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Voices: Mind Wide Open

A trip to a Zen Buddhist retreat helps me learn to live in the present

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My head was a mess, muddled by a lack of sleep and the awkward pang of pressure in my ears.

My tired eyes gazed out the window to witness Arizona's miniature splendor unfurl. The plane's engine grumbled along, and the soft sounds of 100 sleepy strangers hung loosely in the packaged air of the plane; the intimate whispers of families and couples coalesced into a sea of snores and yawns.

The beauty of this moment was lost on me. My head, limp against the stiff seatback, was too consumed with itself to pay attention to anything else.

I thought about the discomfort of the chair, of the despondent haze of my thoughts, of this pale and tired body that fits so awkwardly into its own skin. I wanted to be warm and asleep in my bed. I wanted to be talking to my friends. This desire to be somewhere else permeated the air of the plane.

Gradually, the dim corridor of the plane sprang to life as the sun curved its way around the Earth and sent rosy rays crashing off the clouds and into my window. It was as if the sun's rays had dissolved that cage of discomfort I'd created for myself and left my vision unobscured. That moment, that fraction of a fraction of an inhale of breath, stood in a brilliant unadorned clarity. The painfully awkward sensation of being 30,000 feet in the sky in a tiny chair with no sleep took on a new quality. It was no longer problematic. It just was.

I was flying from Tucson to Santa Fe, N.M., on my way to a Zen meditation retreat, on the recommendation of my mentor, Mae Lee, who has been guiding my philosophical inquiry into Zen Buddhism. At the retreat, I would sit on a round, black cushion on the floor for five hours with my eyes open to a room full of people silently doing the same, observing the mind and the thing called "Me."

Local poet and meditator Matthew Rotando describes meditation as "the practice of cultivating a mind of calm, a mind of equanimity, a mind that is open to joy in the everyday and, in some ways, less filtered with all the hang-ups and issues of the scattered mind."

The zendo (a Zen Buddhist term for "meditation hall") is situated in the hills outside of Santa Fe and is led by Zen master Sydney Walter. Walter describes Zen practice as "being aware of what is happening, but just being aware of it, without judgments and opinions about it. Just noticing."

He says, "Zen practice offers us a state of mind, an awareness, a realization that whether one is discontent or content doesn't make all that much difference, because on one level, you realize that everything is just as it needs to be; everything is perfect the way it is."

This was my epiphany on the plane: I had shifted my mind's focus to the present moment. I wasn't comparing it to the events, feelings and thoughts that had occurred before it. I wasn't imagining what was going to happen next. I was simply aware of it as an indefinable experience, as a mystery.

The intrinsically mysterious nature of the "present" is something I have lost touch with for a large period of my 17-year-old life. I really never knew what the present moment was—can anyone?—but the mathematics, science and language I was taught in school made me think I did. These ways of thinking were so forcefully insisted upon that I mistook them for reality. They were like the guidebook on a trip to the Taj Mahal: Not paying attention to the present moment was like looking at a picture of the Taj Mahal in the guidebook when I was actually there and could appreciate the enormous intricacy of its existence in person.

Regardless of the insistent societal encouragement to deconstruct my experience, there have always been moments when the lines between the categories of my mind blur into oblivion, like that moment of brilliant clarity on the plane. Experiences like these have intrigued me to no end, because they rid my mind of anxiety and leave me completely fulfilled in a lasting way that nothing else ever has. These moments and the ideas surrounding them are the reason I was on my way to the Zen meditation retreat, to practice finding comfort in situations that would typically be considered uncomfortable.

In total, the one-day retreat was about five hours of sitting meditation interspersed with walking meditation and a silent tea break. During those five hours, there's no talking or socializing. The meditation hall was a long room with big windows facing New Mexico's expansive scenery. It took up the entire second floor of the house of David Brighton, a metal engraver who hosts the retreats and assists with the teaching at the zendo.

When I sat down for meditation, my mind drifted between several states. At times, I was able to immerse myself in the present moment. It was during those moments that I felt as if I had been given the antidote to my discomfort, to my desire to be somewhere else and feeling something different. In those instants, my attention was finally focused on the only thing I could be sure of: the soft breathing of eight straight-backed bodies sitting cross-legged on the floor; the sun coming through the clouds and into the room through the windows, bouncing off white walls and into my eyeballs; the warmth it presented my skin; the dead tingling sensation crawling up and down my legs; the dull ache of my knees; the nerves in my back ablaze with sensation.

Sitting in the zendo, I had no compulsion to remove myself from that experience, because I'd slowly realized, through study and meditation, that I was that experience. There was no self that could be removed from it, that could escape it. My mind was just a reflection of everything around it, all of the sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, thoughts and feelings. To want to escape the present experience just because it's not pleasurable is the same as wanting to escape the self, and the experience of wanting to escape the self is an aggravating and painful one.

Rotando describes this compulsion to escape the present experience while meditating: "I have this leg pain from sitting in my meditation posture for half an hour, and this leg pain—I don't like it, I don't like it, I don't like it. I wish it would go away, I wish it would go away. You may not be repeating those words to yourself, but you may be thinking that while you try to meditate, and all of that is binding you up; it's making the whole experience crappy."

The other obstacle to paying attention to the present moment during meditation is the tendency of the mind to not sit still.

"It's a monkey. It grabs from branch to branch; it never wants to just sit in the tree and relax and breathe," says Rotando. "(The mind) immediately wants to think about what I'm going to have for dinner, or about a conversation I had earlier that day with somebody that really pissed me off, and I should have said this to them, and I didn't. It is very hard to just say to yourself, 'OK, I'm going to bring myself back to my breathing. I'm going to bring myself into the awareness of this present moment,' because we are so tuned up with these practices of thinking about the future, of the past, about what's coming next at the end of this half-hour meditation."

It wasn't until I got home from the retreat that I fully realized that the real practice of Zen takes place not only during meditation, but also in our daily lives. It is simply putting forth the constant effort to be aware of the present experience, to not get lost in the haze of our judgments and opinions about the experience, but to just experience it all, unobstructed by name and form.

At 5 in the morning, I boarded a shuttle bus to catch my flight back to Tucson. The world was covered in frost and full of fog. The shuttle's headlights burned brightly in an effort to make the road visible and definite, but only succeeded in illuminating the mysterious and languid clouds of fog that wrapped the city in an ethereal embrace.

The headlights shining on the fog reminded me of Zen practice, of spending so much time pondering these ideas just to illuminate the beauty of not knowing. I stared out the window at the foggy street lights rushing by. Each one passed in front of my eyes in an instant and then disappeared, only to be replaced by another. It made it clear to me that every moment is completely new, freshly birthed.

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