Monday, December 20, 2010

Zen Stairway Challenge

This challenge is a little something I concocted as a way to clear my mind and slow down. It was quite some time before I could complete a staircase. It's very, very hard. Give it a try sometime and see what you learn.

The next time you're about to walk down a flight of stairs, take the first step down and STOP. Both feet on the same riser, standing straight with your hands hanging at your side as if you plan to just stand there for a while.

First, feel how weird it is to stand still in a place our minds are so used to us moving in while not really thinking. Control your impulse to go down the rest of the stairs. Relax and do not move at all. Once you are able to do this for a few minutes (and I mean minutes not seconds), take the next step down and stop.

On this step, sort through all the 'to dos' in your head at the moment. Push all of them aside except for the ONE thing you plan to do when you reach the bottom of the stairs. By one thing, I mean: make a sandwich or empty the dryer (note not make a sandwich and eat it while reading a magazine or emptying the drier and then filling it with the clothes from the washer...I really do mean ONE thing). Think about this task all by itself as if it's the only thing you have to do that day. You need to spend a few minutes at least with this task to have a chance at getting it right. When you can clear you mind enough to focus on that one task, take the next step down and stop.

Now, think about the action you plan to take once you reach the bottom of the stairs. Whether you get there now or in ten minutes or a half an hour, the task will still be waiting for you (obviously you shouldn't be attempting this challenge if the cat is climbing the Christmas tree or the kids are beating each other with bats). The task is patiently waiting for you, not demanding your attention. There's no rush. It is the only thing you have to do. Think about what it would be like to stand here relaxed and quiet for 15 minutes knowing you'll be able to pick up your activities afterwards with nothing lost. If you're really doing this right, you should be feeling an odd sense or relaxation and serenity. Once you feel it, savor it for a few minutes. Then take another step down and stop.

Look at something around you, the less interesting it is the better. A piece of crumpled paper or a knick-knack on the shelf that you look at everyday. Look at it. Really look at it. Note how the light is hitting it or where there are imperfections or how it is colored. Recalling memories of when you bought it or what you've done with it is not what we're after here, because that's not looking at the object. Focus on it, not your reactions to it. If you're thinking much, it should be things like: "It's red" or "It's got some dust on the side".  Do not think about cleaning it (if you saw the dust) or how you use it or where you should move it or whatever.  In fact, dismiss any action thoughts because that only your usual undisciplined mindset trying to wrest control away from you. Once you have your action thoughts fended off and have spent several minutes with the object you chose, take a step down and stop.

Listen for some ambient sound. Maybe a bird singing outside or a plane passing by or the wind. Just listen to it. Your only purpose right now is to listen. During this time, you should not think about anything but the sound. Remember, you only have one thing that you immediately need to get done at the bottom of the stairs and it will be waiting for you whether you get there now or an hour from now. So no thinking or planning or fretting. Once you clear your mind and focus only on that sound, take a step down and stop.

Think about your breathing. Slow it down.  If you're doing this right, it should already be noticeably softer and slower. Slowly breathe in through your nose, expanding your belly to let the air in. Then slowly exhale, using your stomach muscles to gently push the air out. Do this for a minute or two.  Once you clear your mind and focus only on your breathing, take a step down and stop.

This should be plenty challenging but you can certainly keep going and add as many tasks as you like or pick a new sound or object for the remaining stairs or - best of all - reassert full control over your mind by taking the next step and then stopping to focus on your breathing again and nothing else. The goal is to eliminate thinking about anything outside of the moment you are in. No planning, no stewing about what he/she said the other day that pissed you off, no wondering what you will have for dinner. You should feel calm and 'blank' but yet feel extremely alert. You're not zoned-out, you're focused. What you are experiencing is a disciplined state of mind in which YOU - not the 'whirl of life' - are in control.

How many steps can you manage before you end up just darting downstairs? Don't feel bad if it's only one or two, this isn't easy at all. Attaining (and ultimately maintaining at all times) a disciplined state of mind that is clear, relaxed, and focused is one of the great goals of Zen meditation.

PS: Snatched the pic off the web. It's a stairway winding through the gardens of the Ginkaku-ji temple in Kyoto. No especial meaning for me; it just seemed like a good visual.

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