I have always been fond of Fritz Perls’ slogan, “Lose your mind and come to your senses” because that’s what meditation practice is really all about. When our worries and fears dissipate, we come into the present moment and we open up to a world of enhanced sensory perception with kaleidoscopic sights, sounds, tastes, touches, and smells.
The complement to sense perception is sensory interoception– sense experiences within the body, including hunger, thirst, breathlessness, pain, temperature, heartbeat, and muscle tension. Interoception is related to how we process emotion, alter our sense of the body’s physiological condition, and shift our state of mind.
Some interesting studies have been done that measure the accuracy with which people recognize their own heartbeat. The chief author of these studies, Vivien Ainley, concludes that those with more highly attuned interoceptive awareness are, “more accurate on heartbeat tasks, more intuitive, experience stronger emotional arousal, have better memory for emotional material, and perhaps be better able to control their negative emotions.”
A separate group of researchers at Stanford University have concluded that people with depression are less attuned to their own heartbeat than others. Their research led them to suggest that the worse someone’s interoceptive awareness is, “the less intense were their experiences of positive emotion in daily life, and the more likely they were to have difficulty with everyday decision-making.”
Meditation is a way of increasing interoceptive ability. It also heightens our awareness of implicit memories. Explicit memories consist of factual knowledge and autobiographical information. And implicit memories are emotional responses coming from body sensations—They are feeling based rather than factual and they travel in different pathways in the brain. Both types of memories have to be integrated later to form one unified memory.
Our thoughts go into, and remain in, overdrive when we are not aware of the emotional memories lodged in our body that stimulate them. Meditation is a way of increasing our awareness of implicit memories. As Buddha says in the Anguttara Nikaya, “There is one thing, monks, that, cultivated and regularly practiced leads to a deep sense of urgency…to the supreme peace…to mindfulness and clear comprehension…to the attainment of right vision and knowledge…to happiness here and now…to realizing deliverance by wisdom and the fruition of Holiness: It is mindfulness of the body.”
There seem to be three layers of interoceptive awareness. On the most superficial level are the stories we tell ourselves including our reflection on these stories and attempts to can change them. A little deeper are our emotions that provide fuel for our stories, and deeper than these is our bodily felt sense. Here’s Buddha again: “I teach awareness of the body in the body… If the body is not mastered by meditation, the mind cannot be mastered. If the body is mastered, mind is mastered.”
Through our meditation practice, our attention drops from our storyline to our emotions and into our moment to moment physical experience. In other words, the mind drops into the heart. We cannot will this to happen, but if we practice bare awareness, this happens on its own and we begin to rest in our natural center of being, heart-mind (citta in Sanskrit, as in bodhicitta, awake heart-mind).
Here’s an exercise the Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffitt has used to differentiate between normal sense perception and interoceptive awareness:
“Hold your right hand up and begin by looking at the back of it. What do you see? You might notice the skin color, the veins, and whether there are any wrinkles or scars. Now turn it over and look at your palm. You might notice its shape or the length of your fingers. Alternate between looking at the front and the back of your hand. You might observe the length of the various finger bones in relation to each other or the size of your knuckles. You might notice the pattern that the lines make in the palm of the hand. Just witness these things.
Now interoceptive: rest your hand for a moment. With your eyes closed, raise your hand again. Start to move your hand in space. Let the wrist move with the hand. You might curl the fingers in toward your palm, then extend them out a little. With your attention, “feel” the thumb, the forefinger, the middle finger, the ring finger, the little finger, the palm, and the back of the hand. Now lower your hand and open your eyes.”
Moffitt is talking about two very different experiences of looking at the hand. The second one is nothing more nor less than the felt sense of the body, which can only be tapped into through interoceptive awareness, what I call bare awareness.
Emotions lodge in the body. Then the mind worries, and our emotional suffering grows. But through meditative awareness, we simply relax and soften through our thoughts and our emotions into our sensations. When this happens, our mind falls into our heart.
