Take time to be present before you rush off to do.
One of the skillful Zen koans is “What is this? ” It doesn’t mean looking at something and saying, “That’s a chair. ” It doesn’t mean identifying where you are, i.e, “What is this? This is my front room. This is a mountain trail, etc. ” It doesn’t mean identifying what time it is: “What is this? This is Friday, around 10 AM here in Berkeley. ”
“What is this? has to do with stopping— a full stop of one’s mental train—and just paying attention to what is. The koan points to being present—perhaps to coming back to one’s eath, or to one’s sense of body, but most of all, it means coming home to “here-ness” and simply being with that “here-ness” and “is-ness. ”
If we start paying attention and noticing what the mind is doing, we will probably see that at any given moment, what lies before us is a whole causal chain we have created in mind: I’ll make breakfast, then I’ll pick-up the house, then I need to call so-and-so, and then I need to do this, and then that.
We may not even be that aware that we are creating a mind-map of intention; it can be almost unconscious. We just wake up and start doing. We just unconsciously, and often mindlessly, move into fabricating ourselves and creating our days by myriads of decisions, conscious and unconscious, that split and branch endlessly off into an imagined future.
In other words, we are literally “self-ing” by doing. And yet, ironically, all along the way in this fabricated self-creation, there may be very little actual presence. We may go through a whole day and never show up for it, so to speak! At the end of our day, no matter what we’ve done, or not done, we may feel like “What was that all about? ” We often feel empty and that we are missing something profound and essential.
Well, we are missing something: presence! We have missed stopping and paying attention to what is—to what is beyond all ideas of self or things to do. Ironically, with all the “self-ing” we have done, we may have utterly missed getting in touch with ourselves! We have missed letting the mind become quiet, even if for just a brief moment of “What is this?” We have probably missed the fact that we actually breathe. Indeed we have probably missed the fact that we are and that we are in the most profound and irreducible way, beyond all self-fabrications.
When we stop and ask something like, “What is this?,” we can get back in touch with presence. Just getting in touch with our breath, minus all thoughts, is grounding and can be so very sweet, precious, and dear: “Hello dear breath! I smile to you! Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. ” Or as my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh always reminds his students: “Breathe! You are alive! ”
The point is not so much the breath, but what the breath points to. With attention and practice, mindfulness of the breath can be a reminder that “You are alive! ” It can be the proverbial finger pointing to that “moon” which simply is and that is before all action, or inaction, doing or not doing.
The human mind believes that we create being by doing. By a cascade of actions, thoughts, and intents leading to doing this or that, we think we create a “self” that is defined by those actions. But being—just what is—is a priori to all such action, whether or not we are aware of this fact. Yes, in a relative sense, being and doing “inter-are,” to use a favorite term of Thich Nhat Hahn. But when we stop and look deeply into what is and become grounded in that, we sense that presence is beyond all conditions, and yet is where being and doing arise.
It is our unconsciousness of presence that makes our being and doing so fraught with problems and suffering. But the more we are aware of presence, the more we know ourselves as presence, then the more skillful, intelligent, loving, and kind our being and doing are. And it can all come back to simply stopping and asking, “What is this?” In that breath’s space of stopping, we can sense presence itself, and simply be that.
From this groundedness, we can then look at some mental/causal chain that is fabricating in our mind without so much self-identification with it. With presence, the powerful, almost mesmeric pull just to do—to just dive in without real thought or insight or any sense of what’s really going on—is greatly diminished. We can then look at plans, at “things to do” with some real intelligence and insight—and compassion for ourselves and others.
Important note: There’s nothing wrong with having things to do or an intelligent plan of action! There’s nothing wrong with doing, per se, or with being very busy. Or having a very active life. The important thing is to be deeply aware of what one is doing—to be aware that one is busy, or stressed out, or fearful, or happy, or whatever. The point is consciousness—to be actually conscious and not to mindlessly follow endless, ever-splitting paths of action and reaction.
The happiest path is to consciously start with presence, or to come back to presence. In this still, quiet place, we can then see how and in what ways we are fabricating our days—and creating ourselves. When we create our plans for a day, or a year, or a life—or even try to know what to do the next moment—it makes all the difference in the world if we stop and get in touch with presence.
From even a moment of “What is this?” we are able to see more clearly what is skillful and what is not. We are better able to see what plans and actions are motivated by fear, self-centeredness, ignorance, and needy clinging, and what comes out of insight, wisdom, and loving-kindness.
The good news is that presence can’t go anywhere. It just is. Our great joy and, in one sense, the whole purpose of our lives, is to get touch with presence, and finally, to know that we are in fact individual presence itself. Call the presence what you will—the ground of being, God, Buddha nature, Buddha body, Self, the divine, reality, Being—but don’t get caught up in terms and concepts. All such words are, at best, fingers pointing at the “moon” of what is. And what is, is beyond all words and conceptualizations, however skillful or insightful.
One moment of getting in touch with the breath, one moment of genuine, gentle presence, is worth more then ten thousand words about what is. When you or I really stop, when you or I get quiet, and pay attention to what is, we are standing on the same holy ground as the greatest teacher or prophet who has ever lived.
When we open ourselves up to presence, and welcome it by our being still and childlike to what is, something amazing often happens. We can feel this gentle, sweet presence, which has the feel of limitless love for all, embracing every aspect of our being and our doing. Fear of being or non-being, of life or death, dissolve. In that loving embrace, we feel we are home, and being and doing become one harmonious song of joy.