My next few pieces will be on the pilgrimage that I am helping my students make through not knowing into intimacy. To do this successfully we need to break through any ideas we have about what being “spiritual” means.
Here’s an example from the 10th century in China:
A student of the way asked Yunmen, “What is Buddha?” Yunmen replied, “Dried shit stick.”
When we do a spiritual practice of any nature, we don’t want to be disrespectful to an icon that is present in our given tradition, whether it be God, Jesus, or Buddha. But when these icons get in the way of living authentically from the ground of our being which is also the ground of all being, our teacher may need to remind us that the icon is only a symbol. So much of religious practice is based on giving ourselves to an icon, which one of my own deceased teachers, John Welwood, called spiritual bypassing: "using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks."
Recently, I have been teaching a course on the semi-mythical lay teacher, Vimalakirti, who, in the 2nd century stood out as a critic of all spiritual pretension, showing us where we get caught by both our obvious and more subtle attachments to practicing the dharma. And Vimalakirti was followed by a whole parade of Chinese characters like Han Shan, who is known to have lingered outside the monastery gates with a wild and unruly countenance, waiting for his buddy Shih Te to steal scraps from the kitchen to bring to him. If the record is accurate, he and Shih Te engaged in frequent raucous episodes in which the two laughed and played together.
Way too often we get so far ahead of ourselves in our spiritual practice that we neglect the needs of our ego, our feeling self and thinking self. Instead of dealing being creatively playful or dealing directly with an emotionally charged issue, we may say to ourselves, “All I have to do is trust in Buddha, big mind, emptiness, God, or a higher power.” Instead of connecting straightforwardly with our emotional reality, no matter how forbidding, we protect ourselves from feeling something we don’t want to feel.
In our meditation practice, can we allow any emotions that might surface to be felt in our body/mind? When you do this, it may or may not be helpful to label what you are feeling. The important thing is to not minimize or overlook the feeling.
When emotionally charged thoughts come up in your meditation, can you just observe them? If there’s a powerful resistance to an emotion, might you want to look into what’s causing it or what’s keeping you from feeling it? I call this shining your flashlight in the cave below the surface of your chattering mind. The moment we say to ourselves, “this should (or shouldn’t) be happening” or, “this is just ego” we are leaving the darkness of the cave which is the only place we will discover the light that is continually shining from it, the light that enables us to work and play with both lightness and abandon.
This does not preclude extending compassion to ourselves or others as we focus on the place of their hurt or ours. And if sitting with an emotion seems too uncomfortable, we can turn off our flashlights for a while and say to ourselves, “I see my (her) suffering. And I hold myself (her) and the suffering in my heart with love and kindness. May this suffering be eased.”
We need to realize that feeling is a form of intelligence and that just as it is, our body/mind is attuned and innately intelligent, so intelligent that it takes into account many factors all at once. If we do this, when a sticky feeling comes up, we might be curious rather than judgmental. “Let me shine my light into the next cranny and see what’s there.” And if the problem or situation still seems too complex or disturbing, can we hang out in not knowing? Vimalakirti, who is pretending to be sick in bed, is approached by each of the historical Buddha’s ten most wise disciples. They think they know, and Vimalakirti continually dismisses the superficiality of this knowing.
Can we tolerate having an unresolved problem lingering and even look at it playfully instead of fast forwarding into knowing the so-called “solution”? Can we shine our light on it, remaining open to solution(s) we haven’t discovered yet? If you do this with patience and persistence your mind quite naturally descends into your heart as your breath descends into your belly. When this happens, we are no longer impeded by rocks that dam up the river of our lives, the river of being. Then even the sound of the rocks which dam up the stream have a delightful melody.
Here’s another early Chinese teacher’s comments pointing to a way of live which both healthy and deeply satisfying:
Case 80, Blue Cliff Record:
A monk asked Zhaozhou, "Does a newborn baby possess the six senses or not?"
Zhaozhou said, "It is like throwing a ball into the rapids."
The monk later asked Touzi, "What is the meaning of 'throwing a ball into the rapids'?"
Touzi said, "Moment-to-moment nonstop flow.
Hsue Tou commented: It flows away, no one knows where, flows on from instant to instant, and there is nobody in the world who can foresee its destination.
More on this next time.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher