During my years as a psychologist/counselor, I helped many people who were in distress both set boundaries and maintain them once they were set. As a Zen teacher I help people move toward healthy boundarylessness, which means increased intimacy, a feel of connection with the world around them. But this really can only happen when we establish and maintain good boundaries.
I began a serious meditation practice at a time when meditation was considered weird within mainstream society and by my family. I had to continually set and reinforce my boundary with my father in particular, in order to stay on the path. Over and over, I reminded myself how important it was to honor my deep desire to devote my life to tasting a timeless stillness and helping others do the same regardless of how my parents viewed me.
During the last 25 years, I have been teaching both the two traditional types of middle ways from the Buddhist tradition (which I will not touch on here) and a middle way which emphasizes authentic engagement. I help practitioners develop a sense of agency, including setting and reinforcing boundaries which are neither too loose nor too tight, strong but permeable.
Unfortunately, most of us come from families in which boundaries were either overly rigid or poor and even non-existent. If we grew up in families with rigid boundaries, often relationships with parental figures were cold and distant or authoritarian with little affectionate exchange. On the other hand, in families with poor boundaries, we never knew when we were going to get “slurped up” by our parent’s needs, desires, or expectations. And in some cases, we may have experienced swings between these two extremes.
If you had an experience as a child of being enmeshed with one or more parents, as an adult you may have felt a need to severely cut ties to work on establishing boundaries. And once those are firmly in place, we have an opportunity to practice being permeable. With permeable boundaries we feel free to be ourselves and feel a natural empathy with others. As I often say, the more we learn to just be who we are, the more we feel undivided from each other and all life.
If we want to be truer to ourselves, we need to notice how we inhibit allowing ourselves to live with a simple naturalness. There are three main ways we do this.
First, we get fixated on the image we present to others, hiding behind a protective mask or false persona.
Second, we may feel too paralyzed to assertively express ourselves because we are afraid of being rejected.
Third is staying in relationships when there is a lack of shared core values just because we think we “should.”
Here are some things we might do to move toward being more authentic:
Notice why you are holding back from just being who you are. Generally, there’s an underlying feeling of inadequacy which can take many different forms. During my first year in college, I felt I wasn’t smart enough. So, I concealed my insecurity by blowing off my classes, and I almost flunked out. Maybe you are feeling unsafe and think you will get hurt if you show yourself just as you are. Maybe you simply feel inadequate, but don’t want to show that to others.
Learning to be authentic includes learning to discover and live out our deepest values and aspirations and to trust our deepest voice. We know we are doing this when instead of getting caught by some superficial role or identity, we feel generally at ease with ourselves and undivided from others.
Learning to be authentic also includes repeatedly letting go of things that the mind is telling us we want. Our psyche is no longer organized around craving and grasping, because our energy is focused on living from our deepest sense of being. You may be surprised to fall into a feeling of spaciousness and freedom that is far more satisfying than any object you have sacrificed of let go of.
Finally, being authentic means recognize your feelings as you’re having them. If you can’t recognize your feelings, how can you possibly be who you really are?
Of course, admitting that you don’t know how you feel is also authentic. To paraphrase Tara Brach, all we need to do is radically accept any and all emotions, images, as well as both positive and negative self-talk that arises. It’s impossible for us to be authentic if we don’t have compassion for our confusion!
Here are a few tips to increase your authenticity:
1.Make a list of what causes you to act or feel inauthentic. It almost always involves either feeling that we need to conform to others’ needs or expectations and/or needing to hide our true feelings about someone or something. Make the list again ten days later, comparing, it to the first list. And do this every ten days for as long as is helpful.
2. Practice moving beyond any limiting belief, even the belief that you are not authentic. This practice derives from what has been called, the second middle way or the “empty middle” in Buddhism which grew out of the teaching of the 2nd century sage Nagarjuna. Our conventional thinking can only embrace one side of an issue. To activate this second middle way we first move beyond whatever belief or feeling we have to its opposite. Then we embrace both. And finally, we let go of both.
Here are some simple practice instructions for exploring this within yourself:
Many people are anxious about what’s happening in our country now. How about opening up to your own feeling of anxiety as you take two or three breaths? Then release. Next, take two or three more breaths and open up to the truth that since you are able to absorb yourself in reading this blog, you are also not anxious.
