The words of the great Zen masters reflect their profound realization of fundamental unity and the integration of it into their lives. A critical facet of the Three Steps to Mindfulness is finding that unity for ourselves. Now, this experience is so far from our regular view of the world that to get there we usually have to take a giant leap.
In ancient China, Zen monks and nuns would spend decades practicing silent meditation, grappling with their private demons, struggling to take this great leap to mental freedom. For this they threw away their possessions as well as their attachments to family, status and worldly gain. Shaving their heads and wearing cast-off rags sewn into robes, they entered monasteries to devote their lives to seeking enlightenment. For some, the only instruction they would receive would be to simply sit with inner and outer silence - they were expected to discover for themselves how to make that leap. For all, the strict monastic discipline was a constant force stripping away their mental and physical habits down to the bare, clear awareness.
Finally, after endless hours of searching, of teetering on the edge of that vast chasm, they had become quiescent and ready for the great leap. Then, something quite ordinary but unexpected would happen - the sound of a bell, a thunderclap, or even a pebble striking a bamboo tree – and the world of unity suddenly opened up. What had been right in front of them the whole time was now perfectly obvious, and because of all those years of steady practice there would be no backtracking - they owned the experience unshakably. Having explored all avenues in the mind they were fully aware of what the thinking mind can and can’t do, so staying in the realm of enlightenment became a clear choice they could make.
This really is the best way, because the experience rests on the firm foundation of years of practice. But what if, instead of spending those years preparing to take the giant leap to Nirvana, you could break it up into a series of well-defined steps? What if these steps could bring you a glimpse of the fundamental Truth at the beginning of the process? How much time would you save, that might otherwise be spent groping in the dark?
Let me illustrate this with an incident from my own life. I was a musician living on the road in my early twenties. The life of the traveling musician has interesting parallels with the life of the wandering monk – each leaves home to become immersed in their way of life 24 hours a day, and each sets aside hours each day to practice. Of course, musicians are temporary wanderers, retaining a home base, and returning there after each tour, but even at home music is their main focus.
At one point I was the guitar player in a dance band based in Lake Tahoe, California. During a break from touring I was staying with one of my bandmates, who had noticed how poor my diet was. He tried to help by suggesting healthier alternatives from time to time. One day he offered me some yogurt, which I had never tasted before. Being open-minded I gave it a try, but it was just too sour for me to eat (in those days of the mid 1970’s, commercially prepared yogurt wasn’t as sweet as it is today). Next he suggested I try some kefir, which at that time was often blended with various fruits. Kefir is also a fermented milk product, but its tartness was masked by the sweetness of the fruit, and I found it quite tasty. After a week or so of drinking kefir I tried yogurt again – this time I liked it. What was different? It was the same brand of yogurt that I had tried before, but once I was used to the small amount of sour flavor in the kefir, taking the next step to the sourness of the yogurt was easy – I no longer had to leap the uncrossable distance there. Now - what if we could make this kind of intermediate step toward mental clarity?
This is the key to the Three Steps. Instead of expecting ourselves to make the Giant Leap, which for most of us is simply not possible without the support of years of meditation experience, we break the process down to a series of steps. Like jumping from rock to rock to cross a wide stream, this lets us become comfortable with our progress after each step, and when it’s time for the final leap it will be within reach.