I gave a talk recently titled, “Moving through Fear and Liberating Happiness.” I pointed out three things we may do when we are dominated by fear:
First, we may become more compliant, more willing to surrender our rights for vague promises of safety.
Second, we may withdraw either into our “tribe” or into a sense of hopelessness about our lives.
Third, we become more security-oriented, less open to new possibilities, viewing out future through the lens of fear or hopelessness.
When we focus on the negative, as I do when I Google “Trump Russia” at every opportunity, we inevitably end up exaggerating the potentially threatening parts of our lives. Out of the urgent need to survive, I may compromise my commitment to acting compassionately toward myself and others, overlooking my interdependence with everyone and everything.
Fear, when not named, narrows our vision, shuts down intuition as well as ability to be reflective, and promotes violence. Zen practice is not only about meditating. It’s about both having the courage to name our fears and insecurities and share them with a trusted spiritual friend. Time after time I have supported students in naming their fears and watched how this unburdening has freed them up to be fully present in their moments and their lives. This is what the 13th century Zen teacher Dogen calls, “enlightening our delusion.” If you are a member of our Zen Center you might want to develop an ongoing relationship with a teacher who may help you in this process. There are six of us who are ready, willing, and able to give you support on an ongoing basis. And if you are part of another sangha, you may want to develop a relationship with the teacher(s) there.
Lately, I have been thinking about the emphasis that my root teacher, Suzuki Roshi, placed on embracing “things as it is.” To do this we need to relinquish our hold on an image of how things need to be, or should be, or might have been. By practicing not resisting what is over and over again, we begin to say “yes” to life as it is unfolding.
The well-known psychiatrist Milton Erickson referred to this as the “yes set.” In his work with clients who had an overall negative attitude, he found that if he could get them to say “yes” once, that single utterance could be an entrée into a series of yeses and that series could result in the individual beginning to say “yes” to life.
Suzuki Roshi used to talk about the expectation in some Zen monasteries that a student immediately say “yes” to whatever his teacher asked him to do as a way to move out of yourself and fully embrace whatever activity is at hand. Saying “yes” can be a powerful spiritual practice.
Embracing “things as it is” doesn’t mean bypassing our disappointment, sadness, or anger about something that has happened. It means accepting both the situation and the negative feeling we might have about it, without suffering about our suffering by talking to ourselves about it, which drains our energy and is a total waste of time.
Suzuki’s combination of the singular and the plural in “things as it is,” while grammatically incorrect, underscores his teaching that everything is separate and yet undivided from everything else. Take the poem by the Japanese Zen master, Ryokan:
the thief / left it behind, / the moon at the window
Ryokan had lost all of his belongings in one fell swoop. And yet, rather than needlessly complaining about his loss, he used it as an opportunity to poetically express his embracing of “things as it is.” The moon is often used in Zen as a symbol of the enlightened mind. This mind is like the moonlight that enlivens everything it shines on. Everything is separate, and yet everything is undivided since each object bathes in the same warm glow.
The neighborhood around Zen Center has become somewhat gentrified in the last couple of decades, so that it has become almost impossible to find an affordable place to rent. Someone said to me recently, “I can’t stand that our neighborhood has become so chi-chi. It shouldn’t be this way,” and then went on and on about how unfair it was. But his ranting and raving was not getting him anywhere and I began to feel exhausted listening to him.
So both of us began to suffer needlessly, rather than saying, “Yes, this is the way things are,” what some Vipassana teachers have referred to as radical acceptance. Radical acceptance does not mean being a doormat, however. Once we have fully accepted something, we can move on to decide if we want to try to modify it in the future. “Yes, the neighborhood has become chi-chi and I feel sad about it, but instead of complaining I am going to do something to try to make it more livable.” Even the term “radical acceptance” is insufficient to express the warm, calming glow we can all feel when we fully embrace “things as it is.”
One of my friends is fond of saying that Zen is Buddhism with jokes. Playfulness, laughter, and overall good humor was something I appreciated in my two teachers, Suzuki Roshi and Katagiri Roshi. We can trace this humor, laughter, and playfulness all the way back to early Zen, as exemplified by Pu Tai, Han Shan, and Shih Te.
All three of these characters renounced the life of privilege available to Buddhist teachers in 10th century China. Instead, in their rambunctiousness and tomfoolery they demonstrated a childlike lack of self-consciousness. A few words about Pu Tai follow:
Pu Tai is the laughing Buddha that we see in so many Chinese restaurants. He had no desire to call himself a Zen master or to gather disciples. Instead he wandered around with a sack full of oranges, which he freely gave to children who gathered around him. Adults gathered around him too, thinking he was mad to laugh so much, but often finding themselves doubled over with laughter, themselves. Notice next time you have a good laugh, how your senses are sharpened and how much lighter you feel. It’s impossible to laugh and be anxious at the same time!
There’s a story about Pu Tai sitting down under a tree, with his eyes closed, not laughing, not even smiling, completely still and peaceful. A villager came up to him and asked “You are not laughing, Pu Tai?”
“I am preparing.”
The villager did not understand. He said, “What do you mean by preparing?” Pu Tai replied, “I have to prepare myself for laughter. I have to go within. I have to forget the whole world so that I can recharge, and then I can be filled with laughter again.”
The ability to re-charge our batteries so we can deeply enjoy our lives is something that naturally develops out of a steady meditation practice. In a future blog entry I will give examples of how my own first teacher’s playfulness and laughter rubbed off on me during my time with him.
