Distracting Thoughts

sodo“All you have to do is decide that wherever you are is the best place there is. Once you start comparing one place to another, there’s no end to it.” — Sodo Yokoyama

The late Zen teacher Sodo Yokoyama gave a clear summary of his teaching in a letter to a friend in 1977. This is taken from longer excerpt in the excellent book, Living and Dying in Zazen by Arthur Braverman, which I recommend with enthusiasm. “Zazen” means “just sitting”, and is a Zen word for meditation. “Satori” means a sudden flash of awareness or awakeness; a brief experience of Enlightenment.

“My teacher, the late Sawaki Roshi, often made the following self-evaluation: ‘I am an eternally deluded person. No one is as deluded as I am. I am deluded with gold trimmings. How clear it is to me when I do zazen!’

“What a strange thing this zazen is. When we practice it, distracting ideas, irrelevant thoughts — in short, delusions, which ordinary people are made of, suddenly seem to feel an irresistible temptation to arise and appear on the surface. Then there is a desire to drive these thoughts away, in irresistible desire to which our complete effort is added. Those who don’t do zazen know nothing about this. Why is it that when we practice, deluded thoughts continue to surface one after the other? The reason, which we learn from Zazen, is that each one of us, from prince to beggar, is an ordinary (deluded) person. The attempt to drive these deluded thoughts away — delusion being so much nonsense (interfering with the happiness of oneself and others) — is also something brought home to us through zazen. We tentatively call this zazen that guides us in this way, ‘Buddha’.

“According to this teaching, simply the awareness that you are deluded, which comes from practising zazen, makes you, in reality, a Buddha. It’s zazen that teaches us that we too are deluded, and hence delivers us from this delusion. When we actually practice zazen and look carefully at all the deluded ideas that keep popping up, we realize how ordinary we are and how little we have to be proud of or to brag about; nothing to do other than quietly hide away. This is, after all, what we truly are.

“Satori is being enlightened to the fact that we are deluded. There is then the desire, however small, to stop these deluded acts. That is how ordinary people are saved by zazen. So we realize, beyond a doubt, our ordinariness through our zazen practice, and any departure from zazen (Buddha) will give rise to the inability to deal with these delusions and hence we will lose our way. We can say that the world has gone astray because it can’t deal with its delusions…All the troubles in this world, political, economic and so forth, are created from situations in which the awareness of one’s ordinariness is absent.

“Sawaki Roshi said, ‘Those who are unaware of their ordinariness are from a religious point of view shallow and comical.’

“The devil — that is, illusion — when seen as the devil, can no longer exhibit its powers, and disappears of its own accord.

“Shakyamuni was enlightened beyond all doubt to the fact that he was an ordinary person and became a Buddha. Then he began to live the life of a Buddha. When you realize your ordinariness, you are a Buddha, and when you are a Buddha, no matter how many distracting ideas and irrelevant thoughts appear they are no match for a Buddha and hence no longer remain obstacles. Delusions that no longer obstruct us are called fantasies. The Buddha way — the way of peace — is turning of delusion into fantasies.” — Sodo Yokoyama 1907-1980

Te Shan

When Te Shan left northern China on foot heading south, determined to destroy what he had heard as the teaching of a special transmission outside of doctrine, he was a dedicated Buddhist scholar thoroughly attached to formal learning.

One day close to the end of his southern journey he met an Old Woman selling refreshments by the roadside. He set down his knapsack to buy some refreshments whereupon the old woman asked what writings had he been carrying that were so dear. “Commentaries on the Diamond Cutter Sutra,” he responded, commentaries which were actually books on books on ways to reality that he considered so indispensable that he had to carry them with him everywhere he went. The old woman then said, “The Diamond Cutter Sutra says ‘past mind can’t be grasped, present mind can’t be grasped, future mind can’t be grasped’: which mind does the learned monk desire to refresh?” Te Shan in all his scholarly learning was rendered speechless.

By the time he reached the monastery he was completely devastated by his ‘defeat’, especially by a ‘mere’ roadside vendor. But Te Shan was no longer there to contend or do battle with the teaching of a special transmission outside of doctrine. Within days all was behind him as Te Shan experienced Awakening under the auspices of Long T’an and the now famous ‘blowing out the candle’ sequence.

The morning following his Enlightenment Te Shan took all of his commentaries into the teaching hall and raising a torch over them declared to all assembled:

“Even to plumb the full depths of all your knowledge it would be no more than a piece of hair lost in the vastness of the great void; and however important your experience in things worldly it is even less than a single drop of water cast into a vast valley.”

He then took the torch and set fire to his commentaries, reducing his once valuable books to ashes.

