We are spending time these days with mindfulness of activities. That overlaps quite a bit with what is called "mindfulness in daily life." The list of things to be mindful of, in the texts we are going through, is quite extensive.
When I was practicing in Japan, in a Zen monastery, they had a practice called "gathas." They would recite gathas, four line verses. We were given a book of verses to memorize. Before we were going to eat, going to shower, wash our hands, go to the bathroom, sit, put on our clothes – all these ordinary activities we did – the idea was to recite these four verses that you memorized. They were specific for each activity. Each gatha was an aspirational verse, "As I do this activity, may I ..." As far as I remember, all of them had to do with dedicating it for the welfare of everyone, benefiting everyone by this activity.
When I was here in California at the Tassajara Zen monastery, they used a little bit of that. Mostly it was when we went to the baths. They had natural hot springs and piped water into the baths. It was a lovely place to go and shower, and then bathe. There was an altar as you entered. You would bow to the altar and recite the four line verse that was written above the altar. I do not remember exactly how it went, but something like "As I enter the bath with all beings, cleaning myself inside and out." Now I do not remember it all, but you would recite this.
We have one at the IRC, our retreat center, that was written a few years ago. I will read it to you. It has to do with handwashing. It is so important – when 40 people are living together, touching the same utensils, serving food and all – that everyone washes their hands before we use the buffet table and serve ourselves.
To emphasize the value of it, we have this little verse that is posted: "Cleaning my hands, I clean my heart and mind. Cleaning my heart and mind, I clean the world for others."
If you memorize these kinds of verses, when you do something, it takes a certain amount of attention and time to do it. You prepare yourself for it. You are funneling your attention, energy, and time to do the activity you are doing. You do not do things in a hurry when you recite a four line verse before you do it.
By doing this in a Zen monastery, it was training in learning how to take your time – slow down, do not be in a hurry, just do the thing you are doing when you are doing it. The idea of when you are doing something, just do it. When walking, just walk. When eating, just eat.
I thought I would read one but I do not have it here. Maybe tomorrow. Thich Nhat Hanh has a whole little book of these gathas, four line verses.
What I am trying to convey here is when you are practicing mindfulness of activities, do not do things in a hurry. This does not necessarily mean you have to slow down – you can do things fast, sometimes, without hurrying. Hurrying is being ahead of yourself. It is propelling yourself through something, or to the other side of it, as quickly as you can. Whereas mindfulness means being there for the activity. If something is done quickly, then be fully there as a surrender to the activity.
I was a fast order cook for a while, after being in the monastery. What I learned in the monastery about how to surrender to each activity and really be present for it, I then learned to do as a fast order cook. That is all I did. It was a dance of spinning and turning, and cooking many dishes at once. The only thing I did was all that. I surrendered to that dance. I would usually leave my job feeling more concentrated than when I entered because of how I gave myself over to it.
Giving yourself over to the activity without hurry. To live a mindful life, to live a life where there is some momentum for mindfulness to grow and enhance our life, grow in our life. It is valuable to bring a good quality of attention to what we are doing in the present moment.
I will go through this list again. "One acts in full awareness, when going forward and returning." If you go someplace – you have to go to the bathroom and come back – you have to go to the kitchen to get something and come back – you have to go to the bookcase to get something and come back. If you want, that time can be your meditation time.
That is a time for cultivating your capacity for awareness. It is not just to be aware of what you are doing, which is valuable. It is also what we are trying to do here with the Satipaṭṭhāna, these four foundations 'for' mindfulness – to do these activities so that awareness becomes stronger. Present moment awareness becomes more second nature than something you have to remind yourself to do. There is both – for the purpose of being present, and – for the purpose of enhancing and developing awareness. Awareness is like a muscle – you can develop it.
"One acts in full awareness when flexing and extending one's limbs" – if you are going to reach for something. In Thailand (I do not know if it is still there) there was a school of vipassana insight meditation, that relied not on breathing – maybe watching the movements of the belly as it comes and goes – but in this school, you watch your arm, as you move it. You would lift your arm, put it down to the side, lift the arm up, put it down to the side, and be very focused and concentrated on the sensations of that movement. The mind would get concentrated. A lot of calm would develop. For some people, movement of the arm was easier to track than breathing. Eventually, the people who did it a lot became concentrated there, and with the concentration, they would develop the further steps of vipassana.
"Bending and extending one's limbs. Wearing one's robes and carrying one's bowl." Putting on one's clothes, wearing them. For the monastics, being mindful of your robes is important because of one of the minor rules you can violate. Monks wear kind of a skirt and an outer robe over the skirt. The outer robe extends down to the edges of the skirt. The bottom of the robe, the hem, has to be lined up parallel to the bottom of your skirt. If you do not do that, then it is a little violation.
With the robes that monks wear, it takes a certain amount of mindfulness to keep them just right. You have to be attentive to your clothes. When I was a monastic, I was surprised by this, but I came to like this a lot, because it was a call to constantly be mindful, constantly be attentive here. Rather than seeing it as a nuisance, I saw it as a way of staying relaxed, not rushing ahead, and not getting complicated. Just staying present.
"One acts in full awareness when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting." The word for "tasting" apparently is not exactly "tasting," but more like "savoring." Certainly you do not want to be attached to it, but to be really present, to feel and sense the taste. Part of the lore in the records of the ancient Buddhist commentaries was that a lot of practitioners became enlightened while they were eating. There is something about that detailed attention.
The first real opening experience I had in Buddhist practice occurred while I was sipping a cup of tea. These simple things can be really powerful, if we are present for them and give ourselves over to them – sense them and be with them.
"Full awareness when defecating and urinating." Sometimes it is said a really good poop is kind of like a minor nibbana, minor awakening. So be present for these bodily functions we do every day.
"When walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent." I find it very nice, when I go to bed at night, to be present for the experience of being there – relaxing my body, being mindful, checking in, letting go of any stresses that are easy enough to let go of, and just be there, present.
My teachers in Burma wanted us to be aware right up to the moment of sleep – and actually be able to know if you fell asleep on the inbreath or the outbreath. I tried that for a long time. This is something I have never been able to do, so I have given up on that. And to be present when we wake up, and to know if you woke up in the inbreath or the outbreath. Also something I have never had been able to do. Then to wake up and begin mindfulness as soon as we remember.
What I have tried to convey today is is how valuable it is to practice in activities. It is both valuable because it gives heightened attention to what we are doing, which is nice. Also, it is a way of strengthening, developing our capacity for mindfulness, capacity for awareness. Each of the activities we do, as listed in this text, is quite valuable and has a lot of potential – even potential for realization, for waking up.
Drinking, eating our food, drinking tea, going to the bathroom. For all these things, you want to be present, because – who knows – maybe an activity you are doing today is the activity that is going to be really dharmically significant for you, for your practice. Really significant – you do not want to miss it. You do not want to have glossed over it. We do not know which one it is. Be be careful today with all your activities. Who knows which one will bear some wonderful fruit?
Here is a gatha from Thich Nhat Hanh – "Before starting the car, I know where I am going. The car and I are one. If the car goes fast, I go fast." Thank you, Barbara. There are lots of these wonderful verses. You can write your own four line verse as a way of supporting you to enhance your engagement with whatever you are doing.
Thank you. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow. Or being here with you tomorrow.