It is still dark when I slide a leg out of bed to test the temperature. And so cold!
Puling on tracksuit pants. T-shirt slips over my head but feels all wrong, so I pull through my arms and spin it around my neck and try again. Over this, my favorite thick wool jumper. The one with the hole in the elbow where I snagged it on a door-handle the first time I wore it.
Lifting a leg to pull on a sock, I topple with a hop, hop, back against the bed.
The girl and the dog both stir. The girl squints into the green glow of the clock and informs me of the time with the same sleepy inflections that you might use to say â€œyou must be joking!â€ â€¨It will be a couple of hours yet, before she gets up.
The dog on the other hand is totally up for it, and pounces off the bed to grab my other sock before prancing triumphantly off down the corridor.
Shortly, I hear the flap-flap-flap of the dog door as he steals his prize out into the frosty morning, and then, a long tinkling piss on the frozen lawn.
Padding onto the icy bathroom tiles, I lean against the sink with my bare foot standing on my socked foot, to brush my teeth and cup handfuls of warm water across my face.
Completing my ablutions, I walk down to the study. But not before standing on the squeaker of the dogs toy caterpillar. This brings the dog bursting back through his door – FLAP-FLAP-FLAP-FLAP.
I hear the girl roll again before a sleep-slurred voice asks me if I could possibly keep the noise down. Only much as you might ask someone to; â€œ Keep the goddamn noise down before I come down there and punch you violently right in your own frickin squeaker!â€
On one side of the dimly lit room is a bookcase and a directors chair. Against the opposite wall stands a low rectangular table. Sliding open a draw in the front of the table, I extract a stick of fresh incense and a lighter. Once lit, the stick is planted in a small bowl of sand. From the ember tip the smoke rises like Indian rope before catching a vortice of air and splitting into whirlpool springs.
Next to the incense bowl lays a small plastic clock. I can just make out the LED display which reads 40 minutes. With the press of a button on the face the timer counts down to its single chime.
And that is the simple goal of all this fussing amongst a cold June morning. To sit down quietly for 40 minutes.
I take my seat on a small round cushion sometimes known as a zafu. Packed with wheat husks, it scrunches under my butt as I rock from side to side settling my position. Left foot is pulled up onto my right thigh where it will soon fall asleep as it always does. Left hand sitting in right, as if holding an egg. Thumbs over, gently touching.
After taking a few slow centering breaths, I let go of trying to do anything, and sit with a sort of detached, open, attention toâ€¦well, to everything.
Actually, detached is not the right word as it might imply some sort of third person narrative observing what is going on. It is more of an immersion.
Dipping into the normally overgrown tangible intimacy of each present moment.
I can hear the Magpies in the trees outside the window, and further off, the slow caw of a crow. â€¨I can smell the sandalwood incense and feel the weight of my body and sense the surge and stall of blood through my veins. â€¨I ride my breath.
Only none of this is true. â€¨There is no Magpie call, there is only the experience of the thing that happens before I label it as a sound. Before I recognize it as a Magpie, and then think about Magpies, and then birds, and then the time I was bitten by a parrot when I was a kid, and then the time I poisoned my sisters chewing gum with chili powder .
Sitting on the cushion, I try to hold the space before the first domino of thoughts falls.
Likewise, there is no incense and no breath. â€¨Just the raw is-ness of stuff happening. Within and without. And in another far more mysterious place I cant quite glimpse.
It is impossible to explain what sometimes unfolds atop that small pile of wheat. And besides, most times it doesn’t. Most of the time my mind desperately wants to clamp onto each thought and ride it like a bull.
But when the â€˜Iâ€™ becomes unfocused like a scene dissolve at the end of a movie, the quiet, empty space that opens in its place reflects all is as simple as a dot.
In Zen Buddhism, this dot is known as Shikantaza1.
Really I have absolutely no idea why I get up on those mornings I sit. The reality is that most of the time this experience of Shikantaza is completely missed. I wallow around amongst cluttered thoughts of this and that, and crowded replays of what I did, and fantasies of what I might have done. â€¨Or I simply nod off asleep.
In the fifth century a monk wanderedÂ north from the wild borderlands of India, to the kingdom of Wei in northern China.
Here, he sat in silence, facing the wall of a cave for nine years. It is said that after seven years he fell asleep. Angry at himself, he cut off his eyelids so it would not happen again. According to legend, his eyelids fell on fertile soil and grew into the first tea plants.
So he sat on the dot for nine years and still fell asleep? May as well stay in bed.
All I do know is that when I do it regularly, the times spent on that dot before the first domino occur more often. And sometimes this warming spills into things I do away from the cushion, bringing an expansive clarity and vividness to tasks and experiences. It is as if you wake up from being asleep. As if you lift away the coverings and stick your leg out to test the crisp morning.
Something worth exploring for yourself.
- Shikantaza- nothing but (shikan) precisely (ta) sitting (za): resting in a state of brightly alert attention, that is free of thoughts, directed to no object and attached to no particular content. [↩]