I lifted this story from this site, a very rich resource. Please visit it and mouse around. — Franca

Worst Reasons to Meditate

I just received a promotional mailing from a meditation course that included a cut-and-paste of an article on the benefits of meditation. Eight of the ten “reasons to meditate” cited directly conflicted with my own experience. The article’s called “Top Reasons to Meditate”, and begins thus:

Meditation is a unique form of art wherein an individual learns to focus and concentration levels. Most people consider meditation as the best method to transform one’s personality or change one self into a good human.

Aside from the muddled writing, the second sentence feeds right into a huge issue: the perception that meditation is going to “fix” you or somehow change you into something “good”. It is not. I know lots of meditators who’ve been practising for years and they’re still jerks.

— Enhance intelligence
According to a serious research conducted, it has been proved that people who meditate possess thicker gray matter as compared to those who don’t. This contributes to the intelligence of a person.

This first reason

The second reason given is:

— Happiness guaranteed
In a study, various MRI Scans were conducted on people who meditated for a long time. The results showed that these people possess enhanced activity in the left prefrontal coretex. They also displayed suppressed activity in the right prefrontal coretex. This is a state closely associated with enhanced positive emotions. This ultimately proves that people who mediate are happier.

Happiness guaranteed?? There is no guarantee of anything. Nothing. Guarantees do not exist in real life. And who is to say that the relationship between happy brain activity and meditation is causal?

— Personal Insight
Another benefit of getting deep into meditation includes an enhanced level of personal insight. You would be able to see your true self. This will be extremely beneficial for you when it comes to transforming your personality into someone who you actually are.

Problem is, that “true self” you’re going to be able to see doesn’t exist. But wait a minute… I’m going to use this to transform my personality into someone I actually am? Who was it before, and where will they go after the transformation?

— Solve Problems
With mediation it is possible for you to calm down during first few sessions. Novices usually think about the problems they face in their daily life. However, when the mind relaxes, one is able to find out solutions for even the most complicated problems that exist in his or her life.

When you start out you’ll do it wrong, but hey, your lousy efforts will still bring you benefits.

— Recover Lost Memories
When you start learning to meditate, it may take some time for your mind to calm down and adjust to the new activity. One can easily give into distractions when meditating. However, you would feel that during the initial period of adjustment, you would come to know about several long-lost memories.

Oh, GOODY. This will be better than TV.

— Minimize stress levels
According to a research performed at the University Of Massachusetts Medical School and research conducted by experts, meditation is capable of transforming brain waves in the autonomic nervous system and amygdala. This provides total control to an individual over fear and stress. Several other studies conducted in this respect have proved that people who spend quality time in meditating are calmer and more relaxed as compared to those who don’t.

TOTAL CONTROL??? If I have learned anything a tall from dharma practice, it is that there is NO SUCH THING as “total control” over anything. Not one tiny little thing, not even the next thought I will think.

— Minimize pain
Several studies have shown that meditation plays a great role in controlling chronic pain. Most of the hospitals use meditation as an integral part of program in order to help patients who have chronic pain.

See my previous comments on “control”. And what got us into this mess is the constant attempts to minimize pain. This is a classic example of “mind killing” — using a person’s delusions (the delusion that one can somehow assume control and avoid or minimize paid) in order to convince them to do what you want.

— Enlightenment
The traditional Buddhist meditation will ultimately allow you to reach the stage of enlightenment.

There is nowhere to go. Nothing to attain. Enlightenment, as so beautifully put by Te Shan, is “a post to tether donkeys”.

Bad News, Good News

“You can buy a ticket, but you can’t pick the destination.” — Ken McLeod

When beginners sit down to meditate, they generally hope for certain experiences: calm, clarity, a sense of well-being, even bliss. There are literally centuries of anecdotal evidence of this, and today we even have direct scientific evidence of the positive results of meditation. But what most people actually experience at first can be quite different from this.

Meditation is the practice of cultivating awareness. As Ken McLeod says, when you decide to become aware, you don’t get to pick what you become aware of. When we begin to notice how our minds actually work, we get the bad news: we are not nearly as consistent as we thought we were. We may see ourselves as kind and reasonable, but we notice thoughts that are cruel and capricious. We may see ourselves as strong and courageous, but we notice vulnerability and fear.

Meditation doesn’t cause these “new” thoughts and feelings to arise: it simply reveals what is already there. What’s there right now is the result of what we’ve done and experienced in the past. Of course we don’t have much influence over this — things are just unfolding according to past events and actions.

The value of meditation is not just the calm states it can sometimes produce (although those are very nice), but fact that it allows enough “space” in the mind for us to see how we’re causing needless suffering for ourselves and others. We do have influence over our future states of mind, because our future state of mind will be a result of what we choose to do from now on. If we stop letting our patterns run our life, things will change. And that’s good news.

“The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What’s going on is very important.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

More Thoughts from Oliver

More thoughts on death from my eloquent friend Oliver Schroer, who has untreatable leukemia.

Dying is a funny subject. Very slippery when you try to get in there. I mean, I am dying now, am I not? But for me, dying represents more like that moment in the play where the actor clutches his throat and falls to the ground in a dramatic display, possible two or three times. That moment of passage which caused Nathaniel Webster to utter as his last words (paraphrased): “I die. I am dying. Both are used.” Right now it feels as though I am living, and rather intensely at that. So we could say that we are all dying, because in fact we are. We are all heading there. But that becomes very abstract, and believe me, it is not less abstract for me right now than for any of you. So that kind of leaves me back at square one in terms of my grasping of what is happening on a daily basis.

Sometimes I think of dying as taking a trip, a trip far away to a place from which I cannot come back. We all know people who do that…. move to Tasmania (great place, by the way…) The point is, we wish these people well on their journey, but we don’t get all choked up and overwrought about it. We remember them fondly, and they live on in our memories through stories and the legacy they have left. We toast them in absentia, and hope they are doing well in their new digs. Well, my whole journey feels a bit like that. I am going to this place we will all go, and my travel plans are just a bit more immediate than yours. (Though life is strange, and I still might not be the first to go. Just be careful crossing those streets and driving those cars, folks.) I think a lot in terms of metaphors to help me understand things. I have been informed by the stationmaster that my train is coming in immanently, and that I should be ready to get on board when it does. But until that train comes, I am still doing what I am doing fully and completely.

I am still trying to decide if he misspelled “imminent”, which means “any minute now”, or deliberately used “immanent”, which can mean “performed entirely with the mind”.

Defying Comfort

Some time ago a multimedia item in the on-line New York Times captured my attention: “A Death-Defying House”. A pair of artist-architects design houses that deliberately violate several assumptions: that living spaces must be comfortable, convenient, easily navigable. They design houses that are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and hard to navigate, and make the dramatic and challenging artistic statement that these houses will help you live forever: in other words, if you live in one of their houses, you will never die. They have even created designs for cities with no graveyards.

I love statements like this! Everything about the piece, from the death-defying statement to the details of design, challenges assumptions on an intellectual, emotional, and somatic level. Why should we be comfortable? When we design an office in which all needed tools can be reached immediately, what do we do with the time we save? The energy we save? Are we designing spaces that make us weak, unfocussed, confused, lazy? When are we more alive: when hunting for berries in the forest, or when deciding what to order at Sushi Time? When climbing the side of a mountain, or when standing on an escalator? When spray-painting graffiti on an illegal wall outside on a cold fall day, or when airbrushing defects out of a portrait on our computer at home? (Of course there are assumptions in these questions, too.)

I remember reading an interview with lama who was asked why the centuries-old traditional robe design of Tibetan monks had never been updated. When the monks do prostrations (and they do a lot, every day) the robes really get in the way. The lama pointed out that the inconvenience of one’s robes was good for mindfulness.

So the next time you find yourself wanting to fix something uncomfortable or inconvenient, consider your assumptions: why does it have to be comfortable? Consider an experiment: What happens if you make it more inconvenient, instead of less?

Here is link to the New York Times story.

Working for Treats

Watch a person training a dog. When the dog does the right thing, the person says “Yes!” or “Good dog!” and gives the animal a treat. Watch a parent and child: when the child does something great, the parent smiles, and his or her body language reflects pleasure and pride. Watch a meditation class. When people report breakthrough experiences, does the teacher smile and show appreciation? When people report problems, does the teacher frown and look concerned? What kind of reports get attention? Are the students working for treats?

Some classes “treat” positive meditation experiences. But any kind of attention can be a “treat”: sometimes the sheer drama of a big problem can capture the teacher’s attention for long periods. Interestingly, the rest of the class can support this. If the class is discussion-based, as mine are, when a student reports unpleasant or frustrating experiences, other students may start offering sympathy and advice. I have noticed that some people experience this extra attention as a reward; others experience it as a punishment. Either way, the patterns are being activated and running unconsciously. Nobody benefits.

We all want to measure success. It’s natural to feel happy when people have breakthrough experiences, and to give extra attention when they are suffering. But it is a mistake to allow these responses to unconsciously influence what gets raised in class. The effect may be to create an increasing sense of fakery, or to cultivate narcissism, or to drive some students completely underground.

You may have noticed some odd behaviour on the part of teachers to avoid this. Many teachers have the same response to everything: they say something like “Yes, yes, very good,” or “Keep going,” or “Hmmm,” or just grunt in a neutral way, no matter what the student reports. But people are very observant, and will pick up the tiniest sign.

The best thing, as always, is to cultivate awareness. If I feel pleasure as a teacher at a breakthrough report, I try to be aware of the pleasure as my own reaction, not as something I need to reflect back to the student. If, as a student, I feel inhibited about raising an issue that I suspect will make me look stupid or a failure to the class, I try to be aware of my insecurity as my own reaction, and raise it anyway. And if, either as a teacher or a student, I feel discomfort at another’s suffering, I try to be aware of the discomfort as my own reaction, and refrain from acting on the impulse to “fix” the problem with sympathy or advice.