Sometimes people ask me what the outcome of a long-term meditation practice is. My reply is that you may become more placid and better able to roll with the punches, but most important, you become more truly yourself. Many of the Buddhist teachers who have impacted me were quite eccentric, and at the same time true to themselves in deep, and sometimes inspiring ways. When I say more truly yourself, I mean not transfixed by your own image, instead able to engage fully in your life without continually needing to evaluate how you are coming off to others. This is what my first teacher called “Zen beyond self-consciousness.”
One of these eccentric teachers is the early 19th-century Japanese Zen adept, Ryokan, who fully immersed himself in Zen practice at a young age, devoting himself to meditation in a sequestered monastic environment. I call this the “cocoon phase” of his practice. At some point the cocoon broke open and a strangely beautiful butterfly emerged. Here’s a poem he wrote years after he left the monastery in which Ryokan alludes to his life afterword:
With no mind, flowers lure the butterfly; with no mind, the butterfly visits the blossoms.
Yet when flowers bloom, the butterfly comes; when the butterfly comes flowers bloom.
The monastic (or “cocoon”) practice which Ryokan engaged in before flying freely was based on the model developed by the 13th century Zen teacher, Dogen. Dogen articulated two complementary facets of training:
1. Constraining the impulsivity of the small self through ritualizing each aspect of life in the sequestered setting of a retreat or monastery. He gave precise instructions on how to sit in meditation, brush teeth, receive and eat food, even use the restroom. This ritualization of each detail can enable a practitioner to fully engage in each activity while maintaining a meditative flow.
2. Cultivating and expressing parental mind. Dogen tells many stories of monks who exhibited this feature. He mentions visiting a Chinese monastery and encountering the head cook, who he finds outside in the sweltering heat drying mushrooms. Dogen asks him “What are you doing working out here at this time when the sun is so hot?” The monk replies “What other time is there than this,” and continues with his work.
In our urban, American Zen practice, we also do our best to honor this commitment to caring for practitioners’ well-being, so they can practice inside the cocoon until it breaks open and they flap their wings with abandon, no longer being trapped by thoughts or images of themselves or others. One ancient Chinese Zen teacher referred to this emerging into authenticity as “letting the person of naked red flesh come forth.”
In meditation, we steep ourselves in a stillness that is beyond time. But people often get discouraged because too often it feels like we’re steeping in our constantly churning, constantly chattering mind: our worries, moods, regrets, and heartaches are sometimes all we experience as we sit. In the beginning and often for a long time, our thoughts come so fast they seem to trip over each other. If we do get a moment of quietude, it’s fleeting and tentative; and then we’re back, immersed in the chatter of a busy mind, wondering if it’s even worth our effort. We all feel this way from time to time.
But if we stick to it, we begin to feel the underlying fear below our persistent mental noise. We begin to see how chatter, chatter, chatter covers up what we don’t want to deal with. It is difficult to experience our deepest hurts, longings, and existential pain in a direct and undiluted way. With a sincere meditation practice, however, there is no avoiding these deepest feelings.
When we just see our persistent thoughts without engaging or indulging them, this is pretty good. Eventually, the thoughts become transparent to us, and we begin to see the patterns from which they arise.
This often begins with an elusive and indistinct sense that something important is happening, but the significance is just out of reach, like vague shapes just beyond the horizon of our awareness. It takes time for our inner eyes to adjust to the dark and to the sensation-based language of our inner teachers. We so quickly get caught up in regretting the past and rehearsing for the future.
People often tell me they can’t meditate because their thoughts are too loud, too busy, too out of control. They are convinced that their meditative experience is different from that of others. But everybody says that. So if everyone says it, what is it really saying?
Our thoughts spin around and around, binding us to the wheel of reacting, regretting, and rehearsing. The wheel becomes the driving force of our life and it cuts us off from our true interconnected nature. It feels like we are stuck in what Zen teacher Joko Beck called “a substitute life.”
When we step back from all our regretting and rehearsing just a little bit, we see that the world is much bigger and much warmer than we ever imagined. If we see the wheel of reactivity without judgment, there’s a chance we can learn to dis-identify with it. But we can’t do it by trying to dis-identify: if you’re trying, then you’re still caught on the wheel of should and shouldn’t. You have just moved to a different spot.
Instead of getting distracted by the content of your thought dreams, look instead at the context within which they arise. What is the emotional environment surrounding them? Is it fear? Frustration? Worry? This is when our churning mind becomes our teacher, revealing fixations and patterns, while turning us toward the moment-by-moment cultivation of mental clarity, courage, and inner strength.
But you have to steep yourself in the practice of sitting quietly and being aware, again and again and again, to get a sense of what I am talking about. You have to put the teabag in the hot water, over and over. Eventually, the flavor of the water changes; it becomes sweet. And that sweetness bubbles up right in the middle of your churning mind and you find that you aren’t getting so wigged out over things.
There’s no need for despair if you only get a fleeting taste of this stillness, because it is not of time—but it completely permeates time. T.S. Eliot called it “the still point of the turning world.” After a while, the still point begins to enter our consciousness when we least expect it. We taste it when we immerse ourselves in nature, when we feel a sense of intimacy with others or the world around us, and when we give ourselves fully to the simple activities of daily life. Regardless of the speed of your churning mind, the still point is there, waiting for you to tap into it.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher