Today is May 14 2023. First Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers out there. Being a mother and being a parent in general, is no easy undertaking. Especially in these times of so much divisiveness in our society, amplified by social media, and the 24/7 news cycle.
There are recent studies that link social media usage to feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, especially in young people. And when it comes to emotional well being, the situation is so dire that the surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy published a newer New York Times op ed two weeks ago, raising the alarm on our country's, quote, epidemic of loneliness and isolation. He sees it as a public health crisis brought on by a lack of connectedness with other people, and with the communities that we live in. So it's not so much a matter of physical distance apart, as it is social and emotional separation, despite being so connected, as we are through