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Dec 28

Zen as a Loaf of Bread

One of the easier concepts that “westerners” have with Zen is mindfulness – that action-less action of being present in the moment and experiencing everything about it.  Conceptually, this seems to make sense to most people, likely because it truly is an easily understood idea – When you’re doing something, pay attention to what you’re doing!   This seems to be the ‘eastern’ idea that makes the most sense, and most people believe that they have been doing it all of their lives – especially since most of us were told by our parents when we were kids to “pay attention” and “watch what you’re doing”.  Aside from the traumatic memories this may have triggered in some, the idea seems to be the most intuitive one from the Zen playbook…

Incidentally, this ‘simple’ concept is one of the most difficult things to actually perform, especially in our modern world – a place and time where things are thrust upon us in an apparently unending litany of ever increasing expectations!  Our modern workload and all of our expectations (internal and external) seem to be unrivalled in their height as compared to any other time in history.  We are expected to know everything (even when Google seems to have adversely impacted our practices of memory) as well as produce so much in such short order than the laws of physics seem to need bending!

I have heard quite a few people say that they couldn’t (or can’t) meditate for various reasons: because they aren’t patient enough, they get lost in their heads, or their minds wander all the time… Ironically, these are exactly the points that ‘being mindful’ would provide the most benefit in reducing!

Another concern that these people bring up is the starting point – Where does one start?

We all get lost in our own heads at some point, and we’re slaves to our patterns – We’ve all heard of someone that has fallen ‘into a rut’ and they don’t know how to get out of it.  These words are the death knell for anyone in a long-term relationship because they signify that the relationship has become stagnant, and the recognizing party wants to break the rut; usually resulting in their departure from the relationship, or actions to otherwise spruce up the intrigue or excitement in their lives.  Unfortunately, not everyone can get out of this rut – nor do many of them truly want to.

You see, we are inherently lazy creatures.  I don’t mean this in a slothful way (although, I’m sure that we all know some people who may fit this particular description), but instead in a minimalistic and/or materialistic way:  We seek the most rewards for the least effort.  This means that we want the highest wage (thus have more money for equal, or less, time), the BOGO sales, the shortest route to work, etc.  Once we have figured out the path that we want to take – whether that be through researching available options or otherwise choosing the first option presented – we generally stick to it, even when other options present themselves.

Now this is not to say that nobody ever changes their pattern, but please indulge my generalization – the point is that we are predominately reluctant to step out of our comfort zones for whatever reasons.

Now, we can assume that whatever choices that someone is making are not frivolous – they must be getting something out of that decision.  Few people regularly take the long way to work just to enjoy the scenery!  The shortest route is cheaper on gas, and they may get to and from work in a shorter time which means a later departure time from home and more time at home when work is done.  Why would anyone want to change that?

What if carpooling was an option?  How many people would willingly choose to increase the hassle of their morning commute by adding the people that are involved in the travel process?  To make this decision there would have to be more pros than cons, thus providing more gain for less effort.  Although, if the gains are marginal, you would not likely see many people taking advantage of this opportunity – why?  Because it is implementing change in a persons routine when they believe they are getting the most gain for the least effort…

Consideration of this opportunity would then have to content with this particular opinion regarding someones already entrenched rut – I mean, successful routine.

For example, when money is tight, some people vehemently adhere to a budget to the point that the thoughts of money issues consume them.  They fret about every penny, every day… and when they see the fruits of their attention to detail (as they would likely call it) has paid off in having a surplus of money after a period of time, they would consider their practice successful.  Every time they would require adhering to a budget, it comes with the other aspects of fret and worry, but considering that it has been successful at least once, they are likely to continue this practice…

Let’s just take a moment to recognize that this strict adherence and attention to the budget is not “mindfulness” in the sense that aligns itself to the meaning from Zen practice – fretting, stressing, and worrying about money issues and paying Scrooge-like attention to budgetary practices is not ‘being mindful’, it’s being obsessive and is in actuality an extreme yang practice that misses the middle way…
At the risk of sounding cliché, the only constant is change…

So, in an effort to bridge the gap between ‘cannot’ to ‘can’, here is my analogy and allegory of Zen as a Loaf of Bread.  I share this with the intention to help people take the first step in their journey of a thousand miles of  understanding Mindfulness and, later, No Mind.

When you make bread, you are using a multitude of ingredients, brought together in a particular ratio, followed by baking at a particular temperature for a specific amount of time to produce the desired results.  Any deviation from the particulars and specifics results in a less than satisfying product.  So, imagine this: The combination of ingredients illustrates the interconnectivity of all things.  When all of the ingredients are put together in their particular ratios, they work to create a delicious something that we call “bread”.  Individual cultures and tastes vary, but the overall concept of bread is generally well received. On the other side, if any of these ratios and particulars are not balanced, then you will likely get some form of sloppy mess at one extreme, or a dried out husk of inedible carbon on the other…

Being mindful in the bread making process is recognizing every step along the way – it is focusing on what needs to be focused on, but without the singular mind of an obsessive nor with the distraction of the absent minded either.  It’s recognizing every step has its time, and every ingredient has its place.  The dough has its distinct aroma as well as texture, and there is a time where we don’t work it because it is ‘doing its own thing’ while rising.  Being Mindful here is taking in every step of the way, not focusing on the end product and trying to rush through the process to get to the bread, nor is it obsessing over any errors you may have made in the earlier stages that you may or may not have corrected.  Being Mindful does not carry these worries or concerns into the end product, nor distract from the process – it’s being in the moment that is present.

When the bread needs to rise, being mindful is recognizing that there is a time component to the process – and doesn’t obsess about how long it is, nor does being mindful include checking the rising dough every minute!

Being Mindful is experiencing the sweet smell of it baking in the oven, but not dwelling on the end product – it’s experiencing the sensation without adding the anticipation of the taste of the bread later!  Experience the moment as it is, without expectation, and this is being mindful and present in the moment… Which is easier said than done if you love the taste of fresh baked bread!  If you dwell on the future possibility or passed missed opportunity or error, then you are missing the moment that you are experiencing…

Interestingly, the time to savour the fresh baked bread will come – it just can’t be rushed.  It comes when it does, and you are entitled to experience that moment with the same mindfulness as you did in all the previous moments… without anticipation of future moments, nor remorse for passed moments either…

This analogy leads to an allegory of Zen as a Loaf of Bread.

When a loaf is ready, after all of the composite pieces have come together to create it, there is always the first slice.  This starts the experience of the bread, and the first slice doesn’t know how much bread there is, nor the size of the individual slices.  The first slice barely even knows the composition of the rest of the loaf – it is simply fresh baked bread.

As more slices get cut, the next slice is right there – enticing us further into the loaf, oblivious to how much there is left… until the day that we realize that we can run out of bread.  It is often not until the last slice of the loaf that we realize all of the previous slices have lead us to this slice, and our loaf is no longer, thus necessitating another loaf.

This recognition is not mindfulness, although it is a realization of the need to be mindful.  Would you remember the taste of all of the previous slices?  Do you remember the taste of the first slice?  At any point in this loaf, each slice can be savoured… appreciate the texture, the taste, the aesthetic, and become mindful.

Many people have probably heard the concept of “No Mind”, which begs an interesting question – How can we be Mindful with the expectation of “No Mind”?  How can someone be “mindful” while they are striving for “no-mind”?

There is no conflict here, simply a semantic conflation of the issue.  Mind is when we project our thoughts and expectations on the loaf and create labels for all of the ‘things’ that the loaf is; then paradoxically the loaf we perceive and label isn’t really the loaf as it is – it’s the loaf as you think it is or want it to be… No-Mind is when these projections (expectations, names, etc) are excluded or omitted from the experience – taking it in as it is rather than trying to limit the comprehensive whole with a limited title, name, or other descriptor that ultimately falls short of what the experience is.

One can be mindful of every slice of the loaf, but the only way to truly experience the fullness of mindfulness is to use no-mind when doing so…

How does this relate to martial arts?  Everything is interconnected, so recognize your opponent as a composite like the loaf of bread, just as you are, and you’ll begin to understand that the greatest power in martial arts training is the compassion it can develop.

For Kata training – every slice should be savoured.  Recognize that every kata is a loaf of bread, and many recipes mix very well – see what happens when each slice flows into the next, but then see what happens when a slice of one loaf flows into the slice of another…

Do the form with intention, then just do the form… ‘no-mind’ practice will help you realize when you need to react, but also when you can act before needing to react…

And never forget to savour…

 

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