Monday, February 29, 2016

A Disciplined Mindstate in Everyday Life

One of the biggest challenges many Zen Buddhists face is to maintain the disciplined mindstate we achieve during zazen in everyday life. Despite our best intentions, life’s barrage of deadlines, multitasking, pet peeves, fire drills, curve balls, petty conflicts, and bottlenecks seem calculated to drag us into a reactive, deluded mentality. This, despite the fact that we know such a mentality leads to our own suffering.

Everyday life can seem like a minefield to our centered state of mind. The cat vomits all over the carpet when I’m already late for work. The idiot ahead of me is driving at ten miles per hour under the speed limit. It’s raining, and I forgot my umbrella. And the typical office environment? Wall-to-wall bear traps! The distance between how we act in everyday life and the centered mindstate we achieve in zazen can make a trip to Pluto look inconsequential!

It’s so difficult to carry a disciplined mindstate into day-to-day life that some people believe the only way to reach one’s full potential as a Zen Buddhist is to abandon everyday life and take up a monastic existence. While this is probably true to at least some extent, it’s also true that everyday life cannot be completely hostile to a centered mindstate. If it were, then Zen Buddhism would have no practical value.

Therefore, no matter how annoying our day has been, we need to accept that the problem in bringing a proper mindstate into everyday life is not what we encounter in everyday life. The problem is that we tend to ignore our training during day-to-day living and, by deactivating the wisdom we need to discipline our minds, doom ourselves to unnecessary suffering.

"Zen Logo" by vargux
So how do we activate - or perhaps more accurately - hold onto the wisdom we gain from Zen Buddhism so as to benefit from it during daily life? I’ve found that doing so requires: 1) developing an instinctive sense of when we’re slipping from a disciplined mindstate, and 2) the ability to instantly reactivate a centered mindstate. While this is not as easy as it sounds, everything we need to develop these two skills is available to us via zazen.

Of course, the rest of this post assumes you engage in zazen on a regular basis and have done so for a relatively long period of time. A few sessions of sitting or visiting a zendo once a month is not going to give you a command of these skills to most effectively resist the undertows of everyday life. In addition, my thoughts here are only what I have personally found to be true. This is not a how-to guide, because there are few (if any) how-to guides in Zen Buddhism. It may not even be right for you. So with these disclaimers made...

First, how can one develop an instinctive sense of when we’re slipping from a disciplined mindstate? Through regular zazen practice. During zazen, we slowly learn what a centered mentality ‘feels’ like. Let me clarify. In early stages of training, we associate the ‘feel’ of right-mindedness with actual feelings: relaxation, serenity, compassion, etc. However, in Zen Buddhism, these feelings are only side effects of a disciplined mindstate, not indications of the actual state itself.

A disciplined mindstate involves letting go. It’s devoid of expectations, value judgements, attachments, and desires. We’re completely in the moment. We’re not thinking about how we got here, how we feel about it, what it will lead to, what we’re trying to accomplish, etc. This is mindstate often conflicts with everyday life because so much of everyday life involves goal-oriented activities and/or making value judgements. However, once we have trained ourselves to know what a disciplined mindstate ‘feels’ like, then we will know when we’re drifting away from it. We just have to pay attention and be focused.

The other part is how - when we sense we’re drifting - to bring ourselves back to center in an instant. Again, everyday life doesn't give us any breaks. It doesn’t allow us to chant mantras during a tense conversations, close our eyes while driving, or not own any goals. So the challenge is to find a way to - literally within seconds and without stopping what we’re doing - shepherd our mind back to center.

image taken from
Again, the answer lies in our experiences during zazen. During samadhi, we are acutely aware. We can feel when a stray breeze touches our skin, study dust in sunlight, be aware of soft ambient sounds, etc. This focus occurs when we have cleaned our minds of chatter and exist only in the moment. To center ourselves in everyday life, we can find such details in any given moment and use them as anchors to stand firm against the currents of what is happening around us. Then we can quickly reassert control.

In this way, by working to apply what we learn and experience during zazen, we can train ourselves to identify when our mind is undisciplined and then correct ourselves so as to retain the centered mindstate we cherish. I’ve been able to successfully apply this process many times...although I have a long way to go before I will probably be able to do it consistently.

In the end, applying these skills has allowed me to view everyday living as a kind of practice. Much the way zazen is practice.


jamison said...

I have been practicing Zen for seventeen years and you are right it's very hard to take the calm, bliss and centredness you experience in absolute samadhi with what you experience in day to day living. I know from my own practice the small awakening experiences I have had somehow change your thinking in an unconscious way. I think it's true in what is said in the lankavatara sutra that by years of practice you will see a turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness and this turning about is really what Zen practice is all about. As most Zen masters would say: Seeing into the great matter of life and death.

Pete said...

I agree, and I believe your point illustrates exactly why Zen wisdom cannot be imparted to someone. Each of us is slowly 'turning about' the aircraft carrier of our deluded mindstate. That requires a lot of time because, despite those 'a-ha' moments of satori, I think you're correct that the real, enduring changes are built from a slow cumulative effect.