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Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

The Pause Button

Would you rather have the ability to fly or be invisible? If you want to be a superhero, these might be some of the powers you’d consider. But I’d like to suggest another, less exotic, but far more achievable power: the pause button.

Meditation is pitched as a cure for stress, anxiety and a host of other modern ailments. What underlies all these factors is the ability to see our internal processes with greater clarity. If that sounds simple then that’s because it is. Meditation can help with all of these things, but the awareness it brings is what it’s all about. How you perceive the world is fundamental to your experience of it. And if that perception is clouded by the colour of your emotions, or driven by any random thought, then you’re nothing but a slave to whatever happens to appear in your mind in a given circumstance.

I try to think about the ability that mindfulness gives us as a pause button. When I find myself getting caught up in negative thought patterns, I use this image as a trigger to stop and observe rather than continuing to act. Developing a pause button through increased awareness of our thoughts and emotions is a way to create freedom from the turmoil of our minds. It’s a power worth investing in.

A Walk Down Oxford Street

Walk the through streets of any major city and you have the chance to see this in action. Take a busy area, such as Oxford Street in London, which is full of pedestrians. People are all walking at different paces and many of them are routinely distracted by something in one of the shop windows. They stop suddenly in the middle of the pavement, cutting you off at a moments notice. You, on the other hand, know exactly where you need to be. You hustle along the sidewalk trying to navigate this sea of people, but you have to keep dodging and avoiding others. It’s easy to get angry.

Why can’t people have a better sense of their surroundings? Do they not realise others are behind them when they stop in the middle of the pavement? And how do they expect others to pass when waltzing four abreast on a small strip of tarmac?

I’ve walked through this scene many times and have often felt annoyance and anger bubble up. There was a moment, after coming out of a cinema nearby Oxford Street, that I felt so overwhelmed by all these feelings that the stress of being there was too much. The sheer amount of people and my inability to navigate through them drowned me. I had to leave as quickly as I could and calm down in a nearby park. So I know all too well how these kinds of emotions can becoming debilitating if we’re unable to observe them skilfully.

The same happens in our relationships too. We all have triggers and often, the people closest to us know how to push them. It’s all too easy to lash out and react when something rubs us up the wrong way. I’ve let loose on people in the past and afterwards, instead of feeling smug, I’ve always regretted my reactions. The pay off for getting involved in a screaming match is usually pretty low. Imagine if instead of the quick, sharp response we were able to take stock and allow our reactions to just be before responding more thoughtfully. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all do this? Wouldn’t we all have avoided plenty of unnecessary pain both to ourselves and others?

The pause button is skilful-observation in action. If I give myself the space to watch those emotions and let them be, without feeling the need to act on them, then I’ll also see that they simmer down pretty quick. A deep breath and a moment of focus can provide the distance needed to bring us back to awareness and balance.

Nonjudgemental Awareness

The pause button is, in many regards, what we mean when we talk about mindfulness. That space where we observe our own thought patterns is the moment when mindfulness is happening. In what has now become the standard working definition, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it as such:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

The distance between our reactions and our actions centres on that final word in Kabat-Zinn’s definition: nonjudgmentally. Developing the ability to not pass judgement on our emotions means we’re less likely to get lost in them. And the less we’re lost in thought, the less we’re acting by default. Mindfulness provides a pause button which allows us to observe rather than react to the things that are happening around us. When we do this often enough, an interesting effect emerges whereby we no longer identify with these thoughts. You see these reactions, rather than being them. And so the thought of cursing at someone in the street for some minor offence is no longer something you’re compelled to do. There is a world of difference between ‘I am angry’ and ‘I feel anger’. The former is means we identify with anger, it’s become the force that is now driving our actions and shaping our perception. When you shift to the latter, simply feeling the anger and not passing any judgement on it, you’re able to hit that pause button and take stock before acting.

