Focus on Nothing
by Justin Wiley
Beside a tranquil stream, Xaoshun sits and contemplates Focus. Except when her mind wanders, ferrymen stop to bother her, or her own self-doubt gets in the way. But Master Zanjian Wu isn’t telling her the whole story.
Xaoshun Po sat under a star tree at the edge of the Lan Se River. Iridescent blossoms spiraled in the air around her. Purple, blue, orange, glowing like the morning sky. The breeze ruffled her silks, tickled the hairs on her arms. Summer had come and gone. And still she had not found her Focus. At this rate she would never receive her kun dao. She would become an outcast.
She let out a heavy sigh. The entire point of her meditations was to quiet her inner voice. But she couldn’t even do that. She clenched her hands, and relaxed them again. The leather bands around her forearms creaked. Of the Six Virtues, Focus was her weakest. And the reason she’d been sent down through the clouds, away from the monastery.
As serene as the sky temples were, Master Zanjian Wu knew that she needed another place to practice. Some place she could meditate without the fear of a judgmental eye, or the constant disapproval of her peers.
This place was perfect. The gentle flow of the water, the whisper of the wind. What better spot to find harmony with herself and her surroundings? That’s what master Zanjian Wu had told her.
“In focusing on Focus, you will find none. Remember, the Virtues intertwine with one another. Only when you are most at ease—when you lose yourself in the moment—will you discover your Focus. Choose a nice quiet spot to sit and concentrate on nothing until you have found it.” Then Master Zanjian had bundled her up like a child, leapt across the width of the river, and told her that when she mastered Focus she would have no trouble crossing back on her own.
She pushed those thoughts away. Concentrate Xaoshun.
Her mind had finally quieted when a Shir Attar fisherman poled his boat up the shore. It was unusual to see tribals this far up the Lan Se.
His bronze skin glistened with sweat as he hopped ashore. The stink of fish and onions drifted five feet ahead of him. “Master monk, it’s a rare pleasure to see one o’ your kind down from the heavens. Any chance you could spare a moment for a blessing on my boat?”
Xaoshun forced a smile as she fought against the smell. “I’m sorry, sir. I’m quite busy.”
The fisherman shrugged. “There some way I can help?”
“I’m afraid not. But, thank you.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
The fisherman didn’t leave.
“What’s it you’re concentrating so hard on?”
Xaoshun frowned for a moment, trying to decide the best way to explain it without having to inhale again. “Nothing,” she said, at last.
“Nothing, eh?” The fisherman scratched at his mess of black hair. “Suppose I’ll leave you to it, then.”
Xaoshun sucked in fresh air as the fisherman climbed back into his boat. After he left, she closed her eyes and focused on nothing once again.
The harder she concentrated, the more her senses seemed to magnify until they grew impossible to ignore. She could hear every fish winding up the river, every leaf tumbling across the grass. She smelled the sweet perfume of star tree blossoms so vividly she could taste them. Tiny pinpricks rippled across her skin as every hair on her body stood on end and danced against her silks in the wind. There was simply no way to block it all out.
Night came before she realized it, and the air grew chill. She steeled herself against the elements as snowflakes drifted down and settled on her. She retreated into her fahua, the spot behind her forehead where consciousness rested. Her body became a detached and distant thing, a machine she could control.
Vigor—the most physical of the Six Virtues—had never been something she struggled with.
The snow melted around her in a circle as she willed her body to produce more heat. But still her mind wandered. She tried not to think of Master Zanjian’s smiling face as the drifting rocks of the sky passage peaked from behind the clouds. If she couldn’t master this Virtue, she might not be permitted back. She withdrew into her fahua, and allowed her mind to sleep.
Early the next morning a powerful odor pulled her consciousness back to the surface. Fish and onions.
Not you again.
The fisherman drifted up the river and used his pole to stop the boat as he came up onto the rocks. “Master monk, I see you’re still here. Would you mind blessing my boat?”
“Sorry, sir. I’m still quite busy.”
“Doing nothing?” He stuffed his hands into his armpits.
Xaoshun nodded, trying not to breathe.
He sniffed at his fingers. “Thought you did that yesterday.”
“Yes. But I haven’t quite finished.”
“Maybe tomorrow, then.” The fisherman waved and climbed into his boat.
She frowned. It had been almost two days without any success. Again, she pulled into her fahua and closed off her senses. The outside world became dim and muffled. Maybe now she would finally be able to focus.
It seemed only a few minutes had passed when Xaoshun realized it was already growing dark. How many hours had gone by? She thrust her consciousness back to the surface and found Master Zanjian sitting across the river, cross-legged, eyes closed in silent meditation. She considered asking him how long he’d been there, and thought better of it.
Xaoshun chewed her lip. “Master, how do I get to the other side?”
Zanjian smiled broadly, sharp teeth blinding white. “My child, you are on the other side.”
“You said that when I had mastered my Focus I would have no trouble crossing the water without you. I have sat here for two days, and I have learned nothing. I have watched the leaves fall. I have counted the fish and melted the snow. I have wasted away the hours of the day. I think maybe I should leave. I will never understand your secrets.”
“Xaoshun, you have been distracted by the heavens and the earth. By your own self-doubt, and the doubt of others. In focusing on every detail, you have missed the simplest of them.”
“Focus is not your weakest Virtue. It is your strongest. What you need to learn to is Harmony. To be present. So that your Focus may be put to use.”
“All I need to do is be present?”
“Yes, Xaoshun. You may cross the water when you are ready.”
Xaoshun furrowed her brow. “But… I could not possibly jump the Lan Se. I have not even earned my kun dao.”
“Oh, no. I never said you would be able to jump. Just that you would have no trouble crossing back without me.” Zanjian chuckled, his muscular frame heaving.
Xaoshun frowned with sudden realization. “You sent the fisherman, didn’t you?”