The best vehicle for us to increase our introceptive awareness is meditation. For several years I supported Molly in her meditation practice. She had severe asthma that went back to her childhood. By conflating her physical experience and her mental reaction, asthma has become her identity. When I first met her, she told me that she was an “asthmatic person.”
The first thing I encouraged her to do was try sitting in meditation with her breathalyzer, which she was very dependent on, by her side, but not using it until she had to. When she did this over a period of weeks, she expressed surprise that she only had mild constrictions in her throat, that most of her stress was due to anxiety about having an asthmatic attack.
I helped her begin to look at her body as her teacher. Little by little she learned to be aware of not only the constriction in her throat, but her anxiety and the underlying sensations as they moved through and around her shoulders and neck. Little by little her interoceptive awareness increased and she developed the ability to sit quite calmly for long periods without using the breathalyzer. She still had asthma, but she became comfortable sitting in long retreats without using her breathalyzer at all. Once she rushed into see me for a one to one and exclaimed, “Even though I have asthma, I am not an asthmatic person and I never really was!”
Maybe next time you’re feeling angry, sad, scared, or frustrated, you would like to soften into and through your emotions to your sensations. If you are kindly attentive to them, they always break up and heart-mind is liberated from its constriction. All you have to do is patiently and persistently stay with this process and you will experience a freedom beyond the limits of what you can imagine.
In this piece I want to complete my discussion of six gates into a life of deep and joyful interconnectedness, using Basho’s poems as examples. Let me review what I have a touched on so far. The first gate is longing.
Many of us give ourselves to spiritual practice because we feel a deep longing to move beyond our screen of incessant remembering, regretting, and rehearsing that keeps us feeling cut off, isolated, and even lonely. And as we dive into a meditation practice, we may begin to realize that our screen shields us from the second gate: unpredictability and uncertainty in our lives and in the world. As we deepen our awareness of how uncertain everything is, especially in times like these, may call us to enter the third gate: simplification of our external life, so we can simplify the space in our heads. A couple of more poems on the gate of simplicity:
alone, still able to chew dried salmon.
Here is Basho on a cold morning, aging, and alone. He is eating dried fish, commoner’s food, and yet expressing a deep satisfaction with his life stripped to its bare essentials.
the basho thrashing in wind
rain drips into an iron tub
a listening night
Basho named himself after the basho, the fragile and yet resilient banana plant/tree which grew right outside the door of his hut. The banana tree bends in the wind, but seldom breaks. We can imagine its bamboos leaves torn by a fierce typhoon—a huge sound and then the plink of the rain against washtub—near, precise—a sound so intimate that each clink includes all life within it.
Are you taking advantage of the limitations forced on us by this pandemic to have listening morning and listening evenings? I hope so! Do you find that you are more aware of the sounds, sights, and textures in the world around you than you were before the pandemic? I hope so.
You may be ready to enter the fourth gate: Saying Yes.
Here’s something the from the early 20th century Greek poet Constantine Cavafy:
“For some people the day comes when they have to declare the great yes or the great no. It is clear at once who has the yes ready within him and is saying it. He goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction. He who refuses does not repent. Asked again, he’d still say no. Yet that no drags him down all his life. “
Say Yes Quickly
Forget your life. Say, “God is Great.” Get up. You think you know what time it is. It’s time to pray. You’ve carved so many little figurines, too many. Don’t knock on any random door like a beggar. Reach your long hands out to another door, beyond where you go on the street, the street where everyone says, “How are you,” and no one says, “How aren’t you?” Tomorrow you’ll see what you’ve broken and torn tonight, thrashing in the dark. Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about. Is what I say true? Say yes quickly…. you’ve known it from before the beginning of the universe.
Both the first line and the last line of this poem reminds me that my second teacher talked about the positive energy evoked by saying “yes.” He referred to the two years he spent in a Zen monastery, where the expectation was that whenever he or any of the monks in training was approached about anything by a senior monk he would immediately exclaim “Hai,” or “Yes.” And the psychiatrist Milton Erickson, who worked with seriously depressed clients taught therapists to ask clients anything which would require a “yes” answer. Once they had answered “yes” once, they were very likely to begin saying yes to any number of things and this usually affected their state of mind. Erickson called this “developing a yes set.”
