There is a yearning we have as humans, to join with the flow and essence of the world around us. It creates a nostalgia for something we know we’ve experienced, yet cannot put a name to. There is a longing to be part of the greater whole.
It is nearly impossible to walk to the edge of the ocean and not to kick off your shoes in order to wade in and let the waves lick against your ankles, to find a path in the woods and not take it, to come to a hill and not climb it. I grew up near Niagara Falls, and no matter how many hundreds of times I stand next to the falls, I find the pull of the water almost irresistible.
It is not only nature that has this pull on us. The urge that draws people to show up at everything from Woodstock to the Obama inauguration without plans or tickets, just to be part of something, and the sentimental fondness with which these events are remembered are part of this impulse, this thirst, to be immersed in the flow of the world.
What are we to make of this impulse? Its ubiquitous quality indicates to me that it holds an evolutionary advantage. So, what good does it serve? Arguably, it serves many, but for our purposes, it seems there is an obvious one. When we enter into the stream of life in a manner that allows us to be completely suffused with all that is around us, we cannot help but feel the distinctions between us begin to disintegrate. When the boundaries between “it” and “I” begin to grow indistinct, we are in a position where we naturally begin to embody a compassionate presence. It is not so much a matter of making the decision to be in a relationship of compassion with others as an inevitable consequence. As the boundary between yourself and others grows less substantial, it seems only natural to be present and open with others in whatever state they are in, and that is the root of compassion.
The most straightforward way I have been able to experience that sense of oneness with my environment, without any sort of extreme circumstances, events or settings is through practicing shikantaza. Shikantaza is just another kind of mindfulness. It is a way of being barely aware and yet completely in the moment. Much has been said about mindfulness techniques that use various techniques of naming or identifying our state of being, and kinds of anchors for our awareness (including here in this column). These techniques are infinitely useful, but for me they are a wonderful bridge to this state of bare awareness.
“Bare Awareness” sounds as though one might be partially checked out, in some sort of semi-trance state with a tenuous connection to the outside world. Instead it is a more complete awareness. It is a “bare” awareness as in unencumbered. The mind does not attach to any one thing, but is aware of everything equally.
It’s like frosting a cake. You can put it all over the cake in blobs, dropping it from a spoon. It is very thick in the places where it lands and thin to non-existent in others. Now, spread that frosting as evenly as possible. There is less frosting in one slice than there might be in the blobby cake, but all of the cake is evenly coated, equally delicious, and aesthetically pleasing.
Shikantaza is spreading our “beingness” to every corner of our experience like the more evenly frosted cake. Every slice, in every direction, is equal and wonderful.
My most striking meditation experiences have been times when I have decided to sit in a noisy, busy, public place, for example, the middle of the Powderhorn Park May Day Festival, and sitting on the curb at the Minnesota State Fair. Both times I have felt myself essentially disappear into the world around me; people, sights, sounds, smells, all meld into a oneness that I, also, merge with. Everything is equal in value and importance, and I promise you, it’s hard to feel antagonism when you are everything.