Despite how strong they may feel at times, there is no contract that requires us to take our thoughts and emotions at face value. It’s important not to ignore your reactions, but recognition and reaction do not have to go hand in hand. Because by separating emotions from the urgency to act, we’re liberating ourselves from a reactionary state of being. This is freedom and, as far as I can tell, one of the most valuable benefits meditation can offer all of us. We don’t need to reach Buddha levels of enlightenment to give ourselves the power to pause and observe more clearly what’s happening in our mind.

Press The Pause Button

Next time you find yourself lost in thought, caught up in a tangle or about to argue back – take a moment to imagine the button in the picture above. Press it and take a deep breath. See if you can take a moment just to watch the feelings. Don’t expect them to disappear or lessen. The idea isn’t that they do what you want them to, but rather that you take a moment to watch how they play out. Can you find the place where they come from? Can you turn them around to observe the different sides of the emotion? This kind of observation isn’t always easy but if we do it often enough, it becomes second nature.

The hurdles we have to overcome to become mindful are not just personal challenges, they are our duty too. How we choose to act in this world has consequences and it seems like we’re in need of skilful observation now more than ever. Because while we might choose to practice meditation to help us with our own problems, we shouldn’t forget the responsibility these new found tools bestow on us. At the beginning of this article, I asked you to consider what superpower you’d like most. The most important part of your answer isn’t the power you choose, but what you’d choose to do with it. Superheroes use their strengths to help others. And once you learn to master the pause button, it will be up to you to do the same.

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A Vist To The Zen Dojo

How flexible are your legs? This isn’t a question I’m used to being asked, especially by someone I’ve just met. But when you’re about to try and sit in half lotus for the next 90 minutes, it’s a question worth answering. My response: not very flexible at all. The degree to which this was true would become painfully clear to me.

Last weekend I spent Sunday morning visiting a Zen dojo in Amsterdam. It was my first true experience of Zen. Having read many books and spoken to Zen Buddhists, I thought I had a good idea of what Zen is about. But I also wanted to see if that lined up with reality. As I stepped into the dojo I began to understand that conceptual familiarity and actual experience are not the same things. This would recur throughout my two and a half hour introduction.

If you’re spending time meditating outside of any formal training (be that mindfulness, loving-kindness, Vipassana or otherwise) then this will give you an idea of the difference that visiting some kind of meditation centre can offer. If you’re interested in Zen, then it’s a brief outline of what a dojo is like and why it’s worth visiting one.

I’ve broken up this account into three sections – the first covers the physical space of the dojo itself, the second explores the difference between solo-contemplation and formal meditation while the final section outlines my personal experience of the zen attitude and mindset as I encountered it during this visit.

Mindful Space

The entrance to the dojo is marked by a wooden block. After taking your shoes off, visitors, monks and Zen masters alike must enter in the same way – with your left foot first. The precise reason for the left foot was not made clear to me. But it doesn’t matter all that much. What does matter, is that dojo is designed to make you mindful from the moment you step in.

This mindfulness is reflected further by 3 invisible sections (which were kindly made clear by my guide during the orientation) which divide the dojo. During zazen meditation, you’re required to walk through these sections in a clockwise order, always with your left shoulder to the wall. At each corner you make a sharp 90-degree turn, always walking in a straight line. This all sounds a bit complex, but it underscores the purpose of the dojo: to cultivate awareness.

Beyond these guidelines, the space was very simple. White walls and wooden floors were adorned with a few scrolls depicting sutras along with a picture of the Zen master that founded the dojo. In the centre of the dojo lay a small altar and several percussion instruments used to announce different phases throughout the zazen meditation.

On the day I visited, an early autumnal morning, the sun filled the space with light and made it feel welcoming despite the minimal aesthetics. The considered simplicity of the space invites you to move carefully and act calmly. Overall, it inspired a degree of reverence similar to a library and made me feel ready for sitting meditation.

Formal Meditation

My journey with meditation started as a process of self-discovery. I’ve read a lot, been to workshops, downloaded different apps and generally experimented. The result is a broad understanding of different types of meditation but very little depth with any single meditative tradition. With only a couple of apps for guidance, my practice has bee erratic at times and more consistent at others. But it’s definitely skipped around over the years. Visit the dojo, was in many respects, a means of exploring an alternative to this informal way of meditating.