Open up to this freedom from anxiety as you take two or three breaths.
Now open to both your feeling of anxiety and your freedom anxiety as you take two or three breaths. Once you have held both of these in balance, release again. Now you are ready for the fourth component of tetralemma practice, letting go of both anxiety and no anxiety and just being present in your body, allowing all of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations to just be just they are.
According to this core Mahayana Buddhist teaching every difficulty we have involves tension between pairs of opposites. And if we practice with all 4 sides, discord melts into concord, battles become dances, and old enemies may even become lovers. We have a pretty simple choice: do we want to make friends with all life, or just one half of it?
3. Practicing bare awareness of how you are with whatever issue come up. All you do, in this case is say "Yes" to whatever negative thought or emotion is arising and if you can’t identify the thought or emotion, say yes to your confusion about this. When the issue is sufficiently explored, the negative energies tend to resolve themselves. Once this acceptance is total, a natural humility is bound to grow out of it.
The more we practice any of the above techniques, the more we enjoy permeable boundaries and naturally live and act from our deepest heart. In my second and last blog on boundaries, I will talk about them from a meditative point of view.
When we sit without moving in meditation, we are forming a very tight, boundaried space. During meditation retreats we may spend hour after hour just sitting looking at a wall. This practice can be both difficult and positive as long as we are not replicating a childhood experience in which an authority put us in a contained space to punish us. If we practice in a self-punishing manner, our negative energy may propel us (literally or metaphorically) into the unhealthy sense of boundarylessness I was talking about in my last blog. This is a space in which we have totally suppressed both our own needs and aspirations.
In Nothing Holy About It I talked about Buddha’s student, Patacara, who experienced a great trauma and fell into unhealthy boundarylessness. Due to Buddha’s guidance, she was able to move from total despair and powerlessness She was able to develop good boundaries and immerse herself in a steady meditation practice. At some point she moved to a higher form of boundarylessness in which her small, chattering self cracked open to a joyful spaciousness. We call this enlightenment.
But we need to release any fixation on or infatuation with this type of experience, however. As we continue to mature spiritually, we experience boundaries and boundarylessness as two sides of the same coin. Many years ago, my first teacher pointed to the mis-arranged shoes I had placed at the door to his room and calmly said, “You have attained so-called “enlightenment. Now please take care of those.” He was illustrating the well-known Zen statement, “First mountains are mountains and rivers. Then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. And at some point, mountains are again mountains and rivers are again rivers.”
A Zen master, if there is such a being, is simply someone who has strong and yet totally permeable boundaries and naturally lives and acts from her deepest heart or heart/mind.
As William Blake says, “In every cry of every Man, In every Infants cry of fear, In every voice: in every band, The mind-forg'd manacles I hear” and, as many of you know, he urged us to break out of these manacles, and clean the doors of perception, so we can see everything as it is, infinite.
Dogen gives us his advice about how to do this: “Examine walking backward and backward walking and investigate that walking forward and backward never stopped since before form arose.”
Instead of thinking that you are a “stubborn person,” an “anxious person,” or “depressed person” or even an enlightened person, a genuine pilgrim learns how to just walk, just travel, and even just dance. Whatever limitation you put on yourself is both artificial and arbitrary and puts your mind into a kind of vice. And Dogen also says, “Take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward.”
Whatever you are concerned about, is it possible to trace it to the root where there is no inside or outside? Consciousness says, “I am here, you’re all out there,” or “I am anxious…. you are enlightened.” Is it really true? What about, “We are all enlightenedly anxious or anxiously enlightened?” Is it possible to trace each thought to a place closer and nearer than any labels which divide things up, and return to your original wholeness?
A few years ago I gave long term meditation support to “Nancy.” Nancy shared with me that sadness came up each time she did a meditation retreat. I coached her in retreats, so she was able to get closer to the contours of this feeling until it was no longer just her sadness. She realized two things: 1.) it was real and deep; 2.) it was continually changing. And when had this realization and just let it do its thing, it was no longer problematic. Whatever you are concerned about, trace it to the root.
Jane Hirshfield, commenting on her memory of time spent at Tassajara Zen Monastery, comments, “Even now, decades after, I wash my face with cold water, not for discipline, nor memory, nor the icy, awakening slap, but to practice choosing to make the unwanted wanted.”
