There I was, sitting in Japanese-style kneeling position on a hard wooden bench in an 800-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto Japan, trying to empty my mind in a breathing, open-eyed meditation. My eyes were focused in the middle distance, seeing all and seeing nothing. The soft smell of pine and burning incense filled the air, and all around me was quiet. At that almost perfect moment only one thing stood between me and enlightenment – well two, if you count the prickly feeling of my legs falling asleep. That one thing was a bald monk in a dark brown robe standing in front of me wielding a three-foot long stick over his head. His benign smile didn't fool me. He was ready to strike.
Let's Start at the Beginning
I've always felt I was pretty good with concentration and focus. You probably are too – after all we're nurses. We're used to working in an environment where the world around us is going haywire, people running left and right, procedures being done, orders given (or shouted), where lives hang in the balance while we concentrate on the task at hand. We intubate, defibrillate and resuscitate without a second thought. Total focus, right?
But ask yourself, are you really focused and concentrating or are you sleep-walking through events? While preparing the defib paddles you remind yourself to pick up Vaseline® for your baby. You tourniquet an arm and pop the first vial without thinking, yet the first time you put in an IV you were totally focused on every movement and probably apologized for the stick of the needle. Now the spaces blur between thoughts of past-present-future. In the cafeteria, while choosing from what passes as food, you're sizing up the veins on the people serving the food and worrying about the little girl upstairs who just got out of surgery. We've moved from doing our jobs with focus and concentration to doing them subconsciously, maybe even unconsciously.
Sure, we can focus and concentrate when there's a deadline. Any critical issue lasers our attention on the task at hand. But can we truly focus while the past and future intrude upon our thoughts? Are we fully present or just idling through the motions while our minds traipse away to a comment made somewhere else (like during the last staff meeting)? Are we giving our families, spouses, patients and attorney-clients the benefit of our full attention or are we cheating them of our wholehearted connection?
Jetting Back to Japan...
I had come to Kyoto to this ancient Zen Buddhist temple for expert advice, to learn to sharpen my ability to focus, not just to concentrate. The purpose of meditating with open eyes was to allow the Senior Monk to look in the eyes of his students as he walked the room, to see who was focused and who was sleeping or daydreaming. Now, for me there's a short distance between meditating and napping. That distance grows infinitesimally smaller for me if I shut my eyes. I also find myself following thoughts down rabbit holes instead of discarding or ignoring them when I meditate, so I was anxious for some instruction from a master. This exercise was designed to train us to stay grounded in the present.
My husband, Tom, and I, along with a visiting monk from another temple, sat in audience while the Roshi talked about meditation techniques. He was funny, self-deprecating and I immediately liked him. During breathing meditation, he explained, we would observe our thoughts from outside like watching a river. We were to count our breaths in and out. Our goal was to reach ten breaths without having a thought other than the count. If a random (or purposeful) thought intruded, we were to recognize it and start over at one. I asked the visiting monk next to me if he ever made it all the way to ten. He nodded. "Of course, many times. Once your mind is clear it is quite simple."
The Roshi asked if we were ready to start the "zazin" session. He explained that he would light an incense stick and strike a small gong, then we'd meditate for the period of time it would take for the stick to burn through. Afterward, he'd strike the gong again to remind us to return to the present. We settled in and I was ready to leap into the meditation. I heard him strike the match, ring the gong and there I went, my eyes focused in the empty space halfway to the large seated Buddha figure in the front of the room. Like everything I do, I was "all in."
One breath, in and out, so far so good. Two breaths, in and out, going well. Three breaths, in and – was that Tom rustling around? Darn. One, in and out. Two, in and so on. When the gong finally rang I'd never gotten past a count of four. The Roshi told me that was excellent for a first time. Tom still had his socks on, so I know he hadn't counted very high, either. The visiting monk flashed me a quick smile, so I knew he'd probably gotten to ten effortlessly.
The Roshi then asked if we'd like to do it for real. "For real?" I asked. "Wasn't that for real?" "No," he clarified. "It is easy to focus when you are alone with your thoughts in a temple such as this. But when there are other influences present and when you are elsewhere it is not so easy."
This is when the three-foot-long willow pole appeared. He pulled it from under his platform and explained that during the next meditation he would walk around the room observing each student as we meditated. If he felt that our focus was wandering, he would stop in front of us. At that point we were to bow and thank him. Then he would strike us on each shoulder to remind us to focus.
This is the goofiest thing I've ever heard of, I thought. How can getting whacked help you focus? I asked the visiting monk if it hurt. "That depends on you," he said, then winked and added, "Whacking does help one to clear the mind… after it stops stinging." Great, I thought. Too bad this guy's not old and frail. I just hope he's not trigger-happy.
