Recently I had hernia surgery. Pretty minor—I was in and out of the hospital in just a few hours—but also really uncomfortable. I felt every breath, every step. Short of lifting heavy things, I could do most ordinary activities, but I had to do them differently.
And I loved it. I’m not saying I want to feel that way all the time, not at all. Pain is a terrible burden; if it’s too intense or lasts too long, it can make our lives feel really small. But something like this, just a few days of discomfort and having to be cautious with myself, felt like a powerful reminder of the potential of this practice.
Buddhism, at least as I’ve been taught it, is not primarily a practice of the mind. It can feel as if it is, of course—our minds are who we think we are. They’re what makes us interesting, unique. But we can easily get stuck in a loop of using our minds to affect our minds. The problem is, the mind trying to really see the mind or change the mind is like an eyeball trying to look at itself—it spins around and around, but it doesn’t find anything new. It can only see what it can see.
In practical terms, we might read a Buddhist book exhorting us to “pay attention” or “be mindful”; when we hear those things, I think we immediately imagine what they feel like as mental experiences. What is my “paying attention” mind? What is my “mindful” mind? With the best of intentions, we manufacture the idea of a mental state, then we measure practice by how close we get to replicating it in the moment.
But mindfulness doesn’t start in the mind; paying attention isn’t a state of mind. Things are things we discover through the body.
Usually, in the mornings, I make coffee and breakfast at the same time, keeping one eye on the coffee, another on eggs, getting something from the refrigerator, maybe putting dishes away, all while talking to my kids or listening to music. It’s a masterclass in multitasking. But immediately post-surgery, I had to do everything more slowly, more deliberately. I wasn’t trying to be mindful or do some kind of spiritual practice—I just didn’t want to hurt any more than I already did. Pouring water was an activity in itself, one that involved noticing my posture, using both hands, really seeing what I was doing.
To someone watching, it looked like I was treating the coffee, the coffee cup, the whole process, with incredible care. And I was. It was the same when I opened a door, or when I slowly walked up or down the stairs. It felt like my days in the monastery, but in slow motion.
Paying attention to one thing—the pain I felt—forced me to pay attention to everything. I didn’t need to think about it; my body was calling the shots. My body was mindful, meaning I didn’t have to decide what mindfulness means, or what it looks like, or if the way I’m doing it is enough. I was just doing what I needed to do.
Trying to hold myself in a way that wouldn’t cause harm required me to hold the entire world in the same way. It’s always like this; nothing is separate. In every single moment, in every posture (the texts refer to “sitting, standing, walking, and lying down”), we are touching the world—we have no choice. But sometimes we’re pretty rough, just trying to get things out of our way, or get to the next thing. Sometimes we’re “paying attention” to lots of things at once, making our lives like a blur.
Right now, in this moment, there is something right in front of you—something you’re doing or holding or touching. That’s always true. Slow down. Take a breath. Whatever that thing is, just try to be gentle with it. Repeat. Don’t worry too much about the rest.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.