful).
And we can become more conscious without
any particular name for our practice. I like "zazen"
because it is fun to say. Gurdjieff called it "self-observation."
Too plain. Theravadan Buddhists call it "vipassana bhavana."
Too hard to pronounce. Ellen J. Langer, PhD, professor of psychology
at Harvard University calls it "mindfulness." Morita
therapists call it "attention on reality." It doesn't
matter what it's called. What matters is we practice being present
and learn to experience our own life.
One good reason to sit down and practice
being conscious, like a meditation every day, is that it's terribly
difficult to do while engaged in everyday activities. It's difficult
to be conscious in everyday activities. We're habitually unconscious
most of the time, going through the motions with our minds wandering.
Having a formal practice reminds us to be present and gives us
some practice without many distractions.
Even with as few distractions as possible,
it is still almost impossible at first. It takes regular practice
over a long period of time. This may sound unnecessarily arduous,
but when it's all said and done and our life has come to an end,
I'll bet the last thing we'd regret about our lives is that we
were conscious of it.