Zen is not an abstract concept. It is all about cultivating and practicing awareness – and that simply requires diligent practice and training of the mind.
“Is it possible to be in acute pain and not suffer,” someone asked me the other day. Surely suffering is avoidable. You suffer only when you wish that your Life is different from what it is. But whenever you are completely aware of whatever is happening to you, you will be peaceful. Your awareness need not be only about what you are doing – cooking, walking, breathing, washing, whatever – it is also about how you are feeling – be it pain, sorrow, anger, fear or anxiety. Just be fully aware.
This may sound paradoxical. How can anyone be peaceful while in pain for instance? Or when in grief? Or when angry? As long are you have not realized your true Self, chances are you will associate your present human form with your circumstances. So, when your body has a back pain, you think that you are in pain. When the human form of someone whom you loved is dead, you think you have lost that someone. So you grieve. When you are angry, you see the person at whom the anger is directed as different, as separate from you, hence the anger. But awareness changes everything. With awareness, you understand the true nature of creation. You realize that you are not what you think you are. You are not this human body. You are not your car, your job, your designation, your bank balance, your relationship, your social position. The real you is indestructible. The real you cannot be touched by any worldly event or sentiment. When this awareness dawns upon you, it leads you to peace.
This is what is Zen – the flowering of inner awareness! The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (lovingly called Thay by his followers) recommends practicing awareness in our busy lives. He does not advocate any special hour for this practice or training. He simply says: “Carry your Zen every minute. Focus wholesomely on your everyday tasks without getting distracted. Be mindful.” Thay says this is the way to anchor in peace.
I have known this to work beautifully. For instance, this morning, I had some exotic Kashmiri kahwah tea that a friend had gifted us. I did have reason to stress over a development from last night. But I chose to be mindful instead as I sipped the tea – I took in its aroma and let the flavor impregnate every pore of my body. And, magically, my stress dissolved in no time. You too can try this. Just be mindful, be aware, of whatever you are doing. Be mindful when walking – take each step with awareness. Be mindful while in the shower – feel the water soothe your body and lift your spirits. Be mindful while crossing the road or while being in business meetings. The key is to not let your mind wander. Without doubt, the mind will resist. It will want to slip back into a painful past event or rush into the future with worry. Every time you sense that the mind is not mindful in the moment, call it back to focus on whatever you are doing and how you are feeling. Over time, the mind will be trained not to go astray.
My morning’s Zen came from each sip of my kahwah tea. Of course, it is not the tea that caused my Zen, my awareness of sipping the tea did! So, surely, it is possible to experience Zen in each moment and all day long. Provided you are living in the moment – and not merely existing!