Here’s a poem by Basho on this theme:
For one who says “I am tired of children, there are no flowers.
I talked to a mother recently who is exhausted, because her two boys who would normally be in school and at camp, have been housebound for five months with no end in sight. The main feature of her spiritual practice these days is saying yes to them in the middle of her exhaustion.
Now I’d like to touch on the fifth gate, Intimacy.
The gate of intimacy is also the gate of meditation, since a meditative mind is the best tool for exploring a single moment’s precise perception and depths. If you see and hear for yourself, all things speak with and through you. As Basho wrote, “To learn about the pine tree, go to the pine tree…to learn about the bamboo, go to the bamboo.”
After Basho moved out of the Zen monastery he lived in while in his early 30s, he spent the rest of his life as a wanderer, concerned not about destination but the quality of attention—in other words, he practiced intimacy: If we were to gain mastery over things, their lives would vanish under us without a trace.
And here’s another one:
teeth hitting sand
He shows us how to be intimate and deeply appreciate the simple objects of daily living.
Here’s a final one:
deep rooted leeks,
We can imagine him pulling leeks out of frozen soil, washed them in icy streams—coldness in hands, whiteness of leeks penetrating his body and mind.
The sixth gate is: cracking open.
To enter this gate, we need to first enter the gates of longing, uncertainty. simplicity, saying yes, and intimacy. The basho or banana plant including the one growing outside his door is an example. Not only are they resilient, when the water from a storm penetrates the stem, water pours out from its roots. This cracking open of the ego shell happens when thelife force is no longer stifled by thinking mind.
As the Chinese Zen poet, Li Po, wrote, several hundred years before Basho:
Meditation on Ching Ting Mountain
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me
until only the mountain remains.
Here’s my favorite poem by Basho about cracking open:
On this road
walks no one
this autumn eve
Basho has moved beyond the personal self, beyond being sad and bereft. Even though he is alone, he is rooted in deep calmness of the autumn evening.
Once Basho said to one of his students, “The problem with most poems is that they are subjective or objective.”
“Don’t you mean too subjective or objective,” the student asked.
“No, I mean subjective or objective,” Basho replied.
We discover this for ourselves when we crack open beyond the limitations of “self and other.”
Here’s a second poem about cracking open:
Cutting a tree
seeing the sawed trunk it grew from:
We can imagine Basho cutting a tree, pruning away dead wood and seeing the moon right in front of him; a metaphor for the mind that becomes very quiet and suddenly cracks open, and experiences everyone and everything bathed in luminosity
We start by longing for something deeper, experience uncertainty, we simplify, we say yes, we practice intimacy and crack open as bodhisattvas, but this is not the end of our journey, since as my first teacher said, “There are no enlightened people, only enlightened activity,” a wonderful practice we can do for the rest of our lives.
In my next pieces I am going to discuss gates through the fences our confined, often agitated self builds to protect itself from a world it views as threatening. I will use a revision of a framework proposed by poet and Zen practitioner Jane Hirshfield in examining the teaching poems of the 17th century Zen practitioner and haiku master, Basho.
These six gates are: 1.) Longing, 2.) Uncertainty, 3.) Simplicity, 4.) Saying YES, 5.) Intimacy, and 6.) Cracking Open.
In this piece I will talking about the first three.
The first gate into Basho is Longing.
In Basho’s The Narrow Road Within he speaks of priests, pilgrims, and poets who died on the road, practicing meditation and living close to nature. Here is his own poem about that:
I am resolved to bleach on the moors
my body pierced by the wind
This reminds me of Ramakrishna, considered by many to be the most deeply enlightened being in India during the last 150 years. He says, “Who weeps for God? People shed a whole jug of tears for wife and children. They swim in tears for money. But who really weeps? Cry with a real cry. Longing is like the rosy dawn. After the dawn, out comes the sun.”