If a beam falls and nobody notices, does it change anyone’s life?

An excerpt from Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”. Sam Spade tells the story of a Mr. Flitcraft, who has a good life, but completely disappears, abandoning his wife and two small children:

“Here’s what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up–just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk along side him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his fingers–well, affectionately–when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works.

“Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

“It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had got twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

“He went to Seattle that afternoon … and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Most spiritual practice begins with a shock: unmistakable evidence that an “ordinary” life, even a very good one, does not, and will never, satisfy. We all live immersed in differing degrees of denial and frustration, anesthetized (or simply deluded) by our patterns. We drift through our lives, mechanically serving the intricate medley of behaviour patterns that we call “Me”.

When the beam falls, there is an instant of awakening. What people do next varies a little, but not much. In the vast majority of cases, they go back to sleep.

I’m grateful to delanceyplace.com for bringing this into my inbox.

Working with Your Inner (and Outer) Critic

One of the best ways to avoid experience is to project material out onto others. Let’s take being critical as an example. Criticism is often a family disease, passed from generation to generation, which is why it can come up pretty sharply at this time of year.

In my case, I learned to be very sharply critical in a number of ways, including nagging, nasty jokes, “straightening people out”, and so on. When I nag my husband or kids, I sometimes have strange moments of clarity wherein I hear my mother’s rhythms and tones in my own voice. A sobering experience!

So I look inside, very carefully, when I experience the impulse to criticize. I find that internally I have a critical voice that is talking almost all the time, telling me things I should be doing to improve myself or the world. Under that, discomfort…an anxiety, a sense of things being out of control, of having the responsibility to sharply put things back into “order”. Under that, there is anger. Anger that the world is not cooperating with my need for things to be “in order”. Under that, there is fear. Fear that if things are not all “in control” I will “lose everything” and “be abandoned”. And under all of that, a sense of being vulnerable and alone.

So it is the energy of this fear that cascades upwards through my mind and finds an outlet in criticism. By allowing it to do so, I’m missing the opportunity to simply experience the fear in its true state: simply as energy. I am cultivating the habit of nagging (when has nagging ever helped?). I’m causing suffering for those around me. I am teaching my sons the habit of nagging as well, just as my own mother taught me. But worst of all I’m falling deeper asleep, even as I feel so clear and “right” about my judgments.

When people are critical, they are generally feeling that internal critical voice. This, ironically, makes them hypersensitive to criticism themselves, because anything anybody says that could be seen as criticism is amplified many times by their internal critic, and the only way to silence it is to fight back, defend ourselves and prove them wrong. None of it works. None of it relieves our suffering, it simply distracts us from the pain of feeling what is really there.

When we have a meditation practice, it’s typical to start to see all kinds of futile and hypocritical qualities in the behaviour of our friends and family. But observing the foibles of others without recognizing their resonance within ourselves can turn us cruel. So if you experience criticism, or notice the impulse in yourself to criticize, hooray! Here’s an opportunity to practice. Try to look at the pain beneath the interaction: their pain, and your own. You don’t need to fix it, or transform it, or figure it out, or do anything at all. Just acknowledge that it is there, and observe it. Feel it resonate in mind. Let it come, and then let it go, because it will. Things always come and go, that’s their nature.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
— Leonard Cohen

Getting to the Good Bits

Meditation is a delicate balance. We’re in this because we want to end our suffering. That is renunciation, and is actually essential to a good practice. But when we start looking for a specific outcome, like enlightenment, balance, stability, etc., we just get even more confused. As long as “getting to the good bits” is on the agenda, we’re in our own way. Because wanting to get to the good bits IS the obstacle.

Remember that nobody, not even the Dalai Lama, not even the Buddha, has ever had any control whatsoever over the outcome of their meditation efforts.

Every time we sit down it is different. But letting go of the illusion of control and just focussing on the work causes a kind of internal release or relaxation. This experience of release is important: you don’t only renounce the mental habits that cause suffering, you also renounce misguided efforts to avoid the suffering that has already arrived.

At the beginning of learning how to meditate, one sits on a cushion, adopts the right posture, and waits for the halo to land. Then there’s this whole period of confusion and struggle when we realize the halo isn’t landing, instead it seems to be raining poop. Eventually, we give up trying to fight the poop and — well, if a halo doesn’t exactly land, at least we reach another level. We reach a level where the cushion is a refuge, even when it means feeling our pain instead of avoiding it — where we can see that sitting deepens sanity.

So forget about the good bits. I can’t guarantee you they’ll happen, and I can’t guarantee they’ll not happen. It’s what IS happening that is important.