Aspen Zen

Just now is enough: a Zen student and veteran ski patroller continues to develop the practice of mindfulness.
Photo by Burnham Arndt

by Tim Cooney

Under a razor-blue Colorado sky, the visiting Tibetan lama directed me from the ground below how to hang prayer flags on the roof of our summer ranger and winter ski patrol headquarters on top of Aspen Mountain. As I straddled an antenna spar, stretching an arm to attach one end, he beamed and nodded affirmatively. Just then a lazy fly bit my forearm and I managed to swat it. The fly dropped in a death spiral to the flat roof.

Uh-oh, I thought, I’ve just killed a fly in front of the lama. Unfazed, he continued radiating with happiness. “Yes, yes,” he said, “good idea to put up more flags soon on Dali Lama’s birth day, July six. Very favorable.” A few days later on the sixth, there I was astride the same spar, stretching the same arm to tie more prayer flags as he watched from below. Lo and behold the dead fly’s twin landed on my forearm and bit me in the same spot. Again I swatted, and watched the fly corkscrew to the roof.

Aghast at my instinctual repetition, I wobbled before stepping off the spar and flicking the motionless fly with my index finger. Damned if the fly didn’t just shake it off and zoom away. I stood gobsmacked in the moment.

Sometimes junctures ring our bell louder than logic when acute particulars shoehorn us into the moment without background mind commentary. These flashes are doors to understanding what some call enlightening moments. In Zen this is mind before thought arises. Popping out of the “white room” in deep powder snow between ski turns, watching a trout nail your fly on still water, or noticing refreshed mountain air after a rain shower are examples of uncluttered mind experience when we are present without any baggage of affirmation or negation.

Yet unconditional “isness” connects all moments. Being in this continuity of each moment’s arrival without competing thought-chatter is mindfulness practice.

The unexpected takeaway of this attentiveness is fathoming our variable mind views, as opposed to defaulting to patterns without circumspection.

The miracle is that anything exists at all. To tame the willful mind and improve everyday concentration, join a Zen meditation (zazen) group. Pay attention. See moments as they arise.


Crestone Mountain Zen Center, Crestone, CO; Boulder Zen Center, Boulder, CO; Mindfulness meditation at Aspen Chapel, Aspen, CO;