Category Archives: Teaching

Blinded by Thought

Many years ago I taught myself to draw using a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Her premise is that anyone who can hold a pencil and make a straight line can draw. The problem is that we don’t see what is in front of us because our thinking mind – the left side of the brain – hijacks our perception. The mind thinks it already knows what things look like and that blinds it to the actuality.

Look at a straight-sided mug, for instance. It appears to have straight sides with an ellipse at the top and a partial ellipse at the bottom. But if you draw that you get pointy bits where the sides meet the top and bottom edges, whereas in reality these places are rounded.

The book contains a number of exercises to make you really look at things, such as drawing the irregular spaces between objects that the mind can’t guess at. I was amazed at how quickly my drawing improved once I learned to look.

Just so with our other perceptive faculties, for example listening. Those of us who teach will, I’m sure, have had the experience of explaining something perfectly clearly, and possibly more than once, only to find out later that a student thought we said something completely different because that was what they already had in their mind and so did not hear what we actually said.

Once we know that this is how our mind works we can cultivate the ability to let go of thought and perceive more clearly. Just as I could learn to see and draw more accurately, we can become aware of how our thoughts can prevent us from hearing what is being said, or understanding the reality of a situation. The following quote from Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind gives us a clue:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

P.S. If anyone has a spare copy of either of these books and would like to donate them to the library here at Sitting Buddha Hermitage I would be very grateful. (Please email before sending as I only need one copy of each!)

No Problem

What would your life be like if you had no problems? And what if I suggested you that you have no problems? I don’t mean that all the tough stuff stops happening, I mean that it ceases to be a problem for you because you don’t see it as such.

How would you define the term problem? I think it is something along the lines of an unpleasant, unwanted or unexpected situation that is painful or difficult to deal with. It also carries an implicit sense that something is wrong. Maybe I think that something is wrong with me. Or I think that something is wrong with the world that delivered me up this problem.

Notice that this is all taking place in the realm of thought. Whatever the situation that we are facing, it is a coming together of causes and conditions. Just that. It is we who label it problem.

The Buddhist view is that each moment, in its arising, is immaculate, exactly what it needs to be. Our life is unfolding perfectly.

In Rev. Master Jiyu’s diary of her years in Japan, published as The Wild White Goose, there is a passage (p. 44 of the 2002 second edition) that she wrote after experiencing the beginnings of her first kensho (enlightennment experience):

The only thing I can possibly do in order to learn anything is to accept, in blind faith, everything that is happening to me, believing that it is all for my good, whatever it may be.

And there is a footnote to this, which says:

This is probably the most important sentence in the book from the point of view of someone who wishes to learn Zen.

What if you were to take the attitude that everything that happens is for your own good? Even if that seems far-fetched to you at the moment it is at least as valid a view as thinking of life’s difficult situations as problems. And doesn’t it make you feel more open instead of closed down? Doesn’t it make the whole situation more workable? I pose these questions for you to answer from your own experience, if you wish to explore this for yourself.

Dropping Off Body and Mind

Great Master Dogen’s expression dropping off body and mind has captured the imagination of many who have heard it and has been the subject of much study and scholarship. The expression appears to originate with Dogen’s master Tendo Nyojo, occurring many times in Dogen’s record of his conversations with his master.

Dogen himself uses the expression in a frequently quoted passage from Genjokoan, a key chapter in his Shobogenzo:

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express the ungraspable trace of realization.

The above translation is by Shohaku Okumura, from the chapter called Dropping Off Body and Mind in his book Realizing Genjokoan. Here is part of Okumura’s explanation of dropping off body and mind from the same chapter:

We have many different experiences during the course of our lives, and in the process of experiencing these billions of things we create a self-image. We come to consider ourselves as capable or incapable, superior or inferior, rich or poor, honest or dishonest. We define ourselves in this way and hold on to ideas of who we are; we create the karmic self. But when we sit in zazen, we let go of all these self-images. When we open the hand of thought, these concepts drop off and the body and mind are released from karmic bindings.

These billions of experiences have not just created a self-image, they have created our whole world-view and way of being in the world. Another term for this is conditioning – we have been conditioned by everything that has happened to us in our lives. Meditation shows us that we do not need to be bound by our conditioning, we do not have to be limited by what has happened to us in the past, by the way things have been.

And it is not just our minds, but our bodies also, that are temporary collections of molecules, constantly in flux, impossible to hold on to.

As another of the Soto Zen ancestors, Sekito Kisen, puts it in Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage (trans. Taigen Dan Leighton):

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.

