The more one does one’s spiritual practice with a sense that it should be done, the more one creates a sense of self. And the greater the sense of a self trying to become “spiritual” or “liberated,” the more suffering we experience. We suffer both when we “fail,” and we suffer when we “succeed,” either way reinforcing our false self-identifications.
So the koan is: how do we practice, without making it “practice?” How can one have what the Buddha called atappa, or ardency in practice, without reinforcing our sense of becoming? The answer to this koan involves, perhaps not surprisingly, paying attention ― paying real attention to our motives and to our habitual ways of doing anything worthwhile.
Paradoxically, real “self-improvement” naturally arises when we let go of all sense of self-improvement and simply open ourselves up to being really being present in each moment. There is a wonderful innocence in simply being present in the moment. There is great purity in simply paying attention of what is arising as simply what is arising, and then acting, or not acting, according to our best sense of wisdom, compassion, and insight into what is skillful and what is not, what produces suffering and what does not. When we do this, we are not trying to “improve,” or “be a better person” so much as making the right effort to see what is good and wise in the present moment.
When we get busy with being present, when we really pay attention to what arises in our hearts and minds, our sense of self naturally just falls away. We become, in the degree of our attention, an action without an actor, a doing without a doer. One doesn’t cease to be; one simply is. We get glimpses of this when we become fully absorbed in something, or “in the flow of things,” and no thought of self arises or can be found. But mindful attention is even better than absorption, which can make us oblivious to anything but what we are focusing on. With mindful attention, the sense of self falls away and we are fully aware of what’s going on without attaching to or clinging to sense contacts or to thoughts and feelings that arise and fall away.
The simplicity of this paying attention practice that is not practice is staggering, once you begin to understand it. You don’t have to be sitting on a cushion to pay attention, though that’s a good place to practice it formally. Each moment of our day is an opportunity to show up ― to be consciously present and aware. So much of the time we are so lost in thoughts, feelings, ruminations, and internal dialogues that we are not really alive, but just existing in a self-dream. Truly paying attention breaks the spell of “self” and helps us to stop “self-ing” and start “be-ing.” It helps us see our connections and relationships to others and to all things. We feel our true wholeness.
Living this way, “How do I make myself better?” isn’t even the question; the very thought of “self-improvement” is actually an impediment. The real question is: do I want to be alive? The issue is waking up, showing up, being present. There is no “should” or “must” in waking up! All beings naturally want happiness, and when we realize that we are truly happy to the degree we are truly present with our hearts and minds, then nothing can keep us from opening up.
Mindful attention is like sunlight, shedding light on what is dark and hidden and causing all the good things of our hearts to blossom and bloom into the possibilities of full being. There’s nothing we have to do to make this happen; it just happens when we show up each day, each moment, with no thought of self, but simply wanting to see what is what—as much as possible, without delusion, illusion or self-deception about anything. Yes, it’s a great work, but it’s such a freeing, happy one! And it all starts in a moment, this moment. Why not begin?