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The Cloud Chamber

Even though we may know intellectually that each day, each moment is new, it seems sometimes that we can't help encumbering our experience with a whole cloud of memory and expectation. Can we learn to pay attention to our life as we're living it? We can begin with a practice of mindfulness, paying attention to the moment's sensory input, and this can certainly help us be more "present" in some ways, but many of the psychological interesting sorts of expectations we carry around are largely unconscious  and rarely come directly into our awareness. Likewise we can practice concentation in the zendo, and learn to intensely focus on a koan. But the danger is that we can use our capacity to concentrate merely to push the cloud of our expecations to the periphery - out the the zendo,  at least temporarily, but still very much present in our daily lives.

How then should we proceed? It does no good for us to will or exhort ourselves to be more "aware," "mindfull" or "present." That just sets up a new layer of expectation. Perhaps we can see a parallel with a therapist who is trying to be empathic. If they assume that empathy is simply intuition, they may think they either have it or they don't, and not see anyway to work at developing it. If they think empathy is a feeling or state they ought to be in when they talk to patients, they are just creating an unreal expectation for themselves - that they should be able to will themselves into this state all the time. For that kind of therapist, the work is continually exhausting, "an impossible profession." But for a real professional, empathy means developing certain techniques of inquiry, a certain stance, and style of questioning that gradually will illuminate the other person's idiosyncratic point of view. And it turns out that one of the main ways we learn empathy is through its failures - we pay special attention to where the other felt mis-understood - and we thus we get to see that a way of looking at things or asking a question that we thought perfectly common-sensical or routine, was nothing of the sort - instead it was our idiosyncratic point of view that bumped into something precisely because we took it for granted and thought it perfectly neutral or innocuous.

Let me suggest another metaphor. A cloud chamber is a device particle physicists use to study subatomic particles that cannot be observed directly. But as they pass through the chamber, the particles bump into the cloud droplets, leaving an observable trail. The zendo serves as our cloud chamber, and the trail we watch out for is a trail of anger, pain and disappointment. These traces let us know that an expectation - even an unconscious expectation about how we should be, be treated, be able to handle ourselves etc. - has passed through. Because even if we can't initially put our finger on an exact way to put the expectation into words, we know when we're in pain or angry. Gradually, the more we study the traces in the zendo cloud chamber, the more we will be able to discern patterns of expectation, patterns we call our core beliefs. And then, as we notice them more and more directly, we can notice and label them simply as arising and passing thoughts, thoughts that do not need to be changed or eliminated, but simply watched as part of our mental landscape. And at last we are present in that landscape, not because we have designed or learned to control it, but because we are ourselves are the landscape and are at home in ourselves.