I found myself reaching for the word ‘Zen’ to describe the state of mind induced during and following my recent mountaineering trip to Morocco. But what exactly is Zen? And why did this single three letter word seem to be a more accurate summation of my experience than any I might aspire to craft from the 8000 words of notes that I brought back with me?
‘If you have to ask you’ll never know’
So said Louis Armstrong when asked to define the rythmic concept of swing. The same might be said of Zen, and I knew that there was a certain absurdity in pursuing a definition. But in that first week after returning from Morocco I gathered my notes in the mornings before work and read Alan Watts’ ‘The Way of Zen’ in the evenings, hoping to absorb some of the wisdom contained within its pages.
The only true reality is the present moment
One of the key insights of Zen is that the only true reality is the present moment. Great importance is attached to the practise of sitting quietly, paying attention to the passage of the breath. Long periods of quiet sitting come naturally to animals and even to so-called primitive people. We observed the Berber Shepherds of the Western Atlas doing so. The mountains were dotted with sitting spots that they had crafted from the environment, stone seats and tables, tiny hearths. Yet this habit is alien to most in the modern western world, where we can’t resist making predictions about the future and then rushing around trying to avert or actualise them. Zen says that to be incapable of sitting and watching with mind at rest is to be incapable of fully experiencing the world.
Why time is speeding up, and why we have so little of it
In our western worldview we are conscious of the present only as an ephemeral boundary between past and future. From this lack of attention to the present comes the ubiquitous sensation of “having no time”. This shortage of time is accentuated by our insistence on assembling a fixed idea of ourselves. We cross-reference selected memories of our past with a societally validated palette of roles and stereotypes and use the result to form an idea of ourself. This is what the Zen practitioner identifies as the illusion of the self.
Alan Watts describes how the feeling of life as something that flows past is a consequence of this illusion, this fixed idea of the self.
“The linear succession of time is a convention of our single track verbal thinking, of a consciousness which interprets the world by grasping little pieces of it, calling them names and events. But every such grasp of the mind excludes the rest of the world.”
The more we clutch at the world in attempt to bolster our idea of self, the more we experience it as a process in motion. The accumulation of memories and consequent fixing of the self is what causes the flow accelerate with age.
Spontaneity is the key
The key to living in the present moment and slowing the disquieting rush of time is spontaneity. Watts asserts that everything, including our decisions, happens spontaneously, like hiccups or a bird singing. The idea is that just as the mind body is capable of breathing, seeing, hearing and feeling without any conscious intervention, so it is capable of performing all the tasks necessary to move through life. This seems at odds with our ideas of free will, which give us the impression that we decide consciously to do things. But if this was the case we would have to decide to decide. And decide to decide to decide. And so on in an absurd and infinite recursive loop.
So while the mind body, the true self, attempts to get on with the business of navigating us through the world, the illusion of self heckles us to conform with a sculpted past and an imagined future, dividing the mind, resulting in paralysis and self doubt. We feel that we should not do what we are doing and do what we are not doing. The remedy lies in the natural sincerity of the undivided mind. In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit.
Going nowhere in a timeless moment
I think everyone reading this will identify with Watts’ assertion that the passage of time accelerates with age. I hope that you also concur with his claim that everyone experiences Zen occasionally. It is the sensation of ‘going nowhere in a timeless moment’, of catching a ‘vivid glimpse of the world which cast such a glow over the intervening wastes of memory’.
He gives a few examples:
- the smell of burning leaves on a morning of autumn haze
- a flight of sunlit pigeons against a thundercloud.
- the sound of an unseen waterfall at dusk,
- the single cry of some unidentified bird in the depths of a forest.
And to these I add my own:
- waking beside a waterfall of African snowmelt on a September morning
- the smell of mountain thyme crushed underfoot
- the purple horizon-band, foundation of sunset and sunrise.
- eroded foothills of the Atlas, red and shadowy in the low morning sun
Bringing the two worlds together
As a modern man, committed to spending nine hours a day inked into the absurd Dilbert strip that constitutes modern work, the best that I can hope for is to emulate the contemporary Japanese that Watts describes in the tea garden ‘belonging for a while to the Taoist world of carefree hermits, wandering through the windblown mountains, with nothing to do but cultivate a row of vegetables, gaze at the drifting mist, and listening to the waterfalls.’ I can aspire to ‘find the secret of bringing the two worlds together, of seeing the hard realities of human life to be the same aimless workings of the Tao as the patterns of branches against the sky.’
For five days in Morocco I did enter the carefree world of hermits. Zen is indeed an accurate description of the trip.
Some photos to finish…………..
Tasgint. The end of the road and the start of the ascent. From L to R Mike, Colin, Dan, Pete, Aziz the local teacher and a group of local youths