Every day we are caught in mind-traps – little prisons of our own making. We are constantly hijaked by our thoughts and feelings, our attachments to them and our egos, that we spin endlessly in circles until we fall down upon our butts. The key to breaking free of these mind traps is through observation.
When we meditate in the Zen style, or do zazen as it is called, we become aware of our bodies and our thoughts. We do not “zone out”, we are not “away with the faeries” or pondering the mysteries of life – in zazen we focus on pure experience. This focus helps us in our lives when we are not in zazen. We are aware of how our bodies are feeling – whether our breath is shallow or deep, that twinge in our back, whether our facial muscles are tense or relaxed. We also turn that awareness to our surroundings, listening to the birdsong outside, or the traffic, feeling the breeze or the sunlight upon our shoulders. We are aware as much as is humanly possible of everything that is around us and within us. It is no easy task.
Our thoughts are constantly seeking to distract us from the comfortable reality that we have created. Even though this reality may be a false reality, still it is more comfortable than sitting, thinking about our headache or the plain “boredom” of doing zazen. We daydream, we think through all our life’s problems, we spin off in attempts to do anything but simply be in the moment, because we feel that we deserve otherwise. Remember that old saying, “there is no time like the present”? Similarly, there is no experience other than this present moment – mayhap the best thing you could be doing is simply experiencing it right now.
We like to think. There is nothing wrong with thinking – we can solve problems, work out situations with a little forethought. We plan – and again, there is nothing wrong with having life plans. It is our attachment to these plans that sets us off in another mindtrap – where if we don’t achieve them our life can feel in ruins.
In zazen, we learn to observe. We sit, and we observe our bodies’ attempts to defy our intention of just sitting still and being in the moment. Why do our bodies do this? Because they reflect our thoughts – our thoughts don’t want to sit still – they want to run riot. In zazen, it is not so much controlling our thoughts, pushing them away or yelling at them to be quiet like unruly children – we observe the thoughts and gradually, through observing them, they become quieter. A new thought is a wonderful, shiny thing that we want to explore – whether it is a “good” thought or a “bad” thought. When we have observed that thought 100 times, it becomes a lot less interesting. This is what zazen is about.
If we think about what happened to us that upset us during the day, we can easily become lost in our emotional attachment to it. If we simply observe the thought – “Oh, I’m having a thought about this again” and then return our attention to simply sitting and being in the moment, then we are on the path to freedom from these mindtraps. Again, it is not easy – we may have to do this 10, 100 or 1,000 times before the thoughts settle down and we tire of them. With persistence, they will.
We must be careful, however, to simply observe, without “being” the observer. If we become the observer, then we have created a separate entity that does not exist. If we are simply observing, then we are the pure moment. The past does not exist, neither does the future. It is only this moment, that is constantly changing, that exists. If thoughts about the past occur, you can observe them, but then ask yourself – “where is the past right now?” It does not exist. When we worry about the future, we can ask ourself “where is the future right now?”. It does not exist. Only this present, everchanging moment exists.
I love to daydream – but not when I am in meditation. I set aside a time in the day to daydream, to come up with wonderful stories that may see the light of day in future novels or short stories. There is nothing wrong with imagination – it is a gift that should be used every day. We must learn, however, not to become lost in it, this imaginary world, as it is so much better than our reality can seem. Living in a pure moment does not leave us unthinking, mindless zombies. We are totally and completely present, truly living life to the fullest. That is the greatest gift.
It is time to break free of your mindtraps – look at what thoughts keep occurring, what keeps rising to the surface when you are being silent and still. By observing them you will notice them, notice the patterns that are created, the emotions and physical pain that may be attached to these thoughts and how they so easily control your life. Once we see the pattern, we can weave our way out into a new pattern, into a new cycle. Through zazen, we can take this into our everyday lives, and so, when someone upsets us, or hurts us, or brings us joy – we can see the pattern that is created and either choose to remain within it, or weave a new pattern upon the web of life. We can either live in this very moment, or stay within our mindtraps. The choice is ours.