I’d like to share a development that’s occurred within my own practice over the past few years.
I was trained at the monastery how to be aware of conditioned mind. Over the years I spent there I came to understand what this thing is that we call conditioned mind; I learned how to recognize it, how to track the processes by which it operates, and how to let it go. I devoted my life during that time to this work, with the desire to be aware of conditioned mind all day long every day.
That effort was needful and good, and I benefit from the knowledge that resulted down to this very day—and, I can see now, there is a problem embedded within this approach. The problem is that when we attend to conditioned mind, then conditioned mind comes into existence.
I had an experience a while ago that made this especially clear to me. I was walking on a particularly beautiful day down a path through the woods. Everything about that place was lovely, and my heart was free to just enjoy the goodness of being alive amongst the trees. Part of what made it so lovely was that conditioned mind was absent, and that it was not particularly on my mind that it was absent: I was just there, being the experience. Then it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if I turned my attention to conditioned mind, and so I did. I looked around to see where conditioned mind was in that moment and what it was up to. As soon as I did, conditioned mind came into the experience with all of it’s usual unpleasantness. It was not up to anything, actually, until I gave it my attention. That’s what I realized: until I looked for it it simply was not there. As soon as I gave it my attention, however, then it appeared out of nothing and became a part of the experience.
Over these past several years since I left the monastery I’ve come to understand that practice ultimately is not about being aware of conditioned mind. For a period of time, while a person remains trapped for the most part within conditioned mind, then that is in fact what practice is about, but a time comes when the effort must be set aside. Practice ultimately is about being present and simply enjoying the life that we have. I no longer strive to be aware of conditioned mind moment by moment. Instead, my practice these days is to simply be here: to be in my body, experiencing the wealth of sensation, perception, thought, and emotion that fills each moment as it passes by.
Should I become distracted then conditioned mind will arise, because that’s just what it does. Conditioned mind immediately fills any gap in our consciousness. Whenever it arises I get out the tools that I acquired at the monastery and I take it apart; I break it down until it loses it’s allure and I am able to let it go. Once I have let it go, however, I put away my tools. If I keep out my tools when I don’t need them then this will create unnecessary work to do. A hammer is always looking for a nail, as they say. I am profoundly grateful to have the tools that I do, as it is these same tools that have saved my life and brought me to a point where I can enjoy the life I have most of the time in peace. It is best to put them away, however, when the job is done.