Touching the Core of our Life

Painting by Cathy Toldi

Painting by Cathy Toldi

We make such great effort to get into the present moment. But our bodies are always in the present moment. Our body is the fundamental vehicle through which we experience our life. A felt sense in the body tells us what is real and true. When we act in accord with this felt sense, we often find we move from deeper levels of authenticity and aliveness.

This might involve feeling your way down into the truth of the physical and emotional sensations underlying a mind-driven story. This is what my root teacher Katherine Thanas called “listening to the voice of the body.”

It might involve sensing our way to more honest expression in our group life. One time I was watching a management team debate how to best give out information about an upcoming organizational change. Should they go out and talk with people in small groups at their work sites? Or do a structured presentation in front of one large group at the central office? Some worried that the small group settings would invite problematic dynamics. They felt that the lockstep large group presentation would offer them more control.

My client, the person in charge of this team, said, “there are logical reasons to do the presentations in the large group. That’s not what my gut says. But I am willing to go with logic rather than emotion."

"No, trust your gut!" his colleagues insisted.

I turned to my client. “What is your purpose in having these sessions?”

“To build trust,” he replied. “If someone asks me a challenging question, in a small group I would have the opportunity to look them in the eye and say the straight scoop. I’d have the opportunity to break through the lines, reach out, get more human."

Listening to the voice of the body we gain access to a broader range of awareness, whether in our own individual or the group body.  

It’s not that the stories of the mind are wrong, or inaccurate—they are just incomplete. 

Any practice that slows us down to get in touch with the felt sense of our body can open us up to this awareness of the truth of the present moment.

The main way we do this in Zen is through zazen.

Zazen is more than a meditation posture, more than any set of particular techniques. It is not “a way to escape from life by being mindful of something that is apart from the human world,” as Dainin Katagiri pointed out, but is “the practice of being present in the real stream of time and looking directly at life itself. Zazen enables you to plunge below the surface and leads you to touch the core of your life.”

Perhaps this is what Katherine meant when she told me once “your life depends on this practice.”

The little voice in my head that spins its story of suffering is not just something that happens when I try to concentrate my attention on the meditation cushion. If I remain unaware, it can be the shadow soundtrack of my life. The little voice can yammer negative interpretations that separate me from other beings. It can make me question the meaning and purpose of my life. 

Any effort I make to learn to gently release its grip is an effort that will support my ability to be present for my actual, rather than imaginary, life.

Any effort I can make to open my heart, deepen my breath, relax my body, will show up as the ability to be open, deep and relaxed as I encounter the beings and circumstances of the world.

Any effort I can make to reconnect with what truly matters will activate the dynamic energy of engagement, connecting me with the mysterious and miraculous unfolding of this thing we call life.

Zazen can wear down our layers of resistance, disrupting our familiar mental and emotional patterns. We have thoughts, we have feelings, but we realize we don’t need to hold onto them.    

This kind of “letting go” is not disassociation, or avoidance, or being emotionally detached. Rather, we let the present moment experience of our inner breath shift our mental formations like the wind shifts the formations of a cloud. We expand the field of our focus to a much broader dimension that the reduced focus of the narrow little box of our habit patterns and familiar stories.

Zazen can offer us the rare opportunity to slow down enough to touch the marrow of our lives. Usually, things move really fast. We run around, responding reactively and quickly. In most circumstances we don’t question the little voice in our head that’s running this incessant commentary, telling us what to think and feel. We just believe it. If strong feelings or pain comes up, we have pills, or we have Netflix. We have ways to bypass or ignore it.

But when you’re sitting cooking in your cauldron, things slow way down. You actually have the opportunity to really notice, what is that little voice anyhow? Who’s little voice is that? What’s it saying? Why is it saying that? How long do I have to listen to it, anyhow?

And then finally, when little ego mind is completely exhausted, there begins to be another mind that comes, a much more spacious mind. It’s like peeking over the edge of the self-referential box into a whole universe of unmediated reality.  You can actually feel the freshness of the sensory world, as if a thick membrane has been pulled away.

Our mind, heart, and body becomes a “dharma gate,” the vehicle through which we realize our fundamental truth, our original nature. This is Buddha, waking up. This very act of sitting with the truth of our actual lives, breathing in and breathing out, sensing our utter interconnection with all beings and all things,  is enlightenment.