Yes, exactly Jane, thank you.
As Dogen says, “If you follow the river all the way back to its source, there are clouds. If you follow the clouds all the way back to their source, there is the river.” The place where mountains and rivers meet are exactly the same place where you and I meet. No need to even be deterred by clouds!
Some time ago, I discussed following the cairns, regardless of how infrequent they are so we can meet in the innermost part of the country, the innermost part of our being and all being. But when our minds are going over and over and over everything that has happened to us and might happen and could happen or should happen, we may completely lose track of the cairns and find ourselves in a mosquito infested swamp. No need to despair. Dogen reminds us that “There are mountains hidden in swamps.” Gradually the sediment in the swamp settles and at some point the mosquitoes don’t even bother us! Every spring for the past few years, the mosquitoes have been feasting on my skin in early morning walking meditation in the backyard at our Zen center. Maybe my blood has gotten sour over the years, but I have found time and time again that if I just let them do their thing, completely accepting any distress or impatience that comes, they no longer disturb me.
Let’s look at a Zen story from the golden age of Chinese Zen:
Gateless Barrier, Case #10
A student of the intimacy came to the master Caoshan. He said “My name is Qingshui. I am solitary and destitute. Please give me alms.” The master responded, “Venerable Shui!” Quinshui immediately responded, “Yes!” Caoshan replied, “You’ve already sipped three glasses of the finest wine in the nation. And yet you say you’ve not put the cup to your lips.”
Qingshui was a student of the wild, a student of intimacy. He may have felt as isolated and alone as I did years ago at the end of two months at Tassajara Zen monastery, when I would obsessively count my mosquito bites. He may have felt as sorry for himself as I did, but neither of us really had anything to complain about. We weren’t homeless, hungry or at all unsafe and we were surrounded by nature!
But we were both feeling disconnected and bereft, as many people in our community have been feeling due to the pandemic; the precariousness of our country’s democracy; the effects of climate change’s disruption on our planet. his uneasiness is creating a dark night of the soul for many in which, like Qingshi, we cry for help.
The core Buddhist teaching that everything is transient cannot paper over our anxiety that everything we believe in, everything we value, everything we love and care about seems to be on the verge of going, going, going.
Instead of turning to some superficial pleasure, social media addiction, or other distracting behavior, can we be courageously honest like Shui was when he exclaimed to the teacher that he felt solitary and destitute. “This is where I am. Help”! he seems to be exclaiming.
And, of course, he doesn’t realize that this feeling of being enveloped by darkness, totally isolated, and alone could even mean that he is very close to opening to heart-mind. He may even be ready to fall into a radical acceptance of what is and the wonderful sense of interbeing with everyone and everything that accompanies this. Luckily, he had a spiritual friend to help him go beyond the limitations of his plaintiff cry, a spiritual friend who reminded him, “You’ve already sipped three glasses of the finest wine in the nation.”
At the height of Chinese Zen’s primacy from about 650 to 1100, monks and nuns traveled on foot from one monastery or teacher to another, which is where the verse "To drift like clouds and flow like water” comes from. And, of course, clouds and water do not know where they are going or what will happen to them; they just move.
And a little over a hundred years later, the Zen teacher Dogen broadened this emphasis by saying that external travel is not necessary at all because the true nature of pilgrimage is within, and our original place is always right here, even though all of our thoughts and feelings inside are also always moving or traveling. Dogen suggested we can be like “Nanyu, who, one by one and episode by episode, encountered the myriad delusions, and saw through, and beyond, to the flesh of the teacher’s face.”
If we follow trails within our body/mind, we come to realize “The whole Universe in the ten directions” is the whole human body.
Even though it is unlikely that John Muir, the American 20th century trail blazer was exposed to Dogen, he wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. Keep close to Nature’s heart... and break clear away, Wash your spirit clean.” And in the 19th century, the Japanese Zen poet Basho wrote about traveling into a wild part of Japan seemingly untouched by humans and hearing songs being sung as farmers planted rice. As Basho listened, he wrote, “rice planting songs in the innermost part of the country.”
If we go farther and farther into the innermost part of our being, letting go of any attempt to get anywhere, we may be surprised to discover a song of its own emanating from our heart-mind.
But we can only do this through the “stupid zazen” my second teacher talked about. Stupid zazen is all about walking the trails of feeling and sensations inside you, letting yourself be turned sideways, upside down, or even inside out. The trail into the center of heart-mind is not linear.
As serious pilgrims, each of us can move deeper than the limitations of our conscious mind. The best way to do this may be, as Dogen said, “letting our fists and noses take the lead. Once the fists and noses have all taken up residence in the halls of the monastery, they hang up their traveling bag in their place for the duration of the retreat.”
Can we allow our fists and noses to fully explore the wilderness we encounter below the surface chatter of our minds? Even when there is no cairn, no trail marker at all, can we marry ourselves to our breath as it courses through our body? When Aristotle coined the term “good spirits” in Greek, he must have been well aware that the word for spirit is also the word for breath.
As I write this piece, folks are engaging in Zen center’s longest annual retreat, Rohatsu, honoring the historical Buddha’s final phase of pilgrimage. At Zen centers/temples all over the world people will be sitting silently doing absolutely nothing except following their breath/spirit for a week. This process of allowing the crust of our ego and defense mechanisms to crack open inevitably results in tapping into our deeply joyful heart-mind, the heart-mind of the universe. Due to my illness, I will not be joining but I will be in good spirits anyway, as each of us is, whether we realize this or not, as long as we are breathing.
During the years before the pandemic, (can you remember that far back?) pilgrimage was on the rise worldwide, even while church attendance was in decline. Many people were (and still are) in search of authentic experience rather than the tired truisms and stale ritual of churches. Instead of supporting institutional religion, many have been bringing alive two archetypal figures, one from Greek mythology, Hermes, the God of Travel and one from Buddhist mythology, Jizo, the earth womb bodhisattva who supports our pilgrimage through nature to return to the earth, our ground of being.
If we travel as genuine pilgrims, we step out of our groove and open to being reshaped and refreshed by the wonders of the natural world. Almost every summer in my childhood and adolescence, my family made extended hiking trips in the Sierra Nevada mountains. My father carried a John Muir guide in his backpack and Muir continually gave us tips on how to open up to the natural world around us.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”
Although I didn’t know it then, Muir became my first spiritual teacher with passages like these:
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.
Keep close to Nature’s heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”
In hikes I have made over my lifetime, when I have gotten above timberline, it often seems as if I return to the bones of the earth---nothing but bare rock cropping after bare rock cropping---in many ways similar to a long meditation retreat, staring at the wall hour after hour, not really knowing where you are going or what is happening. The historical Buddha models for us staying on course when we encounter and feel engulfed in intangible, sometimes barren, interior space, with nothing but barely decipherable cairns that guide us through don’t know to a sense of deep interconnectedness. When this happens, our buffers of time and space dissolve and we may cry out joyously, with Buddha, “only I, alone and sacred.” As we do this, we may experience the dynamic movement of life coursing through the simplest objects we encounter. Then as Dogen suggests, when we look at something solid, like rock outcroppings or even mountains, all we see is a delightful dance.
The way into the mountain is the way into the realization that “mountains are walking” The place where we walk has a way of walking in us. The mountain is the mind and body of the walker, and the walker is the mind and body of the mountain.
This orientation toward the sacredness and freedom of pilgrimages on foot is embedded in the history of Zen, going back to Bodhidharma, who walked along the Tea House Road from India to China in the 6th century. Two hundred years later his own example ushered in the golden age of Chan, when monks and nuns often walked for scores of miles to visit one teacher or monastery after another.
A pilgrimage through don’t know mind into intimacy may change our lives forever, as it did theirs.
It might be said that Buddhism and Zen, in particular, is a religion of the earth.
After Buddha attained enlightenment, he was approached by the three companions who had been with him on the path. When they asked him what he had discovered, he merely touched the earth, and the earth goddess emerged to honor him.
In the west, pilgrimages through nature are recognized and applauded from early on from Homer’s Odyssey to Thoreau’s Walden, and Steinbeck’s 20th century Travels with Charlie.