Open your hands and walk, innocent.

Breathe

Further to last week’s post on relaxing tension in the body and mind, I’d like to talk briefly about how the way we breathe is linked to how much relaxation or tension we experience.

When we do zazen the instruction regarding the breath is to let ourselves breathe naturally through the nose without trying to manipulate the breath in any way, and I am not going to suggest we do anything differently when we are meditating.

What I am going to suggest is that you pay some attention to the quality of your breathing as you go about about your daily activities. What is your breathing like when you are feeling relaxed? Is it slow and deep? Are your ribs expanding nicely out to your sides? And what is happening when you feel stressed? I expect you will find that your breath is faster and shallow and maybe your ribcage is frozen. No real problem if this happens infrequently and for short spells. But for a lot of us this rapid and frozen way of breathing has become a habit and can actually be creating more tension.

The good news is that we can train ourselves out of bad habits and into better ones. There’s tons of information out there about improving your breathing (just type breathing into Amazon and you’ll see what I mean) but really, all you need to do to get started is notice your breathing when you are tense and see how you feel after taking a few good old-fashioned deep breaths, breathing slowly and letting your ribs expand to the sides. Does that feel good? Has the amount of tension you feel reduced?

Sometimes just bringing our attention to the breath, without the intention to change it, can be enough to trigger the body to bring itself back into balance by regulating the breath. Any improvement in the way we breathe is going to reduce tension and help us to be more relaxed both on and off the meditation cushion.

Relaxing into Meditation

We all know the benefits of relaxation, but perhaps we don’t associate relaxation with meditation. However, being able to relax our body in meditation goes a long way to helping the mind to be calm and open.

Don’t get me wrong – a relaxed body is not a prerequisite for meditation and if we have pain or tension from an underlying condition that we can do nothing about then we can certainly meditate with that pain and tension. What I am talking about is what I have heard referred to as volitional tension, the tension we have a choice to hold or let go of, even if that choice is not immediately accessible to us.

Tension in the body is closely associated with resistance to unwanted thoughts, emotions and sensations. When we meditate we start to see how and why we resist, and the suffering it causes us, and begin to let go. We can greatly aid this process by becoming aware of our physical tension and doing what we can to release it. There are many, many ways to do this including any recreational activity that helps you unwind any any type of bodywork that releases muscle tension.

I find it helpful to spend a moment or two, when I sit to meditate, becoming aware of tension in my body – for me it is often in my neck and shoulders – and picturing it flowing out of my body into the earth as I breath out. All of us hold layers of tension in our bodies that have built up over the course of our lives. Working to dissolve our tension will definitely benefit our meditation and also improve the quality of our lives.

Being the Caretaker of This Life

We each have been given a life, which manifests through our body and mind. This life, this body-mind, is the one we have. You could say that this life, fully inhabiting this body, is our path. Of course we can work to improve the circumstances of our life and our experience of it, but we must start from where we are now, which means we need to accept our life just as it is now, not pretending it is other than it is, living in a fantasy land, or refusing to face things as they are. Even having a “spiritual” goal of becoming a wiser, more serene person at some future point can stop us from fully engaging in our life as it is now.

We have a tendency to take things personally. It’s understandable that so long as we think that we are a separate entity that ends with our skin we experience ourself as the centre of our universe: everything happens to me, my train was late, I was treated badly, I handled that really well, it shouldn’t have happened to me

I’d like to suggest a way of looking at our life that I think helps us to take it all less personally. Because it isn’t personal. From moment to moment innumerable conditions are in operation that result in, for example, someone behaving towards you in a way that you find offensive or upsetting. Same thing if it starts to rain – innumerable conditions coming together – but we don’t usually take the weather personally, do we?

I suggest thinking of oneself as the caretaker of one’s life. A good caretaker will attend to whatever is in her care. If, for example, it is a house and garden she will keep it in good repair, get things fixed when they break, decorate, tend to the garden, without taking it personally when the boiler breaks down or the guttering needs replacing or the lawn needs mowing.

If we can regard ourself as the caretaker of our life I believe it will be easier to let go of resistance and engage more fully with this life of ours. Instead of fretting over perceived unfairness or looking for ways to avoid dealing with things we can simply get on and do what needs to be done. And as we open more completely to this life perhaps we will come to see that this me that is living it isn’t quite what we thought it was.

An Accident or an Incident?

Have you noticed how motorway warning signs in the UK often now refer to incidents rather than accidents e.g. speed restriction due to an incident between Junctions 10 and 11?

An accident means something bad happened; an incident simply means that something happened. What if we were to view everything that happens in our lives as incidents, removing the judgement of good or bad? Simply, something happens, we become aware of it, it has consequences and we take care of them.

There’s a Buddhist parable about a man who has been shot in the eye with an arrow. What is needed is removal of the arrow and medical attention to the wound, not sitting around discussing who fired it, why, and how awful it is. Some time soon it would be wise to find out more about the incident and take any action that is called for to minimise the risk of future harm. But right now let go of the judgements and blaming and help remove the arrow!

(The arrow is a metaphor for the human suffering caused by fearing bad stuff happening to us and obsessively chasing after what we think is the good stuff. It is also what blinds us to our true nature.)

We’re All Doing The Best We Can

When I first heard this said in the context of a Dharma talk I was shocked by what I perceived as the naivety of the speaker. I knew that I could do better – and hadn’t my teachers known it when they wrote it on my school reports?

Over the years I’ve come to see that yes, people, myself included, could very probably do better in the future but right now, in this moment, with conditions as they are and all that has occurred in the past to bring about this moment, we are doing the best we can. What I mean by doing our best is not meeting some standard of achievement, but responding wisely and compassionately to what is in front of us. All beings want to be happy and all of us are wise and compassionate at heart, underneath all the fear and worry.

And even if I were to doubt this, I have found that just taking the attitude that everyone is doing their best removes any blame and judgement and enables me to respond in what I hope is a more skilful and kind way. It doesn’t mean I am blind to problems that need to be addressed, but shame and blame never helped anyone to let go of their fears and insecurities, leading only to more fear and contraction, whereas love and acceptance are truly transformative and enable people to open up and see things in a new light and have the courage to act differently.

Wholeheartedness

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about resistance, how it manifests in meditation and daily life and how we can work with it. I have continued to sit with this subject, and I asked myself the question: what is it like when there is no resistance? The word wholehearted immediately came to mind.

I love this word wholehearted, always have; the sense of being completely engaged in whatever I am doing, no part of me left out or split off. And I don’t think we are talking about a rare or elusive state here. I think it is common to be wholeheartedly absorbed in our activities – immersed in a project at work, playing with the kids, engrossed in a good book, dinner with old friends.

But sometimes we are not wholehearted about what we are doing. As I was doing some housework I asked: what would it be to be wholehearted about this cleaning? Just asking that question had the effect of engaging me more with the task. And it didn’t mean that I needed to do a whole big spring-clean, just to look a bit more closely and be willing to put a bit more effort in to reaching awkward corners. Nothing earth-shattering. But it made a noticeable difference to how I felt.

Just asking the question – can I be more wholehearted about this? – will show up the places, the awkward dusty corners, which we resist. If we are then willing to put the effort in to do something about them, I think wholeheartedness will become a more frequent and familiar experience and resistance will be much easier to transform.

Resistance

Resistance to our current experience, whether in meditation or the activities of daily life, is more than just dislike. Resistance is a pushing away, a refusal (though not necessarily consciously) to be open to the present moment. It is not a productive response and only leads to suffering, certainly for ourself and very likely for others.

Resistance can arise in meditation for any number of reasons and is likely to manifest either in physical restlessness or lots of mental activity such as strongly distracting thoughts or thoughts of doubt about meditation such as I can’t do this, it’s not doing any good, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing anyway etc.

In daily life there may be a job we know needs to be done, such as clearing out all the junk that has accumulated in the garage, but we have a powerful resistance to doing it. Our energy slumps at the very thought of it.

Learning to spot resistance and not judging ourself for it can be a major turning point in how we deal with these situations. Often there’s guilt involved; we want to be the person who can sit down and meditate for 30 minutes every day, we want to be the person who willingly tackles that garage and creates a tidy space, but we’re not, and we feel bad about it.

Another crucial thing to realise about resistance is that it is kept in place by our thoughts. We tell ourself stories, such as I’m too tired to do this now, and we don’t look any further. Resistance is a call to turn towards rather than turn away. There is something here that needs your kindly and non-judgemental attention. Being willing to experience the discomfort of resistance, even opening to it just a small crack, can allow in enough light to reveal what is needed.

Maybe something happened earlier that upset you and you’ve been avoiding those feelings, but now you can let them arise and pass through and you feel calmer. Maybe you really are too tired to tackle tidying the whole garage, but you are quite happy to limit yourself to one hour today spent sorting out a particular corner and doing another hour next weekend.

Being willing to recognise and face our own suffering, sit with it patiently and compassionately, is key, always.