Shambhala Sun | May 2014
The World Catches Us Every Time
A mysterious beast captures your attention. Is it
distracting you or calling you? It can be hard to tell, says Zen teacher
JOHN TARRANT, what’s distraction and what could have real meaning for
Either way, there’s no going back.
Abiding nowhere, the heart comes forth
Distracted from distraction by distraction
When people ask
about distraction, I suppose they mean something like my life: I am leaving the
house but I can’t find my truck keys. By the time I find them, mysteriously, my
phone has gone missing. While I’m looking for the phone, it rings—it’s my
friend, also my board president. Then the sheep make a hullabaloo about
something so I walk down to the paddock, but it is just a kind of sheep party
with baaing, while the border collie cheers from the sidelines. I feed the
sheep alfalfa, come in, and sit down to write.
friend has cancer, someone wants a bio, a friend who’s a physicist has cool
things to say about koans, my daughter opens a Google hangout from Tokyo and
wants to talk about Jane Austen and also new uses of Ngram Viewer. I open Ngram
Viewer, which gives the frequency of a word’s use over time, and it turns out
that the words “distraction” and “distracted” were most used in Jane Austen’s
time but are on the rise again.
And wait, here’s a
link to a piece that claims that the thylacine, the Tasmanian marsupial tiger,
which is a sort of totem of mine, isn’t actually extinct. With so much going
on, it seems that I don’t need to leave the house after all.
Nothing is wrong
with any of those chunks of experience. The question is whether I can have
enough space and silence inside them to take them in and claim them as my life.
Distraction can have a long arc, and until the end of the story, you can’t say
what’s a distraction and what’s a calling.
Sometimes We’re Not
Doing It Wrong
people usually mean that they were doing something and then switched to doing
something else. Everyone’s mind does this a lot; fetching around is a
consequence of evolution. We like to discover things and change our minds about
the evidence; it’s why detective shows are popular. If my mind switches
thoughts on me and I find the new state painful, or if I get fired for being on
Facebook instead of the teleconference I had agreed to be on, I might think
I’ve been distracted. If my thoughts jump about like puppies that want a walk,
I might call my new state “madness,” which is a venerable meaning for
“distraction.” Shakespeare uses it that way with regard to Hamlet. Telling
myself I’m distracted is a way of yanking on the leash and struggling to get
back to equilibrium.
The idea of
distraction implies that there is a baseline way of experiencing the world,
which we find familiar if often uncomfortable. We think we ought to avoid
distraction since it takes us away from our baseline. But the opposite is
equally likely—distraction might be an opening, it might be helpful
If my new state of
mind is exciting, I might call it a discovery. I could be on the trail of what
I love, in which case I would be destroying my equilibrium in a positive sense.
Sometimes we are not doing it wrong.
Since all moments
have their virtue, there’s not a wrong moment to have. Let’s say I’m sitting in
the night, meditating, and suddenly I notice the voices of frogs: ribbit,
ribbit in American, croar, croar in Spanish. The sounds open in me
such a sense of delight and spaciousness that I am lost. I could listen
So in meditation I
don’t think, “Wait, what was I supposed to be doing with my mind before these
creatures hopped in? There’s something I need to get back to.” I forget who I
am and trust that somehow I am being carried and all the time it’s fine and
whatever I need to do next will appear when its time arrives.
That’s one sense of
“Abiding nowhere, the heart comes forth.” Things step forward to meet me and I
think, “Yes, this is what I came here for.” It might be something simple—a
sound or a child running to the door. I’m not wondering whether this moment is
good or bad; it’s beyond all that. Inside each shard of time is a glow
everlasting. Getting lost and distracted in this way is what life is for.
Imaginary States of Mind
I notice I make
stuff up about what my mind was like before I was distracted, when actually it
was about as distracted as it is now. I can’t find a baseline to return to. I
don’t really need somewhere to stand outside of where I am. Which is lucky
because there isn’t such a place. Not knowing where I am is intrinsic to creativity
early in my life, when I would wander up the road to get kindling and come back
two hours later with arms full of sticks and memories of strange trees. When I
first went on meditation retreat we were told, “Don’t look at the mountains.
Don’t look at each other.” It was a kind of fasting of the eyes, but it seemed
in other ways to be building a prison rather than breaking out of one. I had
learned to sit looking out over wild valleys and mountains, watching the world be
itself, and learning to bear being myself. This spring I like watching the
narcissus push up out of the frost, the golden winter lemons that seem to lodge
in my heart, the finches like jeweled, excitable tears. Watching things can
also be meditation.
Someone in a recent
retreat had a kind of dream vision. She was a very experienced meditator
but as a person seemed inaccessible, as
if wherever she went, she was balancing something that might spill. In her
vision, she was meditating inside a large paper bag and had cut out a round
hole, making a window. She had a view out of the hole. But then she reached
out, picked up the round piece of paper, and began to sew it back in place.
