The three nen actions
In his excellent book, Zen Training, Katsuki Sekida gives us a glimpse into how human beings respond to external stimuli. He refers to this as the “three nen actions.”
Here’s a quick example of how this works:
Imagine that you’re sitting in a beautiful park by yourself. It’s peaceful and quiet, and your mind is still. Suddenly there’s a noise; let’s say that someone honked the horn in their car as they passed by. The three nen actions work like this:
- In a quick instant, the first nen -- your attention -- hears only the raw sound as pure sensation.
- In the next moment your mind interprets this sensation, and thinks, “Car horn.”
- In the moment after that you think, “Oh, I just heard a car horn.”
After this there can be more interpretation by your brain, but that’s how your initial perception/cognition of external stimuli works.
Okay, that’s good to know, but why is this important, and what does it have to do with Zen and/or mindfulness? I’ll try to explain that.
The three nens: Observation, awareness, self-awareness
The example I gave is in my own words. Mr. Sekida’s words are more like this:
- We first have the observation.
- Next we have awareness of the observation.
- Third, we have the acknowledgment of ourselves becoming aware of the observation (self-awareness).
Mr. Sekida discusses this much more deeply in his book -- covering nearly twenty pages, including a nice diagram -- so I’ll just add two things:
- The word nen can be translated as a “thought impulse.”
- Zen training is about becoming absorbed in the first nen. Mr. Sekida refers to this absorption as “one-eon nen.”
My own experience
On several occasions I’ve been fortunate to spend some time absorbed in the first nen. On one occasion we had a gathering late in the day at the Monroe Institute, after we had spent several hours in silence. A speaker (Francine) was talking about something, I don’t remember what, and I slipped into a very focused mental state. As she spoke, I felt the sound waves from her voice on the skin of my face and on my arms. The feeling was exhilirating.
The initial feeling of the soundwaves hitting my skin were the first nen. The second and third nens began to kick in for a few moments as I realized what was happening. I began to think, “Whoa, sound waves,” and then, “I feel sound waves on my skin.” After that I began to wonder, “Does anyone else feel this? Does anyone else know I can feel this?,” and more thoughts like that.
Fortunately I was able to calm down, focus only on the sensations, and the second and third nen actions disappeared again. I bowed my head so nobody else would see my face, closed my eyes, and immersed myself in the sensations, feeling the sound waves rippling across my skin. It’s accurate to say that I became the sound waves, or at least that I became completely immersed in them.
After a short period of time -- how long I don't know -- I came back to my normal “three nen” state of being. The speaker spoke, my ears felt the sound waves, my brain interpreted them, and I knew what she was saying. I was elated for having had the experience, and disappointed for being back to “normal.”
My guess is that this must be what it’s like to be a newborn baby. Thinking only of the first nen, I believe a baby must feel sensations such as temperature, sound waves. I suspect that they naturally experience “pure sensation” with observation, and without much awareness or self-awarness. Then, over time, they become desensitized and lose this sense of perception and wonder.
Zen mind is before thinking
I’ll bring this article to a mild conclusion with this well-known quote from Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS):
“Zen mind is before thinking. If already you are thinking, it is too late.”
Knowing what we now know about the three nens, we can understand that ZMSS is saying, “Stay in the first nen,” or, “Zen is the first nen.” As a result, a lot of Zen teaching is aimed at getting you to suspend your thought process. (ZMSS is also famous for saying, “Only Don’t Know.”)
Finally, an interesting result of this is that, in my opinion, if you take mindfulness to its extreme, you have Zen.