July 16, 2007

Life With Equal Mindfulnes

A friend of mine sent the following response to my last post, and I was blown away by how well he said what I wanted to say, and so I have decided to simply cut and paste his words:

One point that I think needs further addressing is the idea that a Zen mindset allows one to just go with the flow.

This idea, in my opinion, is the MAIN misconception about Zen. Whenever I talk to Richard about bringing a Zen attitude to life, he always says, "You mean, I should just go with the flow?" No. Not at all. That's actually the exact opposite of what I am suggesting. Let me explain.

A Zen attitude is actually one of the hardest, most challenging things to practice. To truly practice it, one will have to try and stop forming attachments and believing in the permanence of things. It means one will have to learn how to renounce desire. It means one will try to be present in all situations of life—whether you're stuck in gridlock traffic, just realizing that you lost your wallet, or enjoying a perfect day at the beach.

The Zen practice challenges the conventional belief that things (e.g., phenomena, life, reality) are divided, separate. In Zen, we see death and life as part of the same exchange. We see good and bad as inextricably entwined—i.e., there's no sweet without the sour. This also means that we see happy and sad as part of the same whole. For example, if we didn't suffer, we wouldn't be able to recognize our own bliss. In sum, Zen asks us to practice the art of seeing everything as connected, that nothing is separate. This idea of unity is perhaps the only lesson Zen is trying to teach.

All of these aspects of the Zen practice, then, are formed around a single idea: life is suffering, AND freedom from suffering is available. How? Identify what is causing you to suffer (here's a hint: desire, entitlement, attachment, inability to accept change). Once we identify what is causing us to suffer, we make clear and present choices to liberate ourselves from our misery. The first thing we do is practice accepting All Outcomes. This doesn't mean going with the flow. Going with the flow means being some rudderless feather that gets blown by the slightest wind. Accepting all outcomes takes a lot of mindfulness and courage and effort. You have to, with all your might, resist your ego's desire for control. So let me be clear: going with the flow is the opposite of Accepting All Outcomes. Going with the flow is easy. What could be easier than being pulled by your every desire? Accepting All Outcomes, however, means greeting all aspects of life with equal mindfulness. And this is not easy. But it is much more authentic and beautiful and enjoyable.

Another way to liberate yourself from suffering is to Aspire rather than desire. This means practicing the art of non-entitlement. A Zen student reaches Satori by renounce any sense of entitlement—to everything and anything. If we can truly understand that we are not entitled to anything, we can have everything. When we feel we are entitled to something, we will suffer when this claim is thwarted. It should be mentioned, however, that we are free to cultivate healthy aspirations for things; but we must be careful to avoid the temptation to feel entitled to them…that's where the attachments and the desires and suffering reside. So again, aspire to whatever you want; and as long as you don't feel entitled to it, you will be able to accept whatever outcomes comes your way.

But this will take lifelong practice. And must not be mistakes for going with the flow.

Last note: In no way is this email meant to correct jabiz's use of term "going with the flow." These are just my own thoughts, as I have understood the Zen practice. If this email is for anyone's edification, it is my own. Every day I am learning that the only way to practice Zen is to, well, practice Zen. And this takes large amounts of effort and is never easy. And it never gets easier. But when we practice being equally mindful in all contexts of life—and accepting all outcomes—there's a place that reveals itself: freedom. This is what is meant by the idea that the best place to keep your seashell collection is along all the beaches of the world.


  1. there are different streams or lineages of zen, though....schools of thought, so to speak. some forms of zen are intensely conservative....which almost goes against many zen writings. also, many forms of zen do not insist on renouncing desire, but on working with it and not judging it. desire is then merely a tool, and then we don't obsess about it. zen manifests differently for each person, which is also part of the point.

  2. p.s. i think it's pretty much a matter of semantics. going with the flow means different things for different people. for some, going with the flow is the absolute hardest thing to do. going with the flow also means living in the moment.....which is near to impossible for the majority of us. to truly, truly live in the moment means breaking down all sorts of expectations, boundaries, etc..

  3. loved checking out your flickr pics. i am starting a flickr account tonight! woohoo!

  4. Ahhhh...so it's like the idea that God gives us everything only for a temporary period of time...they're all God's and He can take them away from us in a second. Thus we shouldn't feel entitled to have those things.

  5. Sure, but no one said anything about God.