It’s an endearing dream, since it gives her an image for what she’s doing in her
life and shows that the barrier around her is paper thin. Noticing seems like a
move toward freedom.
A Distraction Is a
Long ago and far
from here, a pilgrim was travelling in the hills. His thoughts were like clouds
and dreams. He forgot to think, since there wasn’t anyone to think. He became
lost in his walking.
He rounded a bend,
and on the opposite wall of the canyon there was a peach tree in blossom. The
blossoms were white with crimson in the center. No veil separated him from
them, and suddenly the peach blossoms were him. The tree, the river, the
birds, the sunlight, the morning cold—everything was peach blossoms. He laughed
out loud. His name was Lingyun, and he wrote:
For thirty years I searched for a master swordsman.
How many times did the leaves fall,
and the branches burst into bud?
But from the moment I saw the peach blossoms,
I’ve had no doubts.
It can be a
shock—the heart coming forth. Anything, anything that we meet, is a peach
blossom. An email about cancer, a phone call, the winter moonrise. When
we truly meet any part of the universe, we recognize it. It feels
like I’m seeing my own face. The things I thought I needed to be happy, I don’t
need. I don’t need the perfectly respectable life that everyone wants. Mainly I
don’t need to know what happens next. My own life is an unknown path through
another poet across the sea, in Japan, wrote touchingly:
The village peach trees
were not aware of their own crimson
but still they freed Lingyun
from all his doubts.
particularly koan meditation, distracts you until, barely noticing how, you
start to accept the strange magic of your life. It’s beyond effort or
concentration. There’s no separation between you and what you’re paying attention
to. You do what you love, and the simplicity of what’s here and now is called
A Few Things to
Enjoy About Distractions
1. Distractions sort themselves out if we
have the courage to turn toward what we love. Meditation practice helps us
notice what we love.
2. What’s here has its own life. What’s
here is it. We don’t have to hurry through the now. Now is not on the way to something
3. If you feel distracted, trying to get
back to a previous state of mind won’t help. There isn’t a there to get back
to. The only place available is in the distraction you are trying to get away
4. Not only is there not a place to get
back to, there’s not a me to get back to either. You can’t take hold of the
past mind. That idea of myself was just made up anyway.
5. It helps to allow room for the universe
to come to meet us. The reason I stop texting or checking my notifications is
so I can experience more life. It’s the same reason I don’t reach for a
credential or an identity when I meet a stranger. A credential is a form of
6. Even if you don’t stop texting at your
uncle’s funeral, where you are is still it.
7. We rush through the moment by working
out of a story about who the other person is, or who we are. But we don’t have
to put a story world in front of everyone we meet.
8. Meditation is not about manufacturing a
state of mind that’s clear, calm, or full of insight. It’s about interfering
less and less with what is actually here.
9. The nature of mind is to move. Your
mind doesn’t always consult you before it moves. That’s okay, kindness applies
to our own minds as well as to others.
10. There is not
anything that’s not meditation. You are the universe that you are in, so the
thing you think you are not, you’re that too.
the Heart Comes Forth
Oh and as I was
saying before I was distracted…about thylacines. In Mole Creek, in Tasmania,
there was an ordinary old-fashioned pub with a dark-wood interior, like
something out of Tolkien. (It’s still there but I hear it’s fancier now.) It
served farmers and wildlife people with weathered hands and creaky knees,
smoking in the corners. Inside the pub were posters, letters, and clippings
about the thylacine, and it was clear that the place was devoted to the notion
that the thylacine still exists in some dimension of the universe—as a mythical
beast like, say, a griffin. On the walls I read of a theory that our holding
the thylacine in reverie is itself a kind of existence for it. I found the
perhaps-not-quite-extinct creature touches on the nature of things—that we
don’t have to know where our mind is, or where it belongs. It belongs in the
universe; it is universe. Every time we are distracted, we are falling into the
Earth and the stars. The world catches us each time.
No matter how many
losses we have, the world doesn’t forget to be itself. There’s not a world to go
back to before it became the way it is, before the climate changed or the
catastrophe happened. We can’t go back to a time before, but we can accompany
each other; we can show up for what is here. Abiding nowhere sides with the
involuntary, the gift of the world, the heart that appears in every moment. As
I write this, the hills are brown with drought, the gray whales are migrating
around the Point Reyes Light, and a few apricot blossoms are struggling out
into frosty air. Just to breathe, to walk about, to see fog over the coastal
range is a joy that cannot be numbered or managed or lost. Abiding nowhere, the
heart comes forth.
John Tarrant is the director of Pacific Zen
Institute and the author of Bring
Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life.
Illustraton(s) by Mark T Morse.