In Zen Buddhism we find this thread being passed on from Bodhidharma through Dogen to Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North as in:
Seek on high bare trails
My own Japanese teachers both left their own homes at a young age, on paths which took them through “don’t know,” each with a deep desire to touch the earth and help others do the same as in the Buddha story. Suzuki Roshi told his own teacher about his aspiration to come to the U. S. to guide people when he was in his 20s. But his teacher was not encouraging, and the war intervened. Finally, in his mid’50s he got the opportunity to move to the U.S. Although he thought this opportunity came late in his life, his vision of helping people like his very proper British student of Japanese, Miss Ransom, break through the crust of their egos was so strong that he jumped at the opportunity. Little did he know that the young people who began flocking to the San Francisco Zen Center, unlike Miss Ransom, were impulsive, enamored with drugs and wildly undisciplined.
He must have passed through many hours of “don’t know” himself before he learned how to support and guide them. But little by little he showed us how to move along our own interior trails, where often we were overcome and discouraged by “don’t know.” But many of us who stayed on what often seems a poorly marked path, (since Suzuki, like Dogen before him, did not teach it) finally realized the “place” we were searching realized that the place we were searching for was deeper than attachment to either the dominant culture or the counterculture of those times. And we learned to hear and finally sing what Basho, calls songs from the innermost part of the country.
This is my third piece on what I have been calling our pilgrimage through “don’t know” into intimacy. We get disappointed when we think our pilgrimage, or any important endeavor isn’t going well. But as any real pilgrim knows, part of being a pilgrim means, not saying, “Yuck, this experience, sucks, get me out of here”, but instead being curious about and acutely aware of whatever negative sensations, feelings, or thoughts we are having as we continue our journey.
Is it possible for you to simply notice all the thoughts and opinions busily vying for attention in your chatterbox café? Can you just be awake to those without a hint of judgement, just as my first teacher suggests in his book Not Always So? If you are facing a huge difficulty or barrier in your journey, might this be entirely about your perceptions and/or expectation rather than the pilgrimage itself? If Touzi’s statement from my last piece, "Moment-to-moment nonstop flow.” applies to all life, doesn’t it apply to the solidity of your so-called “difficulty” or “barrier” as well?
During my early time with Zen practice, I began to see how many fixed ideas and views I had, how much I judged my own and others’ behavior, and how strong my wall of preconceptions inhibited my appreciation of Beginner’s Mind.
As my months or practice turned into years, I developed the ability to notice this stuff sooner and I got trapped behind a barrier or wall less and less frequently.
If we don’t notice our preconceptions before they take over, they color everything we feel and do. How about trying out saying, “Oh, you again! Didn’t I just deal with you yesterday,” noticing a projection as it first pops up so the wall, we create with it is no longer impenetrable. Most preconceptions don’t have much to do with what’s right in front of you, anyway. “Oh, I think I’m just hauling that around with me. I don’t think it has anything to do with this.”
Maybe we can have a belly laugh as we do this, since laughter is a wonderful door into intimacy. Time and time again in the early koans, interchanges between Zen pilgrims during the Tang dynasty in China, humor is used to unlock a novice’s stuckness.
Not knowing is so often thought of as a negative experience, but it doesn’t need to be, as Mary Oliver reminds us in her poem, “When Death Comes.”
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
Can each of us be the bridegroom, taking the world into our arms? Can each of us “open the hand of thought” as Uchiyama Roshi says, opening our heart-mind and letting the sense that you need to know go completely... to be here, ready to meet whatever comes up, willing not to be an expert, allowing not knowing to be near and dear?
If we continue on our pilgrimage- our meditative journey- patiently and persistently through both our daily meditation and regular retreats, inevitably we will pass through the unknown into a clarity of seeing and being that is beyond anything you can imagine. This is what pilgrimage is all about.
Let me close by discussing a few words from Joan Stamm in her book, A Pilgrimage in Japan: The 33 Temples of Kannon:
“More than one expert on global crises and the environment has suggested that changing ‘tourism’ to ‘pilgrimage’ would have a significant positive impact on the world. In other words, bringing “sacred intent” to travel, to the land, people, and places we encounter when traveling, whether domestic or international, could transform the planet.”
Whatever spiritual path we are on, let’s not be tourists, trying to only have “good experiences.” Let’s encourage ourselves to embrace uncertainty. Let’s risk putting ourselves out there and welcome whomever and what we meet on the road. The tourist is an impoverished version of the pilgrim, but as a pilgrim we step into the unknown with awe, feeling the sacred nature of whatever place we are in, no longer lulled by the familiarity of our habitual ways of being.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher