It never fails—you’re sitting there meditating, settling into a zone of focused concentration for the deliciously long interval of an entire minute, maybe more, when it hits: you develop an uncontrollable itch, or your legs or back start to ache. Or maybe it’s the person next to you who’s given in to the 1001 distractions and is stirring, or who’s mindlessly lapsed into the most inconsiderate, noisy breathing. The furnace or a/c kicks in, a late arrival traces their path into the meditation hall via the loudest door and floorboards you’ve ever heard.
For an activity centered on doing nothing, there’s a lot going on in zazen. Even when I’m meditating at home, more often than not my bodily distractions are joined at some point by a yowling cat or puttering housemate. And all this is fine: like some avant-garde piece by Cage, these extraneous sounds and sensations are part of the practice. You work with whatever arises, seeking not to be thrown off but rather to maintain your still presence. Thoughts come and go, one moment fades imperceptibly into the next, and always, there’s the breath.
Then, as if all the ambient distractions weren’t enough, sometimes a teacher deliberately introduces a sound. A mindfulness bell is rung in the middle of a meditation period to distract you from your own distractions, to remind you to come back to the moment. And that’s the basic storyline of zazen, really: coming back. Attention will wander—you can count on it. Thoughts will stream by, tempting you to follow them. Ding goes the bell, and you come back to right here, right now.
A key goal of practice is, as they say, to take it off the cushion and out into the real world. Meditating while surrounded by fellow practitioners in a (mostly) hushed, dim zendo is one thing; can you maintain that mindful presence outside this supportive, idealized environment? I was pleased when, biking to school recently, I discovered my very own, four-legged mindfulness bell.
We’ve all met the reflexively barking dog at one time or another (not this particular one, of course, but one of its many kin). Its instinctive response ingrained over generations, Mindfulness Dog barks at all passers-by regardless of whether they pose an actual threat. Without fail, he (it could be a she, but I flipped a coin to assign it a gender for this post) greets me each time I bike past his house, racing to the fence and putting his lungs and vocal mechanism to full use until I am safely beyond his territory.
People sometimes ask what I’ve gotten out of my meditation practice, if it’s brought me greater peace or clarity. And sometimes I mention the daily training in not reacting immediately or reflexively to stimuli, usually negative. Like the brief delay built into some live broadcasts to allow censors time to catch inappropriate material, occasionally I’ll find that I have a few seconds after a negative stimulus, during which I seem able to decide whether to indulge the habitual response.
So that’s one thing. But Mindfulness Dog reveals further ways in which a meditation practice can bridge the cushion and the outside world. While it’s hardly as sweet and gentle as a tiny bell, you know for sure that all is practice when a strident barking can wrest you from your mental and physical distractions with its throaty invitation to come back, come back to right here, right now. And you know the interconnectedness emphasized by this tradition is taking root in your mind when you realize that a reflexively, incessantly barking dog is not so much a nuisance as a mirror of our own tendency to react very similarly to perceived threats every time they pass by our yard.
I invite you to take a minute and reflect on this. What frequent nuisance(s) in your life might be calling you to return to the moment, to full awareness of fundamental interconnectedness and the wisdom and compassion that are its fruits?
Gassho, Mindfulness Dog.