The Clash, Mindfulness, and Zen
Are you Mindful or Mindless?
In 1981, English punk rock band The Clash wrote “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” about the rocky personal relationships between members of the band when facing the dilemma of sticking together or breaking up. The lyrics could not be more appropriate for Zen and the thought of being mindful or mindless. After all “if I go there will be trouble and if I stay it would be double.”
The key here is the “I”. True mindfulness releases the “I” or ego through the focus of awareness. Someone asked me once at a workshop I was giving two Zen questions. The first was, “Is awareness different than thoughts or emotions?” My answer was, “Yes, that is what Zen teaches us: that awareness can be strained from thoughts and emotions and this is the difference between being mindful or mindless. If your awareness gets attached to thoughts and emotions and your mind runs with it, and you simply become mindless, but if your awareness is separated from your thoughts and emotions and you can ‘watch’ them, then you become mindful. That is simply it. Your thoughts and emotions are not you! Your awareness is you. A difficult reality to understand sometimes, nonetheless, a reality!
The second question was, “If someone cuts in front of me on the road, and I get mad and need to yell, should I yell at them?” Then I looked at him and smiled, “Well, those are both thoughts and emotions, so you choose if you want to be mindful or mindless. We do not need to condemn, repress, or bottle up our thoughts or emotions; we need to learn to be mindful of them. When you are mindful of them, you may choose NOT to express them, as they will diminish on their own without any mental energy given to them. Not unlike arguing, if you do not argue with a hostile person, then there is no one to argue with, and therefore one cannot have an argument.”
Below is an excerpt from my book, Where’s My Zen? pages 50-56 and it briefly details this exercise as Master Nomi explains to the three travelers how to meditate:
The Master went through the lanai and into the doorway. One by one, the windows were illuminated as he lit a series of candles; then he moved on to lighting the lanterns in the main hall, where he had ﬁrst encountered the three travelers. As the group followed along, they again observed the Ten Paradoxes hanging on the walls. Master Nomi walked past the table where the ancient stone rested in its glass case, then through a beautiful hand-carved doorway into the next room.
There were four ﬂoor cushions arranged in a square around a large statue in the center. The statue was an intricately carved tall stone depicting four seated Zen monks, each facing one of the four cardinal points. The monks were in meditation positions: one hand outstretched, palm forward; the other resting, palm side up, in their laps. Each hand that rested on a lap held a candle, which Master Nomi proceeded to light. He then motioned to the three to join him as they all sat down on the cushions, each facing a different side of the stone statue.
“The gesture of the outstretched left hand means do not fear,” the Master explained. “And the candles facing all four cardinal points means that you draw light or energy from all around you, not from any one point. The right hand on the lap symbolizes the union of method and skill to over-come the mind by emptying your awareness of all thoughts. When practicing this No Mind technique, your perception eventually is holistically changed so that you no longer see only what is before you, but all around you, as well.
This is developing the insight of spiritual awareness, or No Mind.”
“Therefore,” he continued, “we begin learning how to reﬂect like the pond by practicing the technique of No Mind. The pond has no intention to reﬂect anything; it is merely the intrinsic nature of the water to be able to reﬂect. The water does not need to learn anything in order to reﬂect what is projected upon it. In the same way, the awareness does not need to learn anything to become a mirror; it is innately and naturally a mirror. Yet, our minds have the ability to consume, or absorb, awareness. Every time we do this, we become mindless; we act on autopilot. By contrast, when we detach the awareness from mind, we become mindful instead of mindless, and therefore we clear the mind in order to reﬂect clearly. Remember, when a cloudy ﬁlm covers the surface of the water, it can no longer reﬂect purely what is before it. This technique allows our minds to become puriﬁed of the cloudy ﬁlm of the ego, or the Who, so we can reﬂect like a mirror. Then, we achieve pure awareness.”
“So what you’re saying,” Spirit offered, making herself comfortable on the cushion, “is that all of our conditioning, learning, habits, emotions, and thoughts cloud our ability to see what is really there. And that in order to know where our Zen is, we need to remove the cloudy ﬁlm of our mind to see with pure eyes.”
Iill began to tally his own conclusions. “It’s a matter of reﬂecting what is really in front of us without trying to describe it or pigeonhole it, so to speak,” he said. “You’re saying that this allows us to understand reality from a different perspective. Then our decisions are made with a clearer, less conditioned mind—one that is much more effective.”
“Yes,” Master Nomi said, “you are beginning to understand part of the equation. You will still need to practice the technique in order to clear the cloudy ﬁ lm of mind away and untrain the categorizations of mind. This is similar to what a well-known Western psychologist called de-automatization.”
He then grabbed a bamboo stick which was leaning against the wall, walked around the three students, and instructed them to sit in a comfortable position. “Make sure your spine is erect,” he said.
“Close your eyes and then slightly open them so you can barely see the candle before you; this will keep you focused on the present and slow the natural tendency to fall asleep. Breathe from your stomach into your lungs. Draw the energy of the candle into your stomach by breathing into it, expanding it, and lowering your diaphragm. Now, ﬁll the upper lungs with air and expand the chest. This is the cycle of breathing in one slow, continuous movement. You will develop a rhythm by breathing in half as long as you exhale. For every four counts you inhale, you breathe out eight counts. If you become sleepy or begin to slouch, I will tap you on your shoulder with this stick to bring your focus back to the present. Focus on your breathing, and let your awareness become clear of thoughts and mind objects. That is all. Let us begin.
“The three began their practice of the technique. After a time, Iill started to slouch, his head lowering as if he were falling asleep. Master Nomi went behind him and tapped him ﬁrmly on the shoulders with the bamboo stick.
“Ow!” Iill exclaimed, quickly regaining his posture and focus. Mindful and Spirit, wanting to avoid the bamboo stick, similarly adjusted their postures.
The Master, meanwhile, encircled them and spoke softly. “When you become aware of mind objects such as thoughts, ideas, and feelings, including your bodily sensations,” he said, “allow them to simply ﬂoat through your awareness without giving them any more energy. Let them pass over the screen of awareness. The more you acknowledge them and analyze them, the more they will consume your awareness. Your awareness is like a mirror, and you can reﬂect mind objects just as the water in the pond reﬂected the passing bird and the sky above. Remember, it is an intrinsic aspect of clear water to reﬂect, just as it is an intrinsic aspect of clear awareness to reﬂect. Your purpose is to clear the awareness from the cloudy ﬁ lm of mind objects. In this way, the cloudy water becomes clear and the glimmer of the stone is seen.”
As the evening wore on, Mindful, Iill and Spirit couldn’t keep from shifting and slouching. Master Nomi had to ﬁrmly tap each of them on the shoulders at least three times. Finally, he clapped his hands twice and said, “Let us continue our dialogue.