I am sitting in the Integral Coffee Shop off Michigan Avenue and watching the people passing by on the sidewalk, a constant stream of purposeful young businessmen, mothers with babies in strollers, Asian tourists with cameras ready, couples hand in hand, two women talking intently, heads bent close together. Behind them is a homeless veteran with a cardboard sign and a young woman selling Streetwise. If you sit in the same place you will see some of the same people at the same time every day. Then there is the steady river of traffic: taxis, police cars, SUVs, delivery vans, Uber drivers, the blue bicycles of the city’s DIVVY program, ambulances, lumbering city buses linked together with accordions, and on and on in a never-ending stream. Behind them are the massive buildings constructed of steel, stone, and glass. Even though they look like they will last forever, they are constantly being torn down and new architectures erected.
The human traffic pours over the streets and sidewalks and buildings which control and direct them. Moving through this landscape are the changing weather patterns that impact everything you see: traffic slows down as the thunderstorm hits, umbrellas pop out, people lean into the wind, they pull their coats tighter around their shoulders and hurry down the street. The weather changes and they throw off their coats and bask in the sun, drinking its light in the deep canyons of the city. Then there are t-shirts and shorts, bright flowered sundresses and sandals everywhere. Suddenly, people are smiling at complete strangers. The whole scene is a show; your eyes and ears are quickly captured by something —a striking face, a little white dog, a man in a wheelchair, a crew planting white orchids, a sign on a bus—but it all quickly passes by. And all you are left with are the impressions and the stories you make about it.
It seems to me just like our minds. There is an ongoing parade of thoughts, ideas, concepts, traffic of every kind. All of it is moving through the architecture of our beliefs, our values, our skyscrapers of meaning. Our thoughts pour into those buildings and get busy there. They might work in the same tiny cubicle for twenty years, without a single window to the outside.
The weather that conditions it all is our emotion states, also swiftly passing through, but influencing what protections we wrap ourselves in, how closed or open we feel, how anxious or easy, how we think, move, and speak. Far beyond is the bright sky, unaffected by all that passes through it, people, cars, buildings, clouds, rain, trees, stone, thoughts, and feelings. This is the bright luminous consciousness in which everything arises and passes away, moves and is brought to light in our awareness.
Sitting in that coffee shop, sipping a cup of green tea, I could enjoy the splendid spectacle of the whole tapestry of movement, life, energy, information, and the human experiences of ambition, joy, despair, connection, separation, struggling to make sense of the world, building, destroying, and building again.
When we sit in zazen, it is just like this. Just watch, with open curiosity and wonder, all that passes before your awareness: thoughts, stories, dialogues, characters, sense perceptions, emotions, and internal structures through which everything moves and is channeled. Be still, and quiet, for this little while. Soon enough, the tea is gone, the bell rings, zazen ends. We bow, and then we open the door and step out onto the street.
Here are a few photos from my morning run: https://www.flickr.com/photos/syverson/sets/72157654666708826