I gave this teisho Thursday night.
I’ll start and end this talk with verses from Transmission of Light, one of Zen’s koan collections. This opening verse is from Case 7:
Though there be the purity of the Autumn waters
Extending to the horizons,
How does that compare with the haziness
Of a spring night’s moon?
Most people want clear purity,
But though we sweep and sweep,
The mind is not yet emptied.
I hear many people say they’ve tried to meditate, but have given up because they can’t stop their thoughts.
This is a misconception of what’s supposed to be happening in meditation, and I’m sure it’s one of the biggest reasons people don’t start or give up.
There’s nothing wrong with thoughts or thinking. Thoughts are just the mental activity that arises all the time. Thinking is giving our full attention to thoughts; conjuring thoughts, engaging with them, directing them. Our capacity for thinking is marvelous and immensely useful.
And, many of us, much of the time, are trapped in an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors, in which our endless internal dialogue is all we perceive, and our main way of knowing ourselves.
In meditation, we take the lid off of this echo chamber, this hall of mirrors. In meditation, we see and hear this dialogue, and we discover it is not all there is. In fact, it’s just one feature of what is.
And, in truth, it isn’t a particularly good portrait of who and what we are. It’s an isolating perspective. For all the good our thinking sometimes can achieve, it also can contribute greatly to our own and others’ suffering, when we only inhabit the myopic world of thought.
So, what are we doing in meditation as we take up the practice? Well, in a nutshell, we don’t try to stop or resist thought or other mental activity — but we do gently relax its grip on us when we find ourselves lost in thought. We don’t engage with our thoughts or other mental activity the way many of us tend to do reflexively at other times.
So, for example, if I notice the thought “this seems to be going well” or “that was a car passing,” I don’t respond to that thought with another one. When I think “this seems to be going well,” I don’t then actively think, “but I’m going to bail early if my foot won’t wake up, because I’ll fall over when it’s time for walking meditation.” When I think, “that was a car passing,” I don’t then choose to think, “I wonder if that was Ginny coming home from the grocery store.” I just gently return my attention to my breath. If the response comes anyway, I just gently return to my breath after that.
If my lower back hurts, I don’t think about whether it’s okay to reposition a bit, I just do the least needed to reposition.
Sometimes you’ll hear it said that very experienced meditators reliably go through every meditation period with a completely quiet mind; without mental activity. This is simply not true. I know this from my own experience.
(Brain scientists are learning that meditation alters patterns of brain activity over time, rather than quieting mental activity altogether—whatever that might mean.)
Sure, there will be times and states that seem more clear and spacious, in which thoughts arise less frequently and assertively, and in which our attention is more relaxed, still, undisturbed, and focused, but focused on nothing in particular. These times may become more frequent and last longer over years of regular practice. Our tendency to get trapped in loops of discursive thinking will diminish, and when that sort of mental activity occurs, one likely will be quicker to notice, and to disengage. But a completely quiet mind? Without thoughts, ever? No.
What we eventually experience, as a sort of base stage to which one returns, is a relaxed, receptive (but non-striving) alertness. It will feel open, spacious, grounded, calm.
It’s not a blankness, or fog, or half-sleep sort of nothingness.
If you just find yourself being less anxious about periods when the thoughts keep coming, or of active thinking, that’s progress. When you eventually find yourself unconcerned about whether you’re making progress, even better.
What’s happening in meditation isn’t mainly happening on the plane of thought anyway. The goal isn’t perfect mind control, whatever that might mean.
Our problem in meditation, even at the beginning, isn’t thoughts. Our problem is thinking the problem is thoughts. Being sure that, in meditation, as in the rest of our lives, I’m doing it wrong; that there’s something wrong with life, and with me.
The very part of oneself that brings some of us to Zen practice is also the very part that tries to sabotage Zen practice once we start it. It’s the part that compels us to search for something other than this, because this just couldn’t be right or enough, could it?
We judge Zen and our practice just like we judge everything else. And it creates distance. Separation. It separates me from my own life.
On the other hand, Zen and other contemplative practices are sometimes criticized for being anti-intellectual and quietistic, in part because of this suggestion that thinking—and, particularly, rational thought, which has been so fetishized since The Enlightenment, which is such an ironic term for Zen types like us—defines what it is to be human, or at least what is best about being human.
But Zen has no issue with thoughts and thinking. Its leading lights have produced endless volumes of conceptual, discursive literature, and they show no sign of stopping. Some of our practices other than meditation invite reflection, like certain verses, such as the Meal Gatha (in which we’re asked to reflect upon how our food comes to us) and our dedications (in which we’re asked to remember specific other people and commit our practice to their memory or well-being).
Zen is not anti-intellectual, but its core practices—meditation and koan introspection—aim to help us grasp what thinking cannot.
We tend to see our intellects as the whole of who and what we are and intellectualism as our only, or as our best and highest, capacity. Because of this tendency, we may believe we can think our way out of or through everything. Many of us come to a practice like Zen in search of something we think thinking will help us find, and so we tend to approach practice that way.
In reality, our thinking mind tends to spin up predicaments and dilemmas that aren’t there, and then tries to think our way out of them, which thinking can’t do. Our thinking creates the hall of mirrors then tries to plot our escape from it.
But we can’t think our way out of the existential trap our—amazing and otherwise useful!—capacity for thought thinks we are in.
The Zen path invites us to step off that hamster wheel.
Zen exposes our questions and dilemmas as baseless, as hollow—as empty! It acquaints, or re-acquaints, us with the possibility of a different, and ultimately more satisfying, experience. One that’s always right here, right now.
The Zen path doesn’t really lead to answers to our questions. Rather, our intellectual questions tend to lose their force, sometimes swiftly, sometime slowly. They begin to lose their death grip on us as we begin to touch our own experience differently. As a different way of relating to life, of being in the world begins to take hold of us; as we begin to develop a different sense of who and what we are.
Buddha. Or, as Meister Eckhart said, “Though we don’t realize it yet, we are all sons and daughters of God.”
This new sense isn’t any less intellectual than our sense of sight. We can get very brainy about seeing, and analyzing and describing sight, but that is thinking about our sense of sight, not sight itself.
This new state of being, or orientation to life, isn’t any less intellectual than our sleep state. We can get very brainy about sleep, and analyzing and describing sleep, but that is thinking about our sleep state, not sleep itself.
We have no quarrel with sight and sleep, but most of us struggle to stick with meditation and Zen practice. Most of us struggle with our experience of life. We need to give up the fight, and our practice—with which many tend to struggle, to fight, at first—helps us do that.
Don’t let your practice become part of the struggle. Go easy on yourself. Lower your expectations at first. Sit for five minutes a day at first, if that’s all you feel you can manage initially, but stick with it. Every day, or most days, at least. When you feel you’re ready for five minutes more, start sitting for 10 minutes a day. Lower the bar enough to sustain your practice. Don’t judge it; just do it.
My 11-year old daughter sometimes fights sleep, even as she seeks it. I tell her that thinking about not falling asleep—the loop she gets stuck in, telling herself she can’t do it—is what’s keeping her awake. A few times I’ve laid next to her, holding her and encouraging her to follow her breath into sleep. At other times, she lies alone struggling. Either way, she eventually falls asleep! And then she has sleep, she is sleep, instead of being captive to thoughts about sleep and no sleep. Her fear of letting go into sleep has lost its grip.
Meditation practice is the same way. There have been countless times over my years of meditation practice—in the early days, or in the seventh hour of the first day of sesshin, or on the seventh day of sesshin—when I was struggling so; when the thought “I can’t make it” would arise. Then, “Ding! Ding!” The session was over. A session of mostly struggling and discomfort as meditation. And, then, getting up and carrying on with the rest of the day, the rest of the retreat . . . as meditation.
Zen, and what it reacquaints us with, is nothing other than this vital life we are living, right here, right now. Through our practice, we come to know and live life so intimately, and not as an “it,” as an object to our subject. Subject-object is not the mode in and through which we experience or comprehend life most deeply. Rather, we come to experience life neither in subject-object mode or not in subject-object mode—trusting life “in our bones,” in and as every fiber of our being, in and as every breath we take and release, without thinking about it. Matter. Of Fact. The Great Matter.
Best as we can tell, the historical Buddha merely called this state and sense “awake.” When people asked him what he was, and what made him different than other sages, he didn’t allow them to project anything too exalted on him. He simply said he was awake—and he no doubt knew what it meant to be truly awake.
Zen practice, including meditation, helps us let go of our fear of being alive, of being truly awake to life itself, as opposed to our ideas about life and how it should be. Fear of life loses its grip on us, just as my daughter loses her fear of sleep as she melts into it, whether she goes struggling or not.
Now, about everything I’ve just said:
Please don’t receive it in the mode of “too much thinking,” as my old Kyudo (Zen archery) teacher used to say. That’s what he would say when I released a shot that didn’t come from a heart centered in the place I’ve been talking about, even if the arrow happened to hit the target. I hope what I’ve just said speaks to your heart, more than your head. A heart centered in that place is the target. The target is life itself. Your life.
As promised, I’ll close with another verse, this one from Case 9 in the Transmission of Light:
Even Manjusri and Vimalakirti could not talk about it,
Even Maudgalyayana and Shariputra could not see it.
If people want to understand the meaning themselves,
When has the flavor of salt ever been inappropriate?