Just Being Present

A Zen teacher from the 9th century in China could sometimes be heard having a stern conversation with himself: “Master Zuigan!” he would call out. “Yes?,” he would inquire, “Are you here?” “Yes!” He responded to himself.

How sweet, how odd, and how wonderful! This Zen teacher underscores how challenging it can be to be present, to show up, to be present for ourselves, and for our lives. And he didn’t have a smart phone, the internet, or television to contend with. It seems that showing up and being fully present has always been challenging.

I’ve been reading a book by poet Jane Hirshfield called Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. In an essay about concentration she says:

“Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.”

How can we learn to attend to ourselves, to our relationships, our work, our lives? What prevents us from the simple act of showing up? Fear, greed, wanting what we don’t have, not wanting what we have. Or as Jane points out – the distractions of interest or boredom – the need to be entertained or the anxiety and distraction of not being entertained.

How can we be more present? By practicing again and again, noticing when we are present and when we are not. By leaning in toward our fears, and our discomfort. As well as embracing our joy and our appreciation. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, being present for the “full catastrophe” of being alive, of being human.

I like the practice of Zen teacher Zuigan, “Are you here?” He asks himself. “Yes!” We can all try this – are you here? – when listening to another person, when driving a car, when eating your food. Checking in with ourselves – what’s happening, right now, with your thinking, your feelings. What’s in your heart?