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  • Writer's pictureallenbroadman

Closest to Home

In going and returning, we never leave home. - 18th Century Japanese Zen Master Hakuin

Some people spend a lot of time trying to know who they are. It’s an investigation that spans all sorts of approaches. Some people get focused on aspects of personal identity, looking at gender, race, or sexuality. Others dive into getting to know the body through intense physical activity. And many are psychologically inclined, looking into the mental-emotional patterns that contribute to personality. And then there are those who take what they might call a “spiritual” approach, which is almost too vague a word to have any concrete meaning nowadays. It can include traditional religious practices, philosophical musings, being in nature, ethical lifestyles, and all sorts of whacked-out nonsense too.

A sincere spirit of seeking is important, but so is discernment about what are the more or less helpful approaches, because they are not all alike. Not all paths get to our destinations as easily, or as quickly. Some don’t even head in the right direction at all. And unfortunately, the world offers us up all kinds of uncertain options about how to examine and find meaning within our lives. A quick browsing of the self-help section of a bookstore will show just how far off course people can go when trying to figure out themselves and this whole, messy life. “Secret” signs, universal vibrations, and celestial sound baths are just a few among some of the dubious gateways of self-investigation out there. “Caveat Emptor” is what the Romans used to say – “Let the buyer beware.”

abstract person doing pushups

But along with the dubious options, there are more dependable ones. And what might they be? The most dependable approaches begin close to home. They begin with the body and the mind, with practices that bring us back to the here and the now.

Nothing that comes and goes is you. You are the knowing, not the condition that is known. - Eckhart Tolle, from Stillness Speaks

This body is the literal gateway to reality as we know it. All our perceptions and sensations are mediated through this physical body – its sense organs and all that supports them, are the conduit for awareness to contact reality, whatever “awareness” and “reality” might be! Although our senses are very limited and offer only the tiniest slice of experiencing all that is, that’s our inherent condition being human, so it’s sensible to make the best of the small slice we’ve got.

abstract person doing pushups

How does this body work? is a great question for investigation. We can learn about anatomy and physiology, the basis for discovering what physical well-being means. You won’t really understand your embodied self or bodily well-being if you don’t understand bones, muscles, skin, organs, blood, breath, digestion, and more. And then beyond the anatomical understanding is the experiential understanding. Practices that tune us into physical sensations help, like yoga, qi gong, or certain martial arts. They “ground” us quite literally - to the earth upon which we stand or sit, to the air we breathe, the food we eat, the sights and sounds, tastes, and aromas all around us. You ignore the body at your own risk, and unfortunately this is what many people do, preferring to read horoscopes or watch TikTok videos about cats.

Another great question close to home is: How does this mind work?  We spend a great amount of time thinking and engaged with thoughts – far too much time, actually. Although we should work to reduce the amount of unnecessary thinking and entanglement with thoughts, we can also work to make the best of the necessary thinking and feeling. Looking into the psychological and social forces that shape how we think and feel is a worthwhile effort.

person talking to another person

Sincere and honest psychotherapeutic work helps reveal unconscious, hidden patterns to our thinking and feeling – patterns that began way back in our past. These patterns are moving us into various actions which may or may not be beneficial to us. Bringing the unconscious into the light helps us see what’s going on behind the scenes, and when we see that better, we can become more intentional. Insight into social forces is also useful, because it is not only our childhood family life that creates these patterns. The forces from our friends, schools, neighborhoods, towns, and entire culture and society have been working upon us for our whole lives. All of that creates different momentums, like tidal forces and winds operating on our psyche, and if we don’t see the forces, we’re sailing blind.

We don’t need to look to the stars to know who we are. That may be fun or stimulating, or even comforting, but it will not reliably show us the way. We need to look not outward, but inward to this very place we are standing right now. To understand ourselves, we must look at ourselves. It is looking into the body and the mind which are the most intimate, dependable places to begin that search. But we can get even closer to home than that.

What, not Who

What knows this body’s sensations?

What knows thinking and thoughts are happening?

What is aware to it all?

We can investigate the foundation of this whole experience of reality, the “reality” that includes the body, thinking, feeling – all that is perceived. We can look into what knows, instead of what is known. That is a different kind of questioning, a different kind of searching. It is not searching through the content and stories of our biography – it is searching for what is before the biography itself. A newborn baby knows reality but has no biography – what knows reality when the biography is absent?

To put it another way, yesterday you probably brushed your teeth. There is awareness of brushing the teeth– awareness to the sound of the water, the aroma and taste of the toothpaste, the feel of the brush in your mouth. What knows all of that yesterday, and what knows it all again today, is the same knowing. The knowing didn’t change since yesterday. The knowing didn’t get a day older because the knowing has no age. Yes, the “person” got a day older - the body changed, new memories accumulated, old ones were lost, and feelings came and went. The biography changed for sure. But what knows it all never came and never went. The knowing has been there all along, always. What is that awake knowing?

Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so too can the routine of everyday life keep us from seeing the vast radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world. - 18th Century Chasidic Saying

This different kind of searching and questioning is the territory of Zen meditation, of Zen practice. And amazingly, it can begin with the simplest thing of all – just breathing. Why the breath? The breath is always here, and the breath is always now. Giving our full attention to the breath, we start to slowly leave behind the endless distractions of thinking and thoughts, and that is a very valuable change, like wiping the dirt off a window to see through it better. As thinking and thoughts slow and quiet down, we can see more clearly into what all that thinking and thoughts have been covering up our whole lives. We start getting beyond who we are, to what we are. And it can begin with breathing – taking just one step, a few minutes a day of sitting silently, sitting in stillness, and watching the breath.

person talking to another person

But this breathing is not any old breathing, this is Zen breathing. This is not guided breathing, with some voice or app telling us to breathe this way or that way, telling us when to inhale or exhale. This is a breathing in which we don’t try to make the breath slower or faster, or shallow or deep. We experience the breath as it is, not doing anything with it or to it. This is Just Breathing. When thoughts and thinking come, as soon as we notice the distraction from the breath, we simply come back to the experience of the breath. We do this over and over again and stay with it. This is a practice that can powerfully transform us. Try it, try it! If you need a jump start, you can begin with some simple instructions. Try it every day for a few weeks and see what happens!


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