Many years ago someone I worked with asked me why I practiced meditation. Thinking about it, I wrote the following three answers:
1. Certainly the first and most important thing about Zen is its emphasis on being conscious. That is, awake. Right here, right now, with your attention focused on the present moment. The practice of Zen is called "zazen." Zazen is very simple, but very difficult. It is pure observation of the present moment. That's all it is. It is a patient, non-judgmental perception of the reality existing right now. Nothing could be more simple and direct. Yet to only observe the present moment is incredibly difficult for someone with no training because he habitually, compulsively (meaning he can't stop himself from doing it) adds stuff to the present moment that isn't actually there.
What he adds are his plans for the future, his opinions or judgments about reality, his memories, and on and on. We add so many things to just what's right here, right now that we essentially distract ourselves from it so much that we miss most of our lives. It goes by us while we are in our heads.
After practicing zazen for some time, you start to realize that almost all the stuff you have your attention on is not real. We pretty much ignore reality and occupy our attention with our thoughts, wishes, fantasies, judgments, opinions, mental rehearsals, memories, etc. Most of us are only half awake.
You are probably thinking, "Not me." Instead of believing your own opinion, let's test reality: Set an alarm for five minutes. For the full five minutes, try to keep your attention only on your breathing. If you try this experiment, you will know your opinion is "not me" but the reality is "yes, you" and this proves my exact point.
After attempting to keep your attention on reality, even for five minutes, even just the small amount of reality as your own breathing, you should be astonished at how entranced you are by your own mind. We are so entranced, we can't seem to observe reality. We keep getting sucked back into the compelling tornado of our own thoughts.
Now, of course, there's nothing wrong with thoughts per se, but most thoughts are worse than worthless. Most thoughts don't have any effect on your life. Worse, they distract you from your life.
Through patient observation, the Zen practitioner learns to distinguish between useless mind chatter and effective thinking, and gains enough control of his own mind that he can drop out the useless chatter, which turns out to be about ninety percent of what goes on in his mind. This frees up an enormous amount of attention, which he can then use to observe his actual reality. This makes him seem extremely wise to other people, and makes his actions amazingly (by sleepwalkers' standards) appropriate and fitting to the actual situations in which he finds himself.
Since what is right here, right now is all we can actually deal with, it's a pretty compelling argument to assert that the first and most important thing to learn in life is the ability to keep your attention fully in the present. After all, this present moment is your life.
2. When a person starts improving her ability to be conscious, she begins to experience many things which have always been there unnoticed. One of these unnoticed things, and a very important one, is her feelings. There are endocrinological and visceral responses (gut feelings) occurring constantly in her body of which she is habitually unaware. These feelings are a source of useful information, but only if she is conscious of them. When she is not conscious of them, they have more power over her behavior than they ought to. She acts from the feelings without knowing the source of her actions.
Acting from feelings to which she is numb makes her actions lack a certain amount of intelligence. Her actions have a reactionary flavor, an unthinking quality. She has the feeling that she "can't help it." Her reactions that stem from unfelt feelings are somewhat compulsive, blind, and inappropriate.
The source of her reactions may very well be (and often are) conditioned responses from her childhood which are now unsuitable for her present situation. It is useful to be conscious of these feelings and experience them, and learn from them, instead of acting them out.
Another way that being conscious of your feelings is useful is in being aware of your true feelings (as opposed to your conditioned feelings). Being conscious of your true feelings is important for many healthy reasons. As one example, let's look at those activities and relationships that would be healthy for you to be involved with. These activities and relationships feel right, but unless we're conscious of that right feeling, we may avoid those activities and relationships and choose other, less healthy activities and relationships because of our conditioning and habits.
A person's visceral and endocrinological responses can tell her a great deal if she is aware of them. For example, her nervous system perceives and records many things of which she isn't conscious. Let's say she's having a conversation with a man. She many not consciously detect the changes in his breathing, subtle changes in the timbre of his voice, the small changes of blood flow on the surface of his face, the small changes in the pupil dilation of his eyes as the conversation goes along, but these changes are being perceived and recorded by her nervous system. And her nervous system has been observing this kind of data for a long time. It just knows things sometimes, and that knowing is reflected in her visceral and endocrinological responses moment to moment.
If she is awake to those feelings, she'll know more about what's going on than she would otherwise. In a sense, then, a person's actions are more informed, more intelligent, when she is conscious of her feelings than when she isn't.
3. The third way Zen is the answer to life is the social implications of a conscious population. I'll bet it could be proven that a more conscious person would choose her spouse better than a relatively unconscious person. Think of the consequences of this one thing in the next generation of children. The conscious person would have a better grasp of the actual reality of her potential husband, and because of the nature of Zen training, she would know the difference between reality and her beliefs, opinions, and fantasies about reality. In this way she can see more clearly than an unconscious person. In fact, because of her superior ability to perceive reality, including the reality of her own feelings, her choice of career would also be more "right." She would get along better with people than a less-conscious person too, since she is dealing with the reality of the actual people, rather than the projections, the fantasies, and the transference that muddle up our usual perceptions of people.
Her relationships with her spouse and kids would be better, and she would be a model of conscious living for her children, who might then go forth and multiply in kind until all people on the earth were happy and alive and living in peace and harmony forever amen. Okay, I've gone too far.
Actually, I have a hard time imagining a large population of people on the earth being conscious, mainly because it is difficult to do. But it would be good. There would be more patience and tolerance, less lying and pretense, more appropriate activities, more balance, less consumption for the sake of production for the sake of consumption for the...etc.
Talking about the social implications of Zen is kind of a foolish indulgence for me to engage in anyway because "society" is a concept. It isn't real in the same sense that you are real right here and now. What there is in reality is you reading this. I know you can be more conscious, and my reality as I write this is that I could be more conscious, and if we were more conscious, I suspect our lives would be better and the people we have relationships with, their lives would be better (happier, healthier, more honest, more peaceful).
And we can become more conscious without any particular name for our practice. I like "zazen" because it is fun to say. Gurdjieff called it "self-observation." Too plain. Theravadan Buddhists call it "vipassana bhavana." Too hard to pronounce. Ellen J. Langer, PhD, professor of psychology at Harvard University calls it "mindfulness." Morita therapists call it "attention on reality." It doesn't matter what it's called. What matters is we practice being present and learn to experience our own life.
One good reason to sit down and practice being conscious, like a meditation every day, is that it's terribly difficult to do while engaged in everyday activities. It's difficult to be conscious in everyday activities. We're habitually unconscious most of the time, going through the motions with our minds wandering. Having a formal practice reminds us to be present and gives us some practice without many distractions.
Even with as few distractions as possible, it is still almost impossible at first. It takes regular practice over a long period of time. This may sound unnecessarily arduous, but when it's all said and done and our life has come to an end, I'll bet the last thing we'd regret about our lives is that we were conscious of it.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.