Comes the Test
Ever ready for a challenge and buoyed by my past success of four breaths, I was prepared. I heard the match strike followed by the sound of the gong. I brought my focus to center. One breath, in and out. Two breaths, in and out…in the corner of my vision appeared a bald, 5' 6" man in grey robes and slippers tiptoeing around the room and brandishing a stick like a baseball bat. Alex Rodriguez in his Yankee's uniform holding a Louisville Slugger® would have been less obvious. The Roshi slowly crossed my field of vision moving left to right in front of us. My eyes stayed centered and unfocused. One breath, in and out. Two breaths, in and out. Three – is that Tom giggling? Is that me giggling? I struggled to stifle myself, but it was like laughing in church with my twin brother Vince back when we were five, only this time instead of a nun with a ruler there stood a monk with a great overhand swing waiting for me.
One breath, in and out. Back in control. Suddenly I glimpsed a movement to my right and sensed the monk next to me bowing. Then WHACK! a pause and WHACK! followed by silence. The monk beside me had obviously failed in his focus. Suddenly I wasn't present-focused either. My thoughts had strayed to the future and whether I was next to be whacked. The visiting monk's failure at reaching serenity was affecting my own attempts. One breath, in and out. The Roshi passed by me moving to the left. One breath in and out again. Two breaths, in and out. Focus inside, focus inside.
Again, I sensed movement to my left, then WHACK! It had to be Tom's left shoulder – seemed even louder than before. Was that a whimper? WHACK! Tom's right shoulder. Suddenly I was fully focused, not inside as I should be, but on the future. I was thinking I'm so out of here. I am not staying around for this.
My awareness immediately snapped to the present and there he was: the Roshi and his stick. Talk about fight or flight. I couldn't very well punch a man whose life was dedicated to peace and nonviolence. Flight wasn't an option either – after all I'd come here specifically to learn how to meditate. It wouldn't do to kick him in the shins and run screaming out of the temple with a horde of angry monks (like a bad chop-socky movie) chasing me to the nearest Starbucks for a calming cup of healthy green tea.
I remembered I was expected to bring my hands up and bow to the Senior Monk in thanks for two things: first for bringing to my attention the fact that I wasn't as focused as I believed I was, and second for the reminder to focus more thoughtfully. I bowed my head and then my body to the inevitable. WHACK! It stung like the dickens. WHACK! Okay, okay, it only stung for a minute.
I bowed again to the Roshi and resumed my open-eyed meditation. It was easy to find the middle distance when my eyes were full of water. One breath, in and out. Two breaths, in and out.
I Not Only Had Learned a Lesson, I Had Fully Accepted Its Meaning
Someone once told me, "Pain is inevitable, it is suffering that's optional." The pain of the stick came and went. Sure, I could have focused on the past and held a grudge. Or I could have focused on the future and worried about whether the Roshi would have time to circle the room again before that darn incense stick burned out. That's the optional suffering, the wandering around in the wilderness of our thoughts. Instead, I focused on the present. Where I was and what I was supposed to be doing: meditating. I had learned a simple lesson taught the same way for hundreds of years.
The lesson to focus only on the present came home with me from Japan along with some cool placemats and the nifty electronic stuff Tom had to buy in Tokyo. As the weeks went by, I meditated periodically. Then suddenly I was whacked with a reminder. As I write this I'm on an airplane to Philadelphia. We left today, Friday, instead of Sunday, as Hurricane Ike blows in from the Gulf toward my home. The office is shut down, my employees are preparing for the storm and the airport will be closing.
Yesterday at work, everyone was focused on the future, the hurricane, the potential for damage. My friends and family were calling me to see how we were (fine – the storm wasn't due for two more days). I found myself applying the lesson I'd learned in Japan. I was able to put aside the future – after all, I had no control over it. Tom and I had already cleaned the yard, secured the plants and protected our artwork. All I could do was focus on the present and the work at hand – the next Ezine, our recommended software upgrades, all the things I do in a day. While everyone else was running around worried about something beyond their control, I experienced one of my most productive days ever, and without a stick-wielding monk threatening me.
When things are blowing up around you, you may need to give yourself a whacking to get it under control. Remember that monk and remember to keep your focus in the present. Focus on what you can do now and on what you are doing now. Whack all distractions aside. By keeping your thoughts on what you can do now – not what you might do, hope to do or didn't do, you'll be the calm in the center of any storm.
I'm not sure how long I'll retain this precious gift. But as long as I'm here in the present, I'm going to put my all into being here.
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Vickie L. Milazzo, RN, MSN, JD is the founder of Vickie Milazzo Institute, a legal nurse consultant training and certification company. Vickie is credited by The New York Times with pioneering the legal nurse consulting profession in 1982. The Institute also provides a directory that will assist an attorney in a finding a qualified expert medical witness for their case.
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