Esteemed Reader: Living Fully in Each Moment | February 2022 | Esteemed Reader | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
A fox at Wildpark Bad Mergentheim.

“When you do a thing,” he said once, “do it with the whole self. One thing at a time. Now I sit here and I eat. For me nothing exists in the whole world except this food, this table. I eat with my whole attention. So you must do—in everything. When you write a letter, do not at the same time think what will be the cost of laundering a shirt; when you compute laundering cost, do not think about the letter you must write. Everything has its time…this is the property of Man, not man in quotation marks.”
—Kathryn Hulme quoting Gurdjieff in her memoir Undiscovered Country

Even a glimmer of introspection reveals a need for inner work. I see the disordered, suggestible state of my mind; the wild, reactive character of my emotions; the tension and clumsiness of my body. I apprehend the weakness of my attention, its fickleness and passivity. I have a nagging sense that this person, though called by a singular name, is in fact a multiplicity, dragged in myriad directions by whatever impulse or motive is king for the moment.

When I can stay with the observation of my state as it is, I come to a feeling of lack, the sense that something more is possible. I wish to undertake some inner work that will lead to a state of harmony, unity, and self-knowledge. It dawns on me that this must be a primary purpose of my life—to make use of all the available material and circumstances to prepare something finer of this being that was born, lives, and will soon die.

In a letter to his brother, the 18th-century poet John Keats wrote, “Call the world if you please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’”

The word “soul” in Keats’ pronouncement sounds archaic if not religious, but then that was the language of the day, its usage as yet unsullied by an updated worldview. A further explanation in the letter clarifies his meaning:

I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read—I will call the human heart the hornbook used in that School—and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that school and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?

The marketplace offers manifold versions of meditation and inner work. Most make shallow promises of greater effectiveness and an improved personality. Some have a distinctly religious character. Others, drawn from alien cultures and epochs, are conveyed in a form with little application to accelerated modern life.

Genuine inner work arises from something objective, namely the potential evolution of a human being. To have value its method must be efficient, direct, and eminently applicable. What could be more direct than simply bringing the fullest possible attention to the material of life—my own life, inner and outer, as it unfolds moment by moment?

One could say this is the basis of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, but in practice the label and method quickly falls away. Employing practices inevitably leads to the conclusion that general techniques are tools too crude for accomplishing the task at hand.

There is only this—this brushing my teeth; this writing a letter; this eating a sandwich; this driving my car; this having a conversation; this singing a song; this making love. Within each moment lies an immanent practice, a mode of inner work to be fulfilled.

A traditional Zen story* about a teacher in the tradition illustrates and expands the point.

When Bankei was preaching at Ryumon temple, a Shinshu priest, who believed in salvation through the repetition of the name of the Buddha of Love, was jealous of his large audience and wanted to debate with him.

Bankei was in the midst of a talk when the priest appeared but the fellow made such a disturbance that Bankei stopped his discourse and asked about the noise.

“The founder of our sect,” boasted the priest, “had such miraculous powers that he held a brush in his hand on one bank of the river, his attendant held up a paper on the other bank, and the teacher wrote the holy name of Amida through the air. Can you do such a wonderful thing?”

Bankei replied lightly: “Perhaps your fox can perform that trick, but that is not the manner of Zen. My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.”

With a vigilant noticing, I may look into the mirror of my life and see myself, and into myself, to understand how to transform my life. 

*Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps

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