Mindful Living

Samu: Training the Mind to Stay Present

By Dhi Good //

“Meditation in the midst of activity is a thousand times superior to meditation in stillness.”  Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku

Samu is work practice, meditation in the midst of activity. In Japanese Zen monasteries, samu involves the work of keeping the monastery clean, the monks fed, the buildings and grounds maintained. One could consider it a break from the rigors of zazen, or sitting meditation. Or it could be one of the most challenging and rewarding meditation practices available to a sincere practitioner. 

As a Zen Buddhist in the 1990’s, I loved all aspects of the meditation experience. The little Zen garden with a cherry tree leading to the zendo. The persistent call of the wooden han, signaling it was time to enter the zendo, or meditation hall. The clean wooden floor lined with brown meditation cushions. Chanting the opening and closing liturgies, koan practice, the stories and dharma talks about ancient Zen masters. But samu was something else — not formal zazen, and not merely doing chores. It was neither, and both! Doing samu one could get a glimpse of what life might be like for a Zen master, where the line blurs between deep meditation and doing mundane things. As Layman Pang, a Zen Buddhist from the 8th century, wrote:

My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity:
Drawing water and chopping wood.

What separates Layman Pang and any other person doing chores? My guess is that Layman Pang was at one with whatever he did, neither resisting nor clinging to whatever reality presented. Such “supernatural power” is what we call ordinary magic in the Shambhala tradition. Ordinary magic is when the heavy veils of ego and discursive thought disappear and nothing separates the self from the exquisite nature of reality.

Why Now?

Surely, Layman Pang understood that life’s most precious aspect is found only here: in this present moment. Moment by moment we have the opportunity to experience life 100 percent, in glorious 3-D, technicolor, surround-sound. Now is where it’s at. Now is where life happens. In a sense, it’s all there is. 

Yet we humans get quite creative in avoiding the present moment. Life can be boring, painful, repetitive, or ugly. We may wish to be anywhere, any time except for here and now. We habitually filter our experience through thick overlays of memories, ideas, preferences, opinions, fantasies, daydreams, worries, plans, hopes and internal dialogue. Consequently, at the end of the day, we often wonder where the day went. Then we do it all over again. 

Being creatures of habit, the patterns of living in our heads (Strategizing! Rehearsing! What-iffing!) become deeply ingrained, and we hardly even notice the constant churn of concept running through the mind day and night. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche referred to it as “discursive thinking,” which can be defined as passing aimlessly from one subject to another. The mind rambles and digresses, or hops excitedly from topic to topic like a wild monkey chattering in the wind. 

The antidote to avoiding the present moment is, obviously, to stay present, regardless of the circumstance. Simple, and yet so very challenging! Wisdom traditions from many cultures teach meditation as a way to work with a wayward mind, as a path to enlightenment. Meditation is how humans train the mind to “Stay,” just like we train a puppy to stay. With the ability to stay present, we can fully bear witness to life in all its comedy, tragedy, drudgery, and majesty. Then we can experience “the whole catastrophe,” as Zorba the Greek would say. 

Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation is a means to tame and train the mind. It can also be an end unto itself, abiding peacefully in the present moment. Sitting on a cushion or in a chair, the meditator places the mind on an object, such as the breath. When the mind rests on the object or anchor, that can be called mindfulness. When the mind wanders, awareness brings us back. With this process of meditation, the practitioner strengthens both mindfulness and awareness. 

Just like a distance runner builds a “base” through running regularly, meditators build a base of meditation practice. Eventually, the mind settles more easily. Habits of mind become more apparent, giving the meditator opportunities to choose which habits to cultivate and which to discard. Over time, one who meditates can enhance powers of concentration, present-moment awareness, and mental clarity. 

Consistent meditation allows one to extend the benefits of “peaceful abiding” meditation into the daily activities of life. If sitting meditation requires effort and discipline, meditation in action demands much more. This must be why Zen Master Hakuin declared, “Meditation in the midst of activity is a thousand times superior to meditation in stillness.” Samu offers a way to skillfully bridge the gap between formal meditation and everything else in life. 

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About the Author

Dhi Good is a senior teacher (retired Shastri) in Shambhala, who studied Zen intensively for 10 years. She teaches mindfulness at work for non-meditators and works as a communications consultant for nonprofit organizations.