In this piece, I want to focus again on the unconscious. It is hard to believe and yet absolutely true that all problems have infinite possibilities but too often we glom onto only a single dimension. Through our meditation practice we have the opportunity to open up to a great spaciousness which includes all dimensions of life, all dimensions of being. This is referred to by 12th century Chinese Zen master Hongzhi as “cultivating the empty field.”
If we allow ourselves to fall into this great spaciousness, we can see the single dimension we are caught on and move beyond it. When this happen the specific thought or feeling becomes absorbed into the field that lies beyond the limitations of our conscious mind. If we open up to this field, the field itself finds a new way to experience and express whatever pattern of awareness we have been caught by. When this happens, we act in a new way. My teacher, Suzuki Roshi, called this taming your horse: “If you want to tame a horse, give it a large pasture,” he said.
We need a conscious mind, an “either/or” mind, a mind that continually has to make choices and narrows its focus to work toward specific goals. But that conscious mind is always resting within what my teacher called “Big Mind”, a mind of “both/and.” Any time we get locked into a single pattern, dimension, or thought, it is possible to return to the awareness that both sides are always true. Whenever we are fixated on a problem, this means we are stuck on one side with a negative relationship with the other side.
When I was very young, my mother had my I.Q. tested and reported to me and to the world that I was a “gifted child.” That may sound wonderful, but it became a pressurized box which I could not get out of. When I was around twelve and I got a bad report card, I decided that I was so unable to live up to the side of being gifted that I would have to kill myself. With the bad report card in my pocket, I rode my bike to a nearby hotel and I ran up the stairs to the top floor. I looked down at the street and quickly changed my mind.
Generally, problems that we are stuck on reflect fixed values we have learned. I had learned that smart people were valuable, and people who were not smart were not valuable, and that to show you were smart you did well in school or whatever you were working on. I carried that with me until I began working with my Zen teacher. Early on, when I complained to him that I wasn’t making any progress in my meditation, he said I would be much better off if I approached my meditation stupidly, rather than trying to accomplish anything. I experienced this as a great relief! I didn’t have to be smart after all!
In my next meditation retreat at San Francisco Zen Center I began to let the tension caused by fixation on achievement go and realized that I could be stupidly gifted or giftedly stupid. Our unconscious mind, or Big Mind, is always ready to show us how to bring things back into balance.
A few years ago, I was supporting a woman named Helen in her Zen practice. Helen came from a family whose core value focused around the importance of working hard. But Helen got so locked into this core value that she developed chronic fatigue syndrome. In a meditation retreat, I helped Helen invite and welcome the part that’s experiencing chronic fatigue. She explored how she could welcome both sides and had and epiphany. “I can do great work and relax deeply,” she exclaimed during a one to one with me. As she continued her meditation practice, gradually she integrated these opposites and her chronic fatigue abated.
Next time you get hung up on a problem in which you want x, but only get y, you might ask yourself how you can make room for both what you want and what you’ve got. Is it possible for you to enjoyably experience these opposites? To do this you need to cultivate a willingness to sit in not knowing with active curiosity. As you do this, you may even begin to appreciate contradiction in your life and in the world around you!
You may discover that you have the ability to shift from one side to the other and appreciate their interplay- stupid and smart, hard work and easy play- letting go of the locks within your conscious mind and opening into the large pasture… the empty field.
You might learn, as I did to be stupid in your studying (engaging totally in the process without worrying about learning anything) and smart in your meditation by carefully assessing at any given moment what approach is helping you move into Big Mind. Through a patient and persistent meditation practice, you can easily become adept at opening up to Hongzhi’s, “Dharma field that is the root source of the ten thousand forms, germinating with unwithered fertility.”
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher