2016-06-30
As a child I wanted to become a martial arts master. I remember spending inordinate amounts of time at my local bookstore, sifting through every possible martial arts book and magazine I could find. Since my parents did not have enough money to pay for lessons, I thought that by reading broadly and practicing at home what I saw in the pictures, I could bypass years of serious study. I also thought that the harder I wished it, the easier or more likely it would be for my goal to come true.

After a long stretch of such wishing, I encountered the Zen story of the martial arts apprentice who desperately wanted to be a master. The apprentice would often belabor his master with questions about what he should do to become an exalted practitioner. After much badgering of that sort the master finally said, "When you have one eye fixed on your destination there is only one eye left with which to find the way." This was a fitting lesson for me, and taught me that not only did I truly need diligence in practice, but perhaps most importantly, that I needed to pay attention to the here and now.

The Zen Buddhist holiday of Rohatsu brings us an opportunity to practice the truth embedded in this story. In various Zen traditions the first eight days of December are marked as a special period for celebrating the historical Buddha's enlightenment. Having spent years following rigorous ascetic practices that purportedly would bring him enlightenment, the Buddha vowed to sit under the Bodhi tree until he reached such a luminous moment. He sat for seven days and seven nights of increasing realizations, and on the morning of the eighth day he looked up at the brightest morning star and, recognizing the interconnected nature of all beings, achieved enlightenment. Today, Zen practitioners all over the world observe Rohatsu by emulating the Buddha's experience with a week-long sesshin, or intensive retreat.

Many observe Rohatsu as a special time for much the same reasons practitioners of other religions might observe special days: it provides a focus for practice, infuses us with new energy, and highlights and honors a continuity with a long and noble history. Although not all those who practice Zen formally observe Rohatsu, many Zen practitioners look to it as a culmination of their practice to that point, an opportunity to break through to new levels of realization.

Rohatsu sesshins can be rather rigorous, an intensification of regular practice that may lead many to push themselves toward the attainment of an exalted state. On the morning of the eighth day of the Rohatsu sesshin, zen monks and lay practitioners alike long for a taste of the transformation the Buddha experienced. The danger is, Rohatsu can often acquire the feeling of intensity and single-mindedness advised against in the tale of the apprentice and the martial arts master.

As with my own hasty attempts to become a martial artist, when one of our eyes is fixed on the goal of enlightenment, there is only one eye left with which to find our way. We might stop looking deeply because part of our conscious attention is devoted to the moment where it will all come together for us. Our desire and attachment to a particular outcome clouds the way. This is, of course, one of the central teachings of Buddhism, the first noble truth: craving and attachment are at the root of suffering and ill-being.

A mindful approach reminds us that Rohatsu is a wonderful opportunity to live in the present moment, to make our way gently back to ourselves in the realization that all beings have the potential for awakening to their Buddha-nature. Seen in that light, Rohatsu provides us with a way to look deeply at our practice, not as the final exam at the end of the Zen term, but simply as a celebration of the promise of freedom and liberation exemplified by the Buddha's experience. For this we need both "our eyes" trained on ourselves and not split between the moment and the desire to arrive at some fanciful destination.

Observing Rohatsu then, is not so much a matter of transcendence, but an opening of ourselves to what we already are, buddhas (awake). We do this not necessarily by sweating bullets at the cushion, and pushing ourselves to exhaustion from lack of sleep and nourishment, but by smiling gently at ourselves on that last retreat morning and recognizing that we're already at our destination. In fact, we've been there all along.

Simple Ways to Bring Mindfulness into Your Life

If this is your first time at practicing mindfulness, or if you cannot make it to a Rohatsu sesshin, or don't have a group with which to practice, don't worry. Since the object of our practice is ourselves, and any time and place are fine, there is no lack of ways or opportunities to practice being mindful. While a quiet space is not absolutely necessary, it might help you to settle down and relax. The following suggestions are meant for those just beginning or anyone who wishes to explore mindfulness further.

Anchor Yourself in Conscious Breathing. A deceptively simple yet old and deep practice of mindfulness meditation is to follow your breath as it comes in and out of your body. The point is not to manipulate or exert control over your breathing, but to gently pay attention to it just as it is.

Sit in a comfortable position (try to keep yourself from slouching), and take a few deep breaths. Close your eyes if that makes you less likely to be distracted by external stimuli. As you settle down, find your breath, and without trying to control it, follow its natural rhythm as it goes in and out of your body.

You may find at first that your mind wanders and you cannot remain focused on your breathing. When that happens, smile gently at yourself and bring your attention back to your breathing. It is important not to fight or berate yourself when your mind wanders, nor to feel you have failed if you do not meditate for a long period of time. The practice of mindfulness is not about perfection; which is one of the reasons it is called a practice. Every time you bring your attention to the present moment and back to your breath, is a wonderful moment of mindfulness.

After practicing like this for a little while, you will get more adept at following your breath and at settling down and relaxing. Start out practicing for brief periods of time, just two or three minutes. You might do it at lunchtime in the office, while waiting at a traffic light, or when waiting to check out at the grocery store.

Build Mindful Breathing Into Your Daily Schedule. For example, the next time you sit down to have that cup of coffee or tea at the local coffeehouse, take a few deep breaths and practice sipping mindfully, watching your breath between each sip, and letting your body relax as you enjoy the present moment. You can also effectively practice mindful breathing as you lie down in your bed before you go to sleep. Put your hand face down lightly on top of your diaphragm and follow its gentle rising and falling as you breathe. You might quietly say to yourself "Breathing in, I know I'm breathing in," "Breathing out, I know I'm breathing out," or simply "In" and "Out."

Conscious breathing is the basis for all other mindfulness practices. You may practice mindfulness as you walk, or perhaps as you go up and down stairs, watching your breathing with each step. Or, you may practice mindful breathing as you do the dishes. Eating also provides a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. In fact, mindful eating, taking the time to savor each bite, to truly experience the moment, might even be a natural way to manage your weight! Whichever way you choose, remember that the focus should be on staying calm and focusing on your breathing. The key is to allow those moments to serve as a wonderful respite, and to bring you more in harmony with the here and now, with the present moment.

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