05/03/2012 06:29 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2012

The Inner Compass of Being

"Ten thousand flowers in Spring,
The moon in Autumn,
A cool breeze in Summer,
Snow in Winter.
If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
This is the best season of your life."
-- Wu-men

It's not as if you haven't been working on yourself for a while now. Exercise, diet, personal study, meditation, relationship, ethical work, social action, supportive friendships and all the other things that make for a meaningful life these days -- it's not as if you haven't applied yourself with real seriousness of purpose.

But still, there are those nagging worries and persisting stresses and unbidden thoughts that continue to recur despite your best efforts. Setting Wu-men's poem above as a standard, you ask yourself what season your life is in and you are certain that, exceptional moments aside, your mind is too often clouded by unnecessary things.

Is there a time-tested course of action that actually allows us to reach -- and sustain -- the peace of mind Wu-men describes? Is there an inner compass we can trust to guide our steps to an enduring sense of well-being in these turbulent times?

"Within the mind, there is yet another mind.
That mind within the mind: It is an awareness that precedes words."
-- Nei-yeh, trans. Harold D. Roth

Wu-men is not, of course, simply talking about the four seasons. He is hinting at the moment-to-moment practice of Being instead of Thinking. It is a practice shared by many ancient traditions, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen. In essence, it is a simplified practice embodying a sophisticated philosophical system -- one that aims at the individual's direct, sustained experience of the core sense of being.

As the Nei-yeh points out, this sense of Being is the deeper structure of awareness underlying our everyday consciousness. It is this everyday consciousness that we experience as an on-going commentary, or narrative, on our lives. It is called Thinking, as distinct from Being, because it is marked by its dependence on language: being a description of what we are experiencing, it requires words and concepts to formulate and categorize raw experience.

It is in this sense that the ancient Taoist text, Nei-yeh, directs our attention to the "awareness that precedes words." This awareness is pure Being, the completely natural and normal state of mind that is aware without thinking about what it is aware of -- an awareness that is not describing its experiences to itself. Whereas Thinking has objects of thought, Being is a unitary experience in which there is no self-other dichotomy.

"In fact, there is no distinction between the viewer and the seen."
-- Lieh-tzu

This unitary awareness is older than Thinking. Rather than something we create in ourselves, it is an awareness to which we return. We return to original Being when we simply allow our habitual Thinking to slow to a stop by entering each mind-moment without any inclination.

Entering the moment with a sense of open Being expands our everyday awareness and allows us to experience ourselves as utterly belonging with the world. Rather than leaning into the moment with a habitual mood or set of preconceptions, we step into each moment anew and merge with our surroundings like "pouring water into water."

"There is, so I believe, in the essence of everything, something that we cannot call learning. There is, my friend, only a knowledge that is everywhere."
-- Hermann Hesse

This sense of shared knowing is a hallmark of Being. It is the direct, firsthand sense of the intuitive understanding that permits learning to occur at all. Reconnecting with this "knowledge that is everywhere" allows us to enter each moment without referencing any precedents: It opens us to the oceanic experience of the Being of the world-as-it-is, without any preconceptions interfering with our freedom to respond to circumstances with all the generosity, goodwill and loving-kindness of the whole Itself.

No one advocates, of course, for willful ignorance. Wisdom, in point of fact, consists of life-long learning. But wisdom also consists of knowing how to step back from the tiresome rehashing of unnecessary thoughts, so that we might establish a center of compassionate equanimity and objectless joy from which to replenish our spirit. Every generation has its distractions that need to be overcome in order for its individuals to return to the sense of harmonious balance that makes life worth living. No generation, however, has ever had the array of distracting technologies that we possess -- which makes it all the more important that we listen to the voices of wisdom from the past and disengage from that "mind clouded by unnecessary things" whenever we can.

"Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good."
-- Soren Kierkegaard

The practice of Being isn't to withdraw from the world and into ourselves -- it is to recognize that Thinking itself is a withdrawal from the world into ourselves. It is to recognize that Thinking distances us from who and what is actually present around us, trapping us in our own heads where we think about living instead of fully living.

In this sense, real well-being doesn't depend solely on unplugging from all the external distractions. It also entails unplugging from all the internal distractions, regularly stopping all our mental work and relishing extended periods of idle Being. There are many activities that can aid our return to Being but none will take us where we want to go so long as our minds are occupied elsewhere. It is for this reason that the great Zen teacher, Dogen, instructs us to consistently "Think not-thinking".

"Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are."
-- Chinese Proverb

The footsteps of those who found the way before us lead away from the secondary nature of Thinking and back toward our primary nature of pure awareness: Once we reorient ourselves to the true lodestar of Being, the needle of our inner compass points ever to the best season of our life.

For more by William Horden, click here.

For more on consciousness, click here.

'The Toltec I Ching,' by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden, has been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, "64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World," hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.

Two companion volumes, The Five Emanations, and The Spiritual Basis of Good Fortune, have recently been published, in print and e-book formats, that expand on carrying the practices forward in the modern world.