I remember a long time ago my teacher sharing how zazen meditation really gets you in touch with the wonders of the present moment. She described walking on the Earth in early Spring as the ground was beginning to thaw. The Earth was welcoming each of her steps and she felt the softness on the bottoms of her feet. She reflected that, with mindfulness practice, who needs a vacation? If we are really present to the beauty of what’s around us, then we will not only feel rested but also that we fully belong right where we are. This is the power of mindfulness – being aware of what’s happening in the present moment through our sense gates.
Today, I take my infant son, Malcolm, regularly to the library. We always walk, and I almost always carry him on my body when I walk. We are lucky that the library is within walking distance from our home. Even though he is heavy and sometimes hurts my back, I persist with carrying him because I love to feel him close to me, and I also am more apt to see the world through his eyes. There is something that I miss when I push him in the stroller, even though it’s easier on my body.
Malcolm and I arrived at the library one day during story-time. There was a librarian reading a book to many kids about the five senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. This is exactly where kids are. They are experiencing life fully through their senses. If adults allow them, then they really see what is before them. They notice and are sometimes startled by sound. They want to touch everything and put it in their mouths.
As humans, this is our way of knowing our world from a very young age. This is the way we perceive our world. Our world is also the product of how we see it. The world comes to us through our senses. But also, the senses we use create the world that we see. We often forget our dependence on our senses as we become adults. I believe this is because we see the mind as superior to the body. (I’m using “body” loosely here to refer to the physical body, to that which touches, and to that which holds the five senses).
Buddhism adds another sense to the five that the librarian was talking about – mind. In the West, we see body and mind as two separate things, and it is reflected in what we teach our children. We’ll talk to them about their senses, but those senses are somehow lower than or divorced from their thinking or their mind. And so, as a society we tend to discount or neglect what’s coming through our senses in the present moment, and we tend to place our primary attention on our thoughts. In the West, mind is superior to body (as well as the senses of eyes, ears, nose, and tongue).
In Zen, however, body and mind are not two separate entities. All the senses are infused with mind. The eye (sense) makes contact with a flower (sense object) and consciousness (mind) is born. Awareness comes about with the contact between sense and sense object. Mind is a result of the contact of the sense with the sense object.
The mind is infused with the senses. Thought, as a separate entity, does not exist. It’s connected to what’s coming through our senses. Our senses inform our thoughts, and our thoughts inform our senses. We act according to our best guess of what we are perceiving through all six senses.
When I walk with Malcolm to the library I look at him and notice what he’s noticing. If he sees a tree or a dog and takes interest, then I take interest. If he sees a car, I see the car. I add words to what we are seeing or hearing as we go. I stop to look at things with him. We touch the bark of the tree together and feel its roughness. We pet the dog together and feel its hair, or feel its wet tongue on our face. We notice the green color of the long stem grasses, and we touch their brown tassels. I slow down. I don’t want to “get there” because I’m happy to be where I am. I feel at home where I am. I notice my footsteps on the sidewalk, and their pressing into the concrete. I feel the joy of being able to be upright, of lengthening my spine upward, and feeling the contact the bottoms of my whole foot – heel, ball and toe pads – make with the pavement or grass while carrying my still carry-able infant son. There is something truly wonderful about holding the weight of his body/mind next to mine. As we open our sense gates together, his joy is my joy. My joy is his joy. He becomes my mindfulness teacher without knowing it!