Sitting in a forest or on a park bench in the middle of a bustling city are two foreground experiences that jut out from the vastness of the background.
And yet, both of these interconnected tapestries open out into the life that is here; the one with which we interact and in turn, interacts with us on a moment-to-moment basis.
An instance of mindfulness, no matter what foreground we find ourselves in, fuses the mind with an ultimate reality that is always present—the spacious backdrop that supports what is before us in a non-judgmental way. A bubbling brook, rustling leaves or the sound of cars outside an apartment bedroom window are what is here in our lives, while they spring out the same way we spring out of the one universal background.
Seeing the background in each moment could be an initial step into something deep—a way to begin relishing what is just beyond the discriminations of our mind.
This background—the one that holds us, the tree outside, Jupiter, geological time, and colliding galaxies—doesn’t seem to care much about smallness: what constitutes the mind-made stories we tell ourselves and believe. Our apparent tragedies and comedies aren’t important to the one backdrop because these labels are incongruent with the flow of infinity—a current that unfolds naturally without viewing things as “good” or “bad” the way we often do.
When we first touch on this ever-present grandeur, we might feel insignificant or we might laugh and reach out to feel the texture of old growth redwood bark against our soft human fingertips. There is a great intimacy in this sense of nothingness because it is real in a “wow” kind of way, where the bottom drops out beneath our feet and we are left with something large enough that are attempts to quantify or surround it become futile.
How we respond to this depends on our state of being, of openness.
While we begin to relate to the inconceivable nature of the background, we might realize in a strange way that we have attempted to shut this reality away because we are fearful of feeling naked and exposed on the edge of a galaxy without anything to grasp.
We might also feel a reactionary urge to jump back into our stories—the small homes we build in which we feel as though we are in some way the center of the universe: just ask Galileo how it went when he tried to tell European society that the earth was not the center of the universe.
Despite all our knowledge today, we might act and think in a way where our thoughts place us within a cocoon of self-importance the same way we once arduously believed that the earth “had” to be the center of the universe (because that’s how we like to think whether we are aware of it or not).
Intimately falling into vastness, into reality represents a nod to the way in which we attempt to hold out what is large. Recognizing the nature of this vastness and taking in the view of infinity is an opportunity to enter into the paradox: I am nothing and in being nothing, I am everything.
In the same way that nothingness or insignificance represents an initial pathway into freedom, there is a polar force at work: while we are nothing in the face of infinity, we are fundamentally part of everything. “I am nothing, I am everything.”
The paradox is mind-shattering in a way, and this becomes a wonderful thing because it starts to crush the stories we create and allow the life that is here to seep in as it is. What does this “everything” mean? When we allow insignificance in and we accept space with the whole of our being, we might stumble upon the brilliance of the evening light on a tethered rope or feel the sound of waves lapping against the shore in our heart.
This brilliance is always present and we might begin to realize that our mind—our thoughts—the energy we constantly exude to maintain the foundations of our cherished, comforting stories blocks a deep, natural relationship with the life that is here.
When we begin to have faith in nothingness, in reality, then we might bump into an awakening: I am everything.
And in an intriguing way, feeling connected to everything flows back into being nothing once more, until we head toward the disappearance of doubt and the emergence of a calm unconditional love and compassion for each experience that graces us. The inconceivable remains as such and the continuous gyrations of impermanence—whether it is a new wrinkle on our aging faces or the loss of a dear family member—this nothingness keeps us on our toes.
When we touch this paradox, that we are nothing and everything, we become alive. We are here in the now because nothing remains the same moment after moment and that nothingness provides us with an opportunity to be free, to be present and thus connected to our surroundings.
The great joy of Zen mindfulness practice is that the paradox itself is the way into intimacy.
One of my favorite Zen koans goes, “If you turn things around, you are like the Buddha.” The koan is just a different articulation of the paradox, because as you lean to one side, you begin to fall back toward the other and in doing so you lose who you thought you were.
You watch your highs and lows, the ways in which the world bends to you and how you kneel to its base, and then the movements lose their pull on the mind because they are here the same way the mind is here.
All the discriminations, the abuses of the past, and the ways in which we fear loss fall to the wayside because the way we approach them from an angle isn’t real or substantial.
What might appear to us in our lives through entering into the paradox without our beliefs? The eighth century Zen Master Nan-quan put it like this:
Chao-chou asked Zen Master Nan-quan: “What Is the Way?”
“Ordinarily mind is the Way,” Nan-quan answered.
“Should I turn toward it or not?”
“If you turn toward it, you turn away from it.”
“But how can I know the way if I don’t turn toward it?” Chao-chou asked.
“The way is not about knowing or not knowing. When you know something you are deluded, and when you don’t know, you are just mindless. When you reach the way beyond doubt, it is infinite as space. It’s neither right nor wrong.”
Chao-chou approached the Ordinary Mind, or what appears through our being when we go beyond “nothing” and “everything” to be intimate with what is here, from an angle. He grappled with the paradox in the same way any mindfulness practitioner would: “What is it? How can I get it? Can I have it now please!?”
The Zen Master smiles at this because he too used to grapple in such a way. How can you possibly explain the direct experience of intimacy to someone?
Well, as was his status, Nan-quan did it masterfully. In the same way that a star shines in the night sky or a headache hurts, there isn’t any room for doubt, for right or wrong. What is, is.
In the same way that we become hungry when food isn’t in our belly or a tear falls down our cheek when a loved one leaves, life unfolds as it does—without any cherished beliefs, reasons, or opinions to support it. What is the end result when we begin to step into these waters? That is for the practitioner to discover.
In Zen literature we often run into “the mirror”—that the mind of a master is like a still mirror. It doesn’t doubt what is here. It doesn’t try to corral vastness. It enjoys the inconceivable because the inconceivable implies freedom. What might it be like to begin uncovering this open mind in our being, in our life experience?
This is yet another transformation for us to find or for it to find us.
Mindfulness begins with embracing paradoxes and extremes: love and hate, life and death, right and wrong, everything and nothing.
These polar opposites are part of the same coin, of the same oneness of reality. We can fall back and forth between what our smaller selves believe is happening or we can go deeper into the background that holds all things to unlock a hidden treasure.
Ed: Bryonie Wise
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