Are you Fully Alive?

Why do you do what you do? Seriously. Have you fully examined your daily life recently? Are you giving your greatest gifts to the world? Or are you living in fear of failure, disappointment, rejection and the like?

I ask these questions of myself constantly. Since my return to the U.S., I feel they are all the more relevant. There is a collective energy in the U.S. that fuels a feeling of needing to be something or someone. While I cannot completely separate this energy from my own conditioned habits and tendencies, after spending a lot of time abroad the past 3 years, its clear to me that this environment is a significant challenge to one who decides to reject societal norms and attempt to live a life based on his or her own experience.

This begs the next question- what is a true experience? Some might say a purely sensual experience, receiving input from the outside and not modifying it.  Science holds this view to a degree. Something can be measured, tested, and repeatable results found. Therefore in the view of science, an apple on the table is the same for you and me and exists independently of both of us. It weighs so much, has a certain volume and a number of characteristics that can be measured.  From another standpoint however, that apple does not even exist without an observer.  When the so called ‘world’ or outside meets your senses, an often overlooked part of the process is that you also meet these sensations with your conceptions.  Conceptions being defined as the complex structure of thought and memory that has accumulated over your lifetime.   This meeting between sensation and conception occurs at the level of perception.  A simple example highlighting this is two people having a highly different reaction to an approaching dog. One perceives a cuddly creature they want to pet, the other perceives a dangerous animal to be weary of.  More subtle examples include varied perceptions of the aforementioned apple, or simply a response to a word or phrase in our language. This has all been a long-winded way to say that not only the environment we’re in, but also our deep-seeded conditioning and habits play a huge role as to how we perceive the world.

Many might think that to truly give their gifts, they need to be in an environment where they are helping the less-fortunate or sacrificing comforts of life to server a higher purpose. This is a great excuse to remain in the realm of not-changing anything. It doesn’t matter if you’re a corporate executive, a stay-at-home mom, a laborer, or a a million other labels we have for ourselves. How are you meeting the world? Are you deeply examining these hidden tendencies and habits?

What if you don’t know what your greatest gift is? It’s the same for each of us – Being Fully Alive. If you are fully alive in each moment, you are LOVE, and emanate love.  This does push the question up a level to “How does one actualize being fully alive” – and this is the very topic I want to unravel over time for myself and share this journey with my readers. 

After all, is there anything more important than this?

Embodying the Truth

Last weekend my Zen Teacher was in town leading one of his twice annual seminars at the Chautauqua Community House in Boulder. I’ve attended several of these over the past couple of years and while always very opening and stimulating weekends, this one in particular was very much aligned with my practice and deeply insightful.  Roshi continued a series of teachings on Yogacara that began unfolding during our 7-day sesshin several weeks ago. In an effort to summarize several of the key teachings I thought I would write a little about them.

Embodying the Truth was the title and Roshi began by describing Zen as a Yogic practice of embodiment.  Paraphrasing Patanjali, who is believed to have written many of the foundational texts for Yoga (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), Roshi stated: Yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind, fluctuations also being considered as “thought impulses”.

A powerful observation and distinction he made at this point was that not all mental formations are what we would consider thought impulses.  Basically, thoughts that distinguish the world are very different than thoughts that push us out of immediacy. Distinguishing appearances in the world is very different than comparing them. Comparing them implies a judging observer, and therefore comparing takes is out of immediacy into self-referential thinking.  This is a very important observation. I often hear people describing meditation or Zen practice as stopping all thoughts or thinking, however this isn’t accurate, as thoughts are of the mind as sights are of the eyes. We are simply trying to stop self-referential and over-conceptual thinking, not all thinking.

We then explored immediacy in greater detail, Roshi’s term for what popular Buddhism has coined as Mindfulness Practice. Roshi defines immediacy as the energetic engagement in experience and breaks it up into three aspects:  

     1. Situated Immediacy (Emphasizing Noticing)

     2. Body/Mind Immediacy (Emphasizing Feeling)

     3. Engaged Immediacy (Emphasizing Doing)

For me, this was a helpful tool in opening up the practice of immediacy as more accessible. I think I may have overemphasized noticing as the primary practice of immediacy over the other two.

Next, Roshi posed the question: Are you holding the present (immediacy) that you are receiving?  We have a choice in each and every moment, towards wisdom or delusion. Not a conscious choice, but one cultivated through Yogic practice. To remain in immediacy is the choice of wisdom, to stick to our usual practice of viewing immediacy though self-referentiality is delusion. This is echoed in Dogen’s Genjokoan

Conveying the self to the myriad things to authenticate them is delusion; the myriad things advancing to authenticate the self is enlightenment

For most of us, our concepts of self are so much stronger than our concepts of the situational context or field that it takes time and practice to begin to shift our views.

Roshi then delved deeper into this moment of choice, developing a teaching around the chain of sensation <-–> perception <-–> conception that is our usual way of experiencing the world.  For example, imagine walking down a dirt path in the dark of night with only a small flashlight. In an instant, your flashlight may illuminate a rock in your path. At this moment the rock is in your sensorium, as a sensation. As soon as the light leaves the rock, the rock becomes a perception (oh I better not trip on that rock), no longer a sensation coming through any of your sensorial channel (unless of course you trip on it!). The perception of the rock functions within a concept of going somewhere or doing something (why are you walking in the first place?).

This is a very simple example, but you can imagine countless others: you hear a piece of music, and you immediately conceptualize and start recalling memories. Ooops, you’re no longer in immediacy! What happened to the perception in this example?  Well, the perception is this critical moment of choice as described above. Do we allow our perception to remain in the uniqueness of immediacy, or do we allow it to be conditioned by cognition, leading towards discursive, self-referential thought? The percept in the music example is simply a pleasant set of tones that influence you physically. How quickly we miss this.

Ironically, most often, it is our concepts that influence our perceptions, that actually go on to influence our sensations. This is sort of radical. Many people believe what you see is what you get. But what they don’t realize is that what they see has been completely altered by their cognizing mind and conceptions of the world.

Basically, the moment of percept is where this critical choice comes in: The percept can belong to the senses rather than coming from our conceptual framework.

A Yogic conception is a non-conceptual perception and this we cultivate through zazen practice.  Our adeptness of Yogic practice determines our movement towards sensation or conception from perception. We are cultivating Dogen’s Backwards Step, stepping back from the habit of conceptualization, not labeling sensation, which is beginning to see the world non-conceptually (non-dually), and the basis for realizing Buddha Mind.

We can begin to define our world with sensation more than visual separation, practicing sensorial articulation by separating the senses, practicing with techniques like hearing hearing, seeing seeing, etc.  This is at the heart of Yogacara practice.  An adept practitioner limits him or herself to experienced cognitions, those that proceeded from a sensory –> perceptual input, not those created from other conceptions. 

One of the most profound moments for me was at the end of this teaching, where Roshi reminded us that we also need to not conceptualize the conceptualizer or perceiver.  All of the above can subtly hold an implicit view that there is a self or agent working through this chain of sense->percept->concept, but the light must be turned around to apply the same practice to the perceiver, not conceptualizing the perceiver and resting in sensation…

Off I go…Thanks for listening…