Monday, November 13, 2006

90,000 Subtle Gestures

It is said that there are 90,000 "subtle gestures" to practice in Buddhism.

In Zen, every single thought we have, every single act we perform, every single statement we make, should be made such that we are mindful of the thought we are choosing to have, mindful of the act we are choosing to perform, mindful of the statement we are choosing to make. We've all had the experience of driving or walking along and suddenly realizing we have no idea where the last 20 minutes have gone. But less obvious are the daily chores you perform. Take showering, for instance. I know I can coast through my morning shower completely oblivious to everything. Sometimes it's too such a degree that I have no idea where the last 10 minutes went. But more often, I'm thinking about something else and yet am still somewhat conscious of the routine I'm following.

In true Zen practice, however, we are mindful of every single act. When my practice is strong, when I am washing my hair, I know with every ounce of my attention that I am washing my hair. When I am lathering the soap, I know with every ounce of my attention that I am lathering the soap.

The question is, why shouldn't I just enjoy letting my mind wander around while I shower? What's the point of joyfully enforcing such strong mindfulness? In Buddhism, the highest goal is to penetrate through our habitual delusion and see our true nature. How can we possibly attain this awakening if we cannot even maintain mindfulness on washing our hair? Mindfulness of all our actions IS our spiritual practice because when I am washing my hair, my true nature is "the washing of hair." When I drink tea, my true nature is "drinking tea." When I am dicing apples, my true nature is "the dicing of apples."

You might say, "Oh, I get that. I understand how that works." Or you might say, "That doesn't make any sense to me." It is my own personal experience that when I have been able to attain even the slightest glimpse of this truth (not intellectual knowledge or understanding, but true personal realization of this wisdom), the freedom, the joy, the clarity of mind I experienced was so great as to be indescribable. Mindfulness is the key to Awakening.

The 90,000 subtle gestures are the 90,000 different thoughts and actions you perform every day that give you the opportunity to think and act mindfully. Each of these 90,000 subtle gestures is a blessing, a stepping stone toward Awakening for the benefit of all beings.

EDIT (11/13/06): I just read a post over at The Journey that discusses mindfulness as discussed in Matthew 6:25-33. While we may disagree philosophically about the nature of the universe, the spiritual importance of mindfulness, living in the present, transcends such polarities.


Gareth said...

Hi Mike,

What about being mindful of a memory, of of thinking?

Just washing my hair, just remembering, just thinking...

Perhaps this isn't the same as letting the mind wander, but we can be present of our thoughts in the same we are present with our actions.

Mindfulnes in the way you describe, just being - is wonderful, but it is so often focused on our physical being, that I wonder if there isn't something missing from this?

Best Wishes

Mike said...

I agree 100% Gareth. To avoid making the post too long, I left out the the other two aspect of this. First, we can definitely be present with our thoughts as well as with our physical being. That comprises the other highly important aspect of mindfulness (heck, I'd venture to say more important in most cases).

The ideal, in my view, is that when we are engaged in physical activity (whatever it is we need to be doing at a certain point in time, like showering), then we would be 100% present with that activity. When we are experiencing anger, we can be 100% with that anger. When we need to plan sometime, we sit down and put 100% of our attention on thinking planning. It's about conscious choice to do what we want or need to be doing at that time, not allowing habits and transient thoughts & feelings to waylay our attention.

That's the ideal. Life doesn't accommodate that much anymore. But notice how rejuvenating it is to meditate, to focus on something with 100% of your being, even for a short time. Since we don't have the luxury of living the ideal, then we compromise. Maybe I need to plan something, but I also need to shower. Then I can consciously choose to do my planning while I let my unconscious handle the shower. The key here, again, is deliberate choice. Most of the time, when we're multitasking like this, it's NOT a deliberate choice; it's our inability to maintain our focus on one or the other, whichever we need to be working on at that time.

So ideally, when we need to plan, we sit and plan with no distractions; when we need to wash the dishes, we wash the dishes, with no distractions; when we need to listen to our significant other, we listen to him or her without distractions (no TV, no radio, no checking your email while listening, etc.).

Practically, we do the above whenever we can, since that works best and is the most mentally rejuvenating. When we can't, we ensure that we deliberately choose the path our attention takes, not allow transient experiences or thoughts to hijack our attention onto other things.

Thanks for the comment Gareth!