"We’re determined that life go as we want it to go. When it doesn’t, we’re angry, confused, depressed, or otherwise upset. To have such feelings is not bad in itself, but who wants a life dominated by such feelings? When attention to the present moment falters and we drift into some version of “I have to have it my way,” a gap is created in our awareness of reality as it is, right now. Into that gap pours all the mischief of our life. We create gap after gap after gap, all day long. The point of practice is to close these gaps, to reduce the amount of time that we spend being absent, caught in our self-centered dream. We make a mistake, however, if we think that the solution is that I pay attention. Not “I sweep the floor,” “I slice the onions,” “I drive the car.” Though such practice is okay in the preliminary stages, it preserves self-centered thought in naming oneself as an “I” to which experience is present. A better understanding is simple awareness: just experiencing, experiencing, experiencing. In mere awareness there is no gap, no space for self-centered thoughts to arise. At some Zen centers, students are asked to engage in exaggerated slow-motion actions, such as slowly putting things down and slowly picking them up. Such self-conscious attention is different from simple awareness, just doing it. The recipe for living is simply to do what we’re doing. Don’t be self-conscious about it; just do it. When self-centered thoughts come up, then we’ve missed the boat; we’ve got a gap. That gap is the birthplace of the troubles and upsets that plague us. Many forms of practice, commonly called concentrative meditation, seek to narrow awareness in some way. Examples include reciting a mantra, focusing on a visualization, working on Mu (if done in a concentrated way), even following the breath if that involves shutting out the other senses. In narrowing the attention, such practices quickly create certain pleasant states. We may feel that we have escaped from our troubles because we feel calmer. As we settle into this narrow focus, we may eventually go into a trance, like a drugged and peaceful state in which everything escapes us. Though at times useful, any practice that narrows our awareness is limited. If we don’t take into account everything in our world, both mental and physical, we miss something. A narrow practice does not transfer well to the rest of our life; when we take it into the world, we don’t know how to act and may still get quite upset. A concentrative practice, if we’re very persistent (as I used to be), may momentarily force us through our resistance, to a glimpse of the absolute. Such a forced opening isn’t truly genuine; it misses something. Though we get a glimpse of the other side of the phenomenal world, into nothingness or pure emptiness, there’s still me realizing that. The experience remains dualistic and limited in its usefulness. In contrast, ours is an awareness practice that takes in everything. The “absolute” is simply everything in our world, emptied of personal emotional content. We begin to empty ourselves of such self-centered thoughts by learning more and more to be aware in all our moments. Whereas a concentrative practice might focus on the breath, but block out the sound of cars or the talking in our minds (leaving us at a loss when we allow any and all experience back into consciousness), awareness practice is open to any present experience—all this upsetting universe—and it helps us slowly to extricate ourselves from our emotional reactions and attachments. Every time we have a complaint about our lives, we’re in a gap. In awareness practice, we notice our thoughts and the contraction in our body, taking it all in and returning to the present moment. That’s the hardest kind of practice. We’d rather escape this scene entirely or else stay immersed in our little upsets. After all, our upsets keep us the center of things, or so we think. The pull of our self-centered thoughts is like walking through molasses: our feet come out of the molasses with difficulty and then rapidly get stuck again. We can slowly liberate ourselves, but if we think it’s easy, we are kidding ourselves. Whenever we’re upset, we’re in the gap; our self-centered emotions, what we want out of life, are dominant. Yet our emotions of the moment are no more important than is replacing the chair at the table or putting the cushion where it should be. Most emotions do not arise out of the immediate moment, such as when we witness a child hit by a car, but are generated by our self-centered demands that life be the way we want it to be. Though it’s not bad to have such emotions, we learn through practice that they have no importance in themselves. Straightening the pencils on our desk is just as important as feeling bereft or lonely, for example. If we can experience being lonely and see our thoughts about being lonely, then we can move out of the gap. Practice is that movement, over and over and over again. If we remember something that happened six months ago and with the memory come upset feelings, our feelings should be looked at with interest, nothing more. Though that sounds cold, it’s necessary in order to be a genuinely warm and compassionate person. If we find ourselves thinking that our feelings are more important than what is happening at the moment, we need to notice this thought. Sweeping the walk is reality; our feelings are something we’ve made up, like a web we have spun in which we catch ourselves. It’s an amazing process that we put ourselves through; in a way, we are all crazy. When I see my thoughts and note my bodily sensations, recognize my resistance to practicing with them, and then return to finishing the letter I’m writing, then I’ve moved out of the gap into awareness. If we are truly persistent, day after day, we gradually find our way out of the gooey mess of our personal lives. The key is attention, attention, attention. Writing a check is just as important as the anguished thought that we won’t see a loved one. When we don’t work with the gap created by inattention, everyone pays the price. Practice is necessary for me, too. Suppose I hope that my daughter will visit me at Christmas, and she calls to say she’s not coming. Practice helps me to continue to love her, rather than becoming upset that she’s not doing what I want. With practice, I can love her more fully. Without practice, I would simply be a lonely and cantankerous old lady. In a sense, love is simply attention, simply awareness. When I maintain awareness, I can teach well, which is a form of love; I can place fewer expectations on others and serve them better; when I see my daughter again, I don’t have to bring old resentments into the meeting and am able to see her with fresh eyes. So the priority is right here and now. In fact, there’s only one priority, and that’s attention to the present moment, whatever its content. Attention means attention."