I’d like to say more about one of my favorite passages from the early Zen prose-poems, Trust in Heart-Mind, attributed to Seng Tsan, the third ancestor in our Chinese lineage:
“When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way, there is no objection to anything in the world. And when there is no objection to anything, things cease to be in the old way. When no discriminating attachment arises, the old mind ceases to exist. Let go of things as separate existences, and mind too vanishes. Likewise, when the thinking subject vanishes, so too do the objects created by mind.”
One of our tasks as Zen practitioners is to cultivate awareness of our minds and emotions without “objecting to anything” we experience. In our meditation practice, the first step is to cultivate awareness of our thoughts and emotions. The second step is to hear and validate even our darkest thoughts or emotions. Our limbic system which processes our emotions, does not mature as we age, so dark emotions come up for all adults, even Zen teachers! If we do not repress them or chatter to ourselves about them. we can free ourselves from their “stickiness.”
As neuroanatomist Jill Taylor says in My Stroke of Insight, our higher cortical functions take “new pictures” of a thought or emotion that is coming up in the present. When we compare the new information with the automatic reactivity of our limbic mind, we can reevaluate the current situation and purposely choose to neither indulge the emotion nor repress it.
Taking these two steps in our meditation happens quite naturally as we slow things down in our meditation.
Jill says, “Something happens in the external world and chemicals are flushed through your body which puts it on full alert in the limbic system. For those chemicals to totally flush out of the body it takes less than 90 seconds. This means that for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away. A persistent meditation practice is the best way to do this. However, if you continue to feel fear, anger- the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological response over and over again.”
Each time a negative emotion comes up, we have a chance to become aware of it, radically accept it and as we do this we naturally settle into a deep calmness and feeling of connectedness with the world around us. When this happens, we no longer pour fuel on the fire of the specific emotion with our thinking. As Seng Tsan says, “we are undisturbed in the Way.”
and when there is no objection to anything, things cease to be in the old way. When no discriminating attachment arises, the old mind ceases to exist.
A year ago, I went to Duluth to visit my friend, who had just had her leg amputated above the knee after being run over by a city bus. As she described her experience of being pried out from beneath the bus, she was very calm and matter of fact. Her small mind was so undisturbed, that each time I asked her about the intensity of her anger and sadness, she pointed out the glorious view from her room of Lake Superior and the waves lapping against the shore.
It was as if her accident brought her to the realization that she was more than just a single wave, herself, or a single constellation of waves but the entire ocean. Her “old mind,” her baggage-carrying mind had ceased to exist. This is what Jill Taylor experienced also, as a result of her stroke.
Each of us can let our “old mind” drop away through a consistent meditation practice. But I don’t want to be too idealistic about this. Even though the “old mind” drops away, we never know when our limbic system is going to get set off and it comes roaring back. How many times have I come home after a few days single minded meditation in a retreat setting and my limbic system gets set off by an encounter I have with a family member? Luckily, it is possible for all of us to let 90 seconds pass when a strong emotion comes up and just breath while the fire of the emotion peters out.
When this happens, small mind vanishes: “Let go of things as separate existences, and mind too vanishes. Likewise, when the thinking subject vanishes so too do the objects created by mind.”
The more we learn to be aware of our waves of emotion as they emerge, the more we realize that the waves are not separate from the ocean. We can appreciate them as they are rather than getting bowled over by them. When this happens, the separate thinking subject vanishes.
My younger grandson, Logan, had a really difficult time learning to swim. Each summer for several year we took him to swimming lessons. Whenever the teacher tried to get him to relax in the water, he froze up. One day several years into the process, he finally relaxed into the water. When I looked down at him at the end of the lesson, his mind was “undisturbed in the way” and he exclaimed, “Look Grandpa, I just floats!” Through your meditation practice, you can learn to “just floats,” too.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher