Anxiety is as physical as it is psychological.
It seems to rise up from the unconscious, and what is the body but part of that unconscious network of neurons? An imperceptible sensation or a vague sense of unease makes its way into the spotlight after trudging through a dark room, clumsily knocking shit over in its path.
By the time it’s revealed, it’s bloody and battered, covered in the dust and wood chips it found itself rolling through in an effort to reach the light. Its trudging effort announces its presence long before one sees its face, and that unvoiced unease gradually escalates into a deeper dread and uncertainty.
Lost in a state of confusion permeated by fear, the mind draws dismal conclusions without solid evidence to back them up. All of it generally points to one thought: There’s something wrong, and I’m dying.
Throughout all of this, nothing’s really changed for the senses. This chair is still solid, the morning sunlight still falls golden across the land, slowly edging toward white. The cat still sleeps on its fuzzy tower, and next door the neighbor hobbles toward their car about to embark on another day of toiling.
A pile of books sits to the right, all of them on Buddhist philosophy, topped off by a notebook with a gel pen hooked to the cover. It’s fitting that all those words should rest beneath a collection of blank pages.
Immersed in what is, the monster in the attic sings itself back to sleep. It was acknowledged, it was heard. “I know you’re scared, but look at this!”
From another corner, the depressive quips, “It’s all gonna disappear someday, so what’s the point?” It’s already disappeared. The sun sits a little higher now, the cat has turned onto its back, the neighbor is out of sight, and an itch arose on my beard.
Of course, with the mind on one itch, a thousand others appear. Were they already there and I was just unaware? There’s no way of knowing either way.
“Not all change is death,” the logician chimes in. “Death is the permanent end of all physiological functioning and cerebral activity. A total, and eternal, loss of consciousness. That’s different than noticing that the sun has changed positions, or that there’s an itch now where there wasn’t one before.
“Among everyday changes, you’re still the same person. If you weren’t, how could anyone say, ‘I’ve changed’? We’d just speak of change as an essence itself, rather than as a process that things undergo.
“Ahhh! Help!” The anxiety monster just ate the logician. The depressive laughs and says, “You’ve gotta admit, he had a good point.” The anxiety monster looks at the depressive. “Ha!” the depressive scoffs, “You know you can’t eat me. I’m a fuckin’ wizard. This is my domain. In fact,” he raises his arms and, from the dust, the logician is reborn.
“As I was saying,” the logician straightens is lab coat, “death and change aren’t equivalent. Death is a type of change, but not all change is death.”
“You lack imagination, my friend,” the poet joins the crowd. “A word is just a symbol. They’re arbitrary by their very nature, so they can be flipped and turned to mean whatever we like. Forgetting this, you’ve bound yourself to set definitions and took them as absolute. Exchange one word for another, and doors may open to chambers of the mind that you’d never pondered before.”
We speak of the life and death of ourselves and other beings, but why not of a word, a rainbow, or a shadow on the floor? Why not each breath, each thought and feeling?
Zen is the practice of seeing through birth, life and death to what is. And what is?
Breathing in. Breathing out. The heart beats and the wooden door keeps out the wind. The beast, depressive, poet, and logician all behold the unfolding of just this moment.
It is nothingness, but it’s quite lively. It’s nothing in that it can’t be pinned down, and it doesn’t leave traces. As soon we speak of the present moment, we’re speaking of a memory. And how long is a moment? Some old Buddhists said there are millions of moments each second, but that can’t investigated.
To me, a moment is the body of each experience. A bell is rung and a moment dawns. It resonates, and grows softer. When it’s traded for silence, a new moment reveals itself. Viewing it this way, there’s no such thing as, “The moment.” Each sense keeps its own time and its own company.
What we call a single moment is really several experiential moments of different durations all sharing the same space. When meditating, sitting with this directly is like watching the whole world turn to water.
Chan Master Daman Hongren said, “Make your body and mind perfectly empty and peaceful, without any discriminative thinking at all. Sit properly with the body erect. Regulate the breath and concentrate the mind so it is not within you, not outside of you, and not in any location in between. Do this carefully but naturally.
“View your own consciousness tranquilly and attentively, so you can see how it is always moving, like flowing water or a glittering mirage. After you have perceived this consciousness, simply continue to observe it gently and naturally, without getting fixed anywhere inside or outside of yourself.
“Do this calmly and attentively until its fluctuations dissolve into peaceful stability. This flowing consciousness will disappear like a gust of wind. When this consciousness disappears, all illusions disappear along with it… One’s own mind becomes peacefully stable, and pure. I cannot describe it any further.
“Anyone who can keep this mind in sight during all activities and in the face of the desires for forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch, and in the midst of the winds of success and failure, criticism and praise, honor and abuse, suffering and pleasure, has established a pure practice, and will never again be born into the realm of birth and death.”
We can’t speak of time without speaking of the mind. We can’t speak of anything without speaking of the mind, for it’s the mind that crafts and gives meaning to these words and time. In Buddhism, a moment is a moment of consciousness.
The time the clocks keep is consistent but arbitrary. Objective time is like saying, “This cloth is 24 inches long.” Real time, subjective time that adheres to experience, is like running one’s finger along the fabric from end to end. You can do this fast or slow, and press hard or lightly. You can move in a straight line, zigzag, or draw traceless circles.
You can pick up the cloth and smell it, or rub it against your cheeks. You see it, its shadowy folds and shifting color influenced by the light flying loose in the room, so that its hue is brighter or deeper in different spots.
In real life, those 24 inches are measured in moments of sight, sound, smell, touch, thought, and feeling. All mind, all consciousness. Even those inches were made by a mind. There’s no reason why its length should be measured that way other than for convenience.
We don’t get anywhere by doing what’s convenient. Life is a very inconvenient experience and the senses, spitting in the face of all our faith and reasoning, reach out into a world that’s measured in warmth and cold, tears and laughter, light and shadow.
And then the philosopher steps in and announces the glaring question: “What’s the common thread? What is it that Hongren can’t describe?” The philosopher looks around my mental room, looks at the monster, the poet, the pensive depressive and the studious logician. He looks at them and says, “None of you may enter this truth.”
“Then who can?” the logician asks.
“The one in the mirror, the one whose shadow light always casts.” He gestures at his surroundings. “This empty room.”