The Self II
Zen practice is about developing a resilient self not imprisoned by thoughts which define it, constrict it, or limit it. It is possible that we can all learn to enjoy and access all of the different roles we play in life without sticking to any single identity. This happens primarily in two ways. The first is through a dedicated meditation practice. The second is by taking on new tasks or problems that shake our stability so that we can stretch and grow.
Maybe you have struggled with depression or anxiety, been chronically worried, angry at life, or fearful to the point of being frozen or panicking. But regardless of how anxious or depressed you are, this is only one dimension of your being. Or maybe you have a deep belief that you can’t do well at something because you lack the competency and/or are paralyzed by the fear of failure, as I was when I had to dance in front of more than a hundred people at my daughter’s wedding in France more than 20 years ago. I thought I was incapable of shedding my identity as a klutz when it came to dancing, but through patient and persistent practice I was able to expand way beyond this limitation. If I can do it, you can do it too!
I have always been fond of Walt Whitman’s, “I am large; I contain multitudes.” Each of us can find our hidden parts, give them some fresh air so they no longer restrict us and nurture their growth. In some cases, what hampers us is not hiddenness but the competition or conflict between different personas or parts of ourselves. If this is the case, they can learn to share the stage with each other, and our life becomes balanced and calm. Through our patient and persistent meditation practice and, when possible, the help of a spiritual guide we can untangle the dense thicket of constricted patterns that make up our so-called identity. We discover that none of these to need dominate our lives, since our so-called self is multi-faceted.
In Buddhist thought, the heart-mind is the true center of our self. It is a hidden treasure, which is also vastly expansive.
Years ago, we had a visiting teacher at our Zen center in San Francisco, who encouraged me to leave Suzuki and come with him to join a center he was trying to create. It seemed that he was putting the hustle on me, telling me that he knew I had a deep enlightenment experience and he could help me have many more. And my “ambitious self” was getting quite charged up. I didn’t say anything to Suzuki about it, but he seemed to know. After meditation one morning, he took me aside and said, “You have a great treasure within you. Someone may try to take it from you. Be careful not to let anyone take it from you.” While no one can actually take this treasure, most of the time this deep heart-mind is covered over by our worries and concerns, our attempts to push away those experiences and thoughts we don’t want and pull in those we do. Instead, through a patient and persistent meditation practice, we can notice our array of changing selves without judging or criticizing and we can experiment with ways of living beyond our familiar and habitual self. When we do this, we begin to feel and identify with a calmness, quietness, spaciousness, that underlies and surrounds all of these. We open up to heart-mind, which is what my teacher called Big Mind.
You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. This mind is called Big Mind. Big Mind experiences everything within itself.
One of the etymological roots of nirvana is to “cool by blowing.” The cooler we become through our meditation practice, the more we welcome and appreciate the multitude of selves that are an expression of our calm, still center, the calm, still center of all life.
I wish to talk a bit more about the self from a Buddhist perspective.
The historical Buddha made the radical discovery that we do not exist as separate beings. He taught that the limited self is an illusion. He added that we suffer unnecessarily because of the belief that there are any separate beings at all, when in fact, all life is continually and interdependently co-arising.
This co-arising is made up primarily of five changing processes (skandhas): body, sensations/feelings, perceptions, impulses/thoughts, and consciousness (vijnana in Sanskrit), the story we are continually telling ourselves about the first four. This ongoing story turns into a sense that there is actually a storyteller, when, in fact, there is not. The sense of a substantial self arises whenever we grasp at or identify with these stories. This self is made up of limited identities with specific roles we take on (e.g., “I am a man, a parent, a grandparent, a Zen teacher”). The “I” needs to protect, defend, and act from these different roles to maintain a feeling of substantiality. And then we spend my whole life holding trying to hold this self with all of its different roles together.
Most of us have more than one persona and we act differently according to the role we play. How you interact in a class is different than how you interact during social hour at Zen center. Often, one persona becomes more prominent. I had a friend years ago who was the clown at Zen Center. People liked his humor, his easygoing laughter, and the reinforcement that he got for it solidified his clown-like persona.
Our patterns of behavior and our personalities are influenced by three factors: genes and biology, environment and culture, personal constructs and goals. My friend Peter is one of the most introverted people that I have ever met. His father was also introverted. And he was raised in a very quiet household. Recently, he had a party for his stepson. He was able to be active and out-going for his guests, because being a “good father” was a vitally important personal construct and goal for him.
