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Lions Roar : March 2018
Sit Down, Shut Up, Pay Attention by James Ishmael Ford I FIND THE PRACTICE of sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention is the most useful path to a more healthy life. It will help us find peace and sometimes open us up to ever deeper possibilities. Sit down. Shut up. Pay attention. These are the points that allow the synergies to happen. As the modern Chinese master Sheng Yen said, “As the mind becomes clearer, it becomes more empty and calm, and as it becomes more empty and calm, it grows clearer.” This is the spiral path of clarity. The more deeply we engage it, the deeper we become. It is here we find that peaceful mind. With this we find the place where we can find a profound mind, opening ourselves to a path of wisdom in a world of confusion. Sit Down: For most of us it seems best to begin the practice by sitting down. Taking our place this way establishes our inten- tion and allows us to focus on the basics of the practice. When someone says something like, “I don’t need to sit, my spiritual practice is golf ” (or knitting, or archery, or target shoot- ing), I think they might well be missing something. Now, I have nothing against golf, or any of these activities. While each of them brings gifts, true meditation—at least the meditation disci- plines associated with Buddhism—bring us to something more important. And we start by taking our place, by sitting down. Shut Up: For the most part we are running a steady commen- tary on life. We’re judging, we’re refining, we’re planning, we’re regretting. We tend to run tape loops around anger or resent- ment, around desire and wanting, around how we think things are or are supposed to be. What if we did just shut up? The invitation here is not to put a complete stop to our thoughts, whether they’re those old tape loops we run over and over, or more creative and possibly even useful thoughts. Truth is, stopping all thought is a biological impossibility. But we can slow it all down. We can stop our thoughts and feelings from grabbing us by the throat. Pay Attention: Our minds can wander, and wildly. We plan and we regret; we wish for something else. We rarely are simply present. So, how to deal with it? Just pay attention. Here’s a start. Take five breath cycles, putting a number on each inhalation and exhalation, counting one as you inhale, two as you exhale and so on to ten. The invitation here is to notice. When you don’t notice—and realize you don’t notice—return to one. Don’t blame yourself. Just return to one. Don’t blame something else. Return to one. Just notice. Just pay attention. Or you allow your attention to ride on the natural breathing without counting. Or you can just pay attention. Perhaps you’re stressed. Perhaps you have some burning question about life and death. Perhaps you intuit there is some- thing more to all this than you’ve been told. Sit down. Shut up. Pay attention. You never know when it will reveal what is true and what is fake. JAMES ISHMAEL FORD is a Zen teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister. His forthcoming book is Introduction to Zen Koans (Wisdom Publications). * Don’t Battle Against Your Thoughts by Jules Shuzen Harris HOW TO WORK with your thoughts is one of the biggest chal- lenges in meditation—and in life. Since you come to the cushion with the mind you have, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions will be present in your medita- tion. It is your relationship to them, and your awareness of their place in your meditation, that will shift as you deepen your practice. You can let go of the idea of engaging in battle with your thoughts. You don’t need to force anything. If you refrain from trying to stop your thinking process, you allow it to stop by itself. When a thought comes into your mind, whatever it might be, let it come into your mind. It is just a thought. Then release it. You don’t have to follow it or pursue it. Your mind will begin to calm down. Remember that nothing comes from outside of the mind. The mind includes everything; this is the true understanding of the mind. As spectators watching ourselves, we constantly check to see whether or not we’re doing well. We want feedback on our prog- ress. We might ask ourselves every few moments: “Am I doing all right? Am I meditating correctly? Am I getting somewhere?” Part of us seeks reassurance that we’re on the right track and that the time and effort we’re investing is making a difference. We com- pare ourselves to an idea/ideal we hold in our imagination. But that constant comparison keeps us from simply being in the moment. What happens if we drop the role of spectator? Perhaps we worry that if we let go of our thinking, watching, judging over- seer, then we won’t know if we are advancing in our practice. It’s true—we won’t! And that’s a good thing. While you are following the breath, drop the notion of “I am breathing.” Let go, again and again, and be present to whatever is real in that moment. Nothing more. Absolutely no thinking required. SENSEI JULES SHUZEN HARRIS is the founder of Soji Zen Center in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2018 52