When you’re practising meditation alone, having little interaction with more experienced practitioners, it’s easy to form bad habits or just get stuck. Guided meditations via an app can be great, especially for sparking your interest. But there’s nothing like having a real person sit with you. The benefits of having 1:1 interaction was clear when several of the monks and attendees corrected my posture or fetched me a larger cushion as I tried to sit in the half lotus. This is invaluable.

Beyond the fact that going somewhere to sit with others allows you to absorb knowledge, there was a seriousness about visiting a dojo to meditate that you can’t replicate easily at home. And I don’t mean seriousness in a po-faced, uptight kind of way. It’s that the rituals and guidelines of the dojo make it clear that we’re all here to do zazen, so there’s a kind of mutual respect that people bring to the practice. Summoning this kind if discipline felt right at the dojo, and isn’t something I’ve ever gotten from firing up headspace at home on my own.

Bare Bones & Passing Clouds

Gyo Kai is a Soto Zen dojo. This means the style of zazen is particularly minimal. My guide described it as ‘bare bones’. Unlike any guided meditation or techniques that use an object of concentration, the Soto style of zazen asks very little of you. You sit with your eyes open, facing a wall. Then you just experience what happens. ‘Let your thoughts pass like clouds in the sky’ I was instructed. And that was about it. Bare bones indeed.

Despite how easy it is to understand, this degree of simplicity requires a high degree of commitment because, in order to do nothing, you have to give everything. That is, in order to just sit down and pay attention you’ve got a lot of hurdles to overcome. You have to give up all your attachments to getting lost in thought. Give up your attachment to complaining about the pain of sitting (more on that in a moment). Give up all your judgements. And then just focus. As you can imagine, this doesn’t happen just because you want it to.

I was, however, given one point of focus, one thing to return to when my mind wandered. Posture is the cornerstone of zazen. Sitting in the half lotus (or in my case, as close an approximation as my legs would allow) with your left hand in your right, thumbs touching, a hollowed back and eyes pointing downwards. You have to be attentive to sit properly. And you have to have some dedication. At different times during the meditation my eyes were itching, my thigh began to twitch and both legs went numb. And there was the pain. Normally I’d immediately attend to these sensations, but in zazen, they’re just part and parcel of everything that’s happening and as such, should just be experienced.

As the zazen session began, I sat in the posture I’d been shown. I’m a naturally shy person so as soon as I’d quietened down my mind began to get busy. Am I doing this right? What do these people think of me? As this drama was playing out in my mind I began to see the movement of the sun across my patch of wall. The autumnal morning shadows of trees outside danced on the white expanse in front of me and for a moment it all fell away. I felt completely calm. Thoughts passed like the clouds reflected on the wall. Then, in another moment, the feeling was gone.

Through The Open Door

Toward the end of our second, and final, meditation, one of the monks shared a quote he’d read recently from Zen Master Suzuki:

“In zazen, leave your front door and your back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”

I’d had an interesting morning. No matter how much I read about Zen, there’s no way around the fact that you’ve got to live it. Zen is about doing. Seeing your experience for what it is, as clear as you can, is where it’s at. Opening your doors and refusing to make tea for those thoughts takes some practice too. And the best way to do it consistently is by sitting.

Zen isn’t for everyone. And I’d guess that Soto Zen is for even fewer people. That’s ok. If you do have an interest in any flavour of Zen, or even meditation more broadly then I’d suggest finding a community you can visit and people you can sit with. The thing about contemplative practice is that it takes skill to do. And skills are often best learnt in the presence of someone who’s been practising them for longer than you. I’m just starting down the path of finding a teacher and my visit to the dojo was encouraging. If you find yourself on a similar road, do the same.

As I went to leave, I approached the block that divided the dojo and the hallway outside. I had to stop myself and think – which foot first? Right, then left. I’ll be back to practice that step again.

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