If we replace “weeping for God” with “weeping to open beyond ego to heart-mind or Buddha nature,” Ramakrishna sounds like a Zen teacher. Basho elaborates on this longing by quoting Kukai,“Don’t follow the ancient masters. Seek what they sought.”
When you yearn for something, this can propel you to become focused and one pointed.
When I get a chocolate yearning, I become one pointed in my search for chocolate until I get it. I was so unfocused on my studies for a while in college that my roommate wondered if I was A.D.D. But when I began reading about the experiences of mystics in the east and west as they spoke of a peace which is deeper than the thinking mind, my yearning to experience this was so strong that I not only began a sitting practice, I could sit for long periods of time focusing, focusing, focusing, with considerably more one pointedness than my roommate did with his studying. Often, I say that the second step on the eightfold path, right intention or aspiration, is the most important one, since it propels us to move one pointedly along the path until the stillness which is beyond thought and yet surrounds it shows itself to us.
Latin spirare, to breathe. Whatever lives on the breath, Gate 1. Permeability
Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.
Izumi Shikibu (Japan, 974?-1034?) The second gate is Uncertainty (one of the Three Marks of Existence Buddha spoke of).
How can we satisfy out spiritual longing when everything is so uncertain?
Here’s Stanley Kunitz’ take on it, written before his death at 78:
“There is something out in the dark that wants to correct us. Each time I think ‘this,’ it answers ‘that.’ Answers hard, in the heart-grammar’s strictness. If I then say “that,” it too is taken away. Between certainty and the real, an ancient enmity. When the cat waits in the path-hedge, no cell of her body is not waiting. This is how she is able so completely to disappear. I would like to enter the silence portion as she does. To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live, one shadow fully at ease inside another.”
Basho lived in the late 1600s in Japan; a time of famine, flood, social turmoil, and desperate poverty. He wrote the following poem about a two-year-old child abandoned by the side of the road a not unusual occurrence during that time of great deprivation. Basho tossed him/her food, continued his journey and then was upset and even despondent. He wrote,
The cries of monkey are hard for a person to bear.
What of this child, given to autumn winds?
As I write this piece, our Covid epidemic continues unabated. Medical experts hoped there would be a reduction in cases during the summer. But instead, cases are increasing in most parts of the country and many hospitals are overflowing with infected people. Many people are anxious, because the future is so uncertain. We hope things will get better, but we have no idea when.
A question many of us have is how to keep the strengths of our friendships alive during this time, since we are generally confined to a two-dimensional world. Even when there is no coronavirus, maintaining deep friendships can be difficult and uncertain. But friendship is mutual give and take and it’s especially important in times of uncertainty.
Now being seen off
Now seeing off—the outcome--
autumn in Kiso
As a lifetime traveler, he deeply values his friendships even though he continually leaving his friends during behind never knowing if he will see them again.
As I sit behind my house in late September. I am surrounded by the beauty of the trees changing color, everything departing, not knowing when and even if I will see some friends more than two dimensionally and even wondering if the Zen center will be open again. Uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty.
But uncertainty can also give us the chance to relate in a new way. Instead of getting caught by before and after, we can just be with what is; loneliness, sadness, even anxiety. When we do this in a non-judgmental way, our emotional heaviness drops away quite naturally and we feel a lightness and joy that is not of time. In this time of isolation and uncertainty, we have more opportunity than usual to unburden our minds of thought.
This leads me to the third gate into Basho, Simplicity.
He says, “The works of other schools or poetry are like colored painting; my disciples paint with black ink.”
When your life is stripped of the wealth of responsibilities that you usually are juggling, the practice of doing one task at a time and fully giving yourself to it may be more much more possible. Whether I am washing the stairs with my wife or walking around the block, it is so much easier for me to be fully present when I don’t have an array of activities vying for my time. In Japanese Zen this is called the practice of “shikan” or “just to.” We may even find ourselves settling into a deep stillness right in the middles of our stair washing, a deep stillness that, as I said above, is not of time.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher