Life seemingly throws itself at us the same way it passes laughter, sickness, trouble, and success to those around us.
Moon rises, errands, a bout with the flu, car trouble, and holiday gifts enter into our lives one at a time or all at once, without our knowing or our consent. Sometimes it can feel as if each event comes with the weight of the universe behind it—an all-consuming challenge or dilemma where we forget about the infinite background that bore the foreground of our experience.
We could also have a notion of how something might be, especially if it is the relatively simple task of driving a vehicle to the body shop. But this notion doesn’t pick up on the steady breeze, running into friends, the texture of the tile floor against our shoes, or a quick pause to give German tourists directions to the bowling alley while on our journey.
This is a small example, but it is also one that fills the universe. If the narrow prisms of our notions don’t fit against the inconceivable nature of reality, then relying on them might not be a very fulfilling way to inhabit the experience of life we have been given. Furthermore, if what occurs doesn’t meet our expectations, then we could be setting up a needless and winless conflict with reality. Together, these notions, as well as the mind-made walls that bore them, could prevent us from experiencing a deeper and more intimate connection to the now.
On an internal level, it’s interesting to watch how our minds greet the waves of events and thoughts thrust from vastness as they occur. I remember when I was younger being so upset one day about something trivial, just to have it “magically” erased when a high school crush called to see what my plans were for the evening. “Well,” I thought, “things aren’t so bad after all…”
Reacting to what comes to us out of nowhere is part of what it means to be a living, thinking being. But when the events come with enough weight to pull us off our foundation of ‘being’ and throw us around time and time again, then I’m not so sure about the being part anymore. At that point, I would say our narrow notions have supplanted the essence of our being. Here is a Zen koan that changed my interaction with life:
The Diamond Sutra says,
“Out of nowhere the mind comes forth.”
Working with the koan alters how I might meet the world in two ways. In one twist, it opens life up in a way where I can’t expect anything to happen outside of the now, and in another, the koan takes my attention to my thoughts and opinions about what I come into contact with each moment. For example, I might see a tree and think “out of nowhere the tree comes forth.” Deepening into understanding reality in this way makes any object have a sudden miraculous quality that surrounds it. For a moment, the tree is mind-boggling and I begin to touch on something innate—beyond the confines of what I can conceive. The fact that I take ordinary shrubs, trees, stray cats, and rain squalls for granted or even consider them to be inconvenient nuisances at times is something the koan quietly forces me to examine more closely.
What would life be like without these images, moments, and experiences? Do I create an inner world in which only some of what is present makes it through my ingrained mental filters? If yes, what would happen if I deconstructed this entity or ego and removed the borders between the mind and reality to allow the lusciousness of life to come in? Where would there be any separation, any “between”? Maybe everything that graces my life—even the ordinary occasions—have a subtle extraordinariness to them and that allowing this connection to life to blossom on its own is a practice that takes place naturally if I just begin to notice.
After a little time with the koan, I become aware of the layers of judgment that act like thick plates of armor against reality, blunting the essence of life—the ‘aliveness’ of energy. As the koan works its way into my mind and my daily routines, these built-in layers become heavier and noticeable: it takes a great deal of energy to maintain my internal filters and keep out the vastness. When I allow my mind to judge and dissect things automatically (ugly, beautiful, boring, drab, shitty, gross, ridiculous) I can’t be open enough to be with what is here and that is something worth noticing. The koan sheds light on this internal dynamic and flips mental walls and boundaries upside down as it makes its way through various dealings with what comes to meet us over time.
In the same way that the tree or object is thrust from the universe, so are my thoughts. No one really knows where our thoughts come from or why they arise at all; they just do. This mind comes forth out of nowhere might mean that mind is reality or reality is mind, but after more time with the koan, this doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters, all that is paramount, is being. There isn’t any room for words like reality or mind, and at this point the bark of the tree might be your skin and your breath could be the same one that powers the jet-stream over Northern California in December. The tree isn’t a “tree” anymore. It is just here, brilliant and alive, thrust from the inconceivable background in the same way I am and the rug and the Rhodesian ridgeback chasing gulls by the waterfront.
You don’t know how a koan will work on you or how you will work on the koan. Either way, through the words an old Zen master reaches across time and the roiling oceans to point to something capable of opening your heart—a natural sense of being in the human mind that touches on the essence of the ordinary miraculousness of our experience.
Here is a poem by Han Shan that reaches toward the thusness of life:
“Leisurely I walked to the peak of Mount Huading
The sun rays were dazzling and radiant there.
Looking around I saw in the clear sky,
White clouds flying with cranes.”
Ed: Brianna B.