And, of course, in Hindu culture and much Buddhist culture there is an additional factor, since both your past lives and the position of the stars when you are born influence who you are and who you become. A famous Indian astrologer drew up my chart many years ago. After she had completed it, I realized that I had given her my wrong time of birth. She re-did it and it came out quite different, resembling me much more than the original one.
However it occurs, we put all of our different selves into one singular identity. The when we are out of sorts, we say, “I am not myself today.” When I was a young man I worked in a nursery run by a Japanese family. The owner never went on vacation. He had been raised in an environment in which nobody ever went on vacation. Once his wife talked him into going on vacation and he had a miserable time because he felt awkward and didn’t know what to do with so much free time.
Things get difficult when we are in a context that calls for a different way of being than we identify with.
I had a close relative, who was a successful attorney, fiercely competitive and argumentative, both at work and at home. In preparation for a family reunion, his wife talked to him about putting his best face on, smiling more, being friendly toward everyone, and biting his tongue when he had the urge to argue or debate. He did it, but when he got home in the evening he was exhausted and had to spend a couple of hours just relaxing before he could even be with his family.
The question becomes then, how can we see the roles we identify with and move beyond to experience more fluidity and resilience in our lives? Can we develop awareness of our multiple identities and multiple selves without clinging to any single one? Can I move gracefully between being a husband, a father, a son, an author, a friend, a Zen teacher, and an MSNBC junkie?
The more we are aware of our different identities, the more “degrees of freedom” we have. The first step is to be aware of how we change our speech, body posture, facial expressions, and behaviors depending on the context of a situation and the people we are with. The second step is to accept and embrace different ways of being. As we release our stuck-ness on one, two, or even three roles, we experience a freedom which can be very refreshing. The third step is to consciously act in ways that go beyond our typical personality and comfort zone, as Peter did, when he threw the party for his stepson. We can all practice “acting out of character.” We may surprise ourselves and learn something that we didn’t know. As our identity expands, we are more enlightened, because we lighten up. We shouldn’t force this too much, however. As with Peter, we all need “restorative niches.”
I often refer to Zen practice as “turtle practice.” We steadily take one step forward and then maybe another, realizing that we can rejuvenate ourselves retreating into our shell whenever we want.
The Tyranny of a Single Description II
This is my second and last piece on moving from the tyranny of the single description to a feeling of connectedness with the larger whole. Through our meditation practice it is quite possible to welcome each thought, each note, as part of a melody which makes up a wonderful song- the song of life, or even better, of life/death.
Years ago, I sat in meditation every morning at the Zen Center in San Francisco which was on a very busy one-way street with traffic rushing by toward downtown. I found the cacophony of noise quite distracting and even distressing as I tried to stay focused on my breath. Then I happened to read something by the avant garde musician John Cage. He talked about listening to a series of talks D.T. Suzuki had been giving at Columbia University. Suzuki had a very soft voice and many of his words got lost as the frequent sound of planes overhead interrupted Cage’s ability to hear. But at some point, Cage was able to let go of clinging to Suzuki’s words and just enjoy the way in which the words he could hear, and the sounds of the planes complemented each another. He reported that this experience informed the way he made his own music for the rest of his career.
Zen meditation is simply about being present to whatever occurs, so that the voice of the inner tyrant no longer drowns everything out or dominates our life. When this happens, we are no longer consumed by “before and after” and are able to marry ourselves to each activity. When I mentioned this in one of my dharma talks, somebody said, “but aren’t before and after important?” “Of course, they are,” I replied, “They are vitally important. The key is to learn how to relate to the past and future without being consumed by them. So, when it’s time to plan, we just plan!”
“Bare awareness” meditation is the key to developing this skill, which means paying non-judgmental attention to each skin (or layer of thought, feeling, emotion) referred to by Meister Eckhart from last time:
Thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul.
Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.
If we just open to each, with no judgment, evaluation, or commentary, these skins fall away so we can deeply enjoy our lives. Zen master Lin Chi, the founder of Rinzai Zen refers to this as “letting the person of naked red flesh come forth.”
This shedding of skins or liberation from the tyranny of the single description manifests itself in Zen art and writing in three major ways. The first is the collapse of the dichotomy between the sacred and the mundane (or even the profane), as in Zen master Yunmen’s “Buddha is a dried shit stick.” The Buddhist tradition, with its proliferation of paradises scenes, lofty bodhisattvas, elaborate and ornate mandalas is replaced by deep appreciation of everyday items and ordinary beings. Here are four examples from Japanese poet/teachers:
On the temple bell, perching,
sleeps the butterfly
Out of the hollow of the great Buddha’s nose
A swallow comes
He who appears before you now-
the toad of this thicket
A Burglar failing to carry off the moon,
It shines in from the window
The second feature of this skin shedding has two parts. We develop an ability to concentrate or be one-pointed through persistent meditation over time, as in the Chinese Zen quote, “In order to paint bamboo, you must study bamboo for 10 years.” Then we are able to move on to the second part, “completely forget bamboo, and paint it in an instant.” This is the hallmark of the Zen visual arts as they developed in Japan, departing from the Buddhist emphasis on meticulous academic expression, whether using ink or clay. The best works have a freedom, a spontaneity, a directness, as in raku pottery, in which the flaws are baked into the final piece. This reminds me that our best jazz musicians develop their ability to improvise only after hours upon hours of practice.
The third feature of this skin-shedding is an appreciation or valuing of what the 12th century Chinese Zen teacher Hongzhi referred to as, “the empty field,” or what my first teacher called “big mind.” Chinese and Japanese Zen influenced art emphasizes the background as much or more than the foreground. In landscape paintings, tiny humans are generally dwarfed by their natural surroundings which are supported by a background of vast space on paper or silk. Ink paintings of frogs, persimmons, even mushrooms, and a variety of ordinary objects have this feeling of lightness and space as well.
I am looking at an enso on the wall in front of me- a calligraphy circle, which is done with only a single stroke against a background of whiteness which permeates the stroke. It is reminding me that all particles are merely waves, and all waves are expressions of the ocean or “big mind.” As our meditation matures, we are able to let go of all our strategies to get somewhere or accomplish something and instead learn to dip into this big mind. As we allow its vastness to penetrate us, we may settle into a deep stillness which is not of time. If this isn’t freedom from the tyranny of the single description, I don’t know what is.
The Tyranny of a Single Description
In my next pieces, I want to explore how to move from the tyranny of the single description to a feeling of connectedness with the larger whole. This might also be described as moving from the conscious mind (the “either/or” mind), to the deeply creative mind (the “both/and” mind). The best spiritual teachers show us how to hold opposing truths simultaneously,as Suzuki Roshi did when he said, “you are perfect as you are,” and then added, “and you could use a little improvement.”
Each of us has a “brokenness” embedded in an unbrokenness; each of us has a woundedness that’s part of an unwounded whole. This whole can be described or “mapped out” in many different ways, as in the fourfold equation, or tetralemma:
This tetralemma equation is not just theoretical. If we moved beyond a single side, we become a shape shifter, able to accommodate ourselves to whatever happens.
This equation originates with the Buddhist teacher, Nagarjuna, whose name means “serpent” because of his great resilience. He has learned how to shed the thicker outer layers of his skins.
Christian mystic Meister Eckhart alluded to this when he said, “A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”
As we let go of our hardened beliefs, habits, and emotions, we develop the ability to open up to this ground.
Years ago, when I was sitting in a meditation retreat in San Francisco, I became consumed by jealousy of the two very tall guys I was sitting next to who sat hour after hour like immovable pillars, while I squirmed and cursed under my breath.
A few nights later I had a dream in which those same two guys were standing still in the meditation hall and had grown to 7 or 8 feet tall. In the next flash, my teacher, who was under 5 feet, entered the hall and began joyfully turning somersaults around their feet unseen by them while beckoning me to join him. I woke up from the dream chortling with laughter. After that my jealousy dropped away entirely.
It is quite possible that through a meditation practice, and with a good teacher, each of us can let go of being locked into any single belief or emotion. When we do this, we too, are becoming nagas/serpents, shedding our hardened skins so we can endlessly play in an open field of being. We can learn to attune each emotion, each thought, and each expression to that underlying wholeness. Instead of trying to fix our brokenness, we can synchronize each part within the deeper whole and settle into a deep enjoyment of our moments and our lives.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher