You would be surprised, were you to try it, how difficult it is to do this simple thing. You will find that in a minute or two your focus has shifted. You are thinking of something pleasant that happened at home or something unpleasant that occurred at work. You are regretting something you forgot to do or planning to do something important. You just can’t keep your attention on your breath.
As adults we pride ourselves on what we can do and what we can control. It is disconcerting to find that we have such poor control over something so central to our existence: our mind. It is like having a Rolls Royce and not knowing how to drive. Worse, we have learned to drive it ineptly, and can only manage to drive it into a ditch.
Many more of us forgo the advantage of our mind. What Einstein or Goethe used to such advantage we let lie fallow and use for trivialities: we maintain a home ledger, we follow a mediocre television serial, we look for on-line bargains, we wangle a holiday travel deal. If someone made the mistake of gifting us a book of Nietsche or some poems of John Donne, we will not read it. If we attempt reading it, we will give up after the first three pages. Our best asset has long rusted.
So has our ability to react to the world around us. A remarkably beautiful, challenging and provocative world is unfolding around us every morning, and yet our life is nasty and brutish and – yes, in its limited span of absorption and enjoyment – short. Catholics speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, while Buddhist texts hint of a Land of Purity. Pathetically, some imagine these accessible only in the hereafter or in another incarnation. Those are at our door, if we get up and open it. Those are accessible now.
That is what I am trying to do.
I am humbly trying to see what is around me. Like everybody else, I live in a fog of distraction and preoccupation. A prisoner of my fears and hopes, anxieties and reliefs, worries and solaces, expectations and dire disappointments. It is the up-and-down that obstructs my view. As in the Zen saying, it is the silence between the notes that makes the music and it is the space between the bars that cages the tiger -- and me.
When I sit down on the cushion, shut my eyes and start heeding my breath, I am doing the most important thing for myself: I am giving attention to me. I don’t know anybody, except a hypochondriac or two, who pays serious attention to himself. I don’t. When I sit quietly, I notice how my thoughts flutter around and curious sensations float through my body. For once, I connect my body and my mind. For once, I am fully in myself and living in the moment. Not in the past and its miseries, nor in the imagined joys of the future. I am here and now, experiencing my real life.
I love the apocryphal story of two monks who saw a banner fluttering in the wind and one said, “The banner is moving,” and the other contested him, saying, “The wind is moving.” When they could not settle their dispute, they turned to Dajian Huineng, the eighth-century Zen master of China. Huineng settled it by simply muttering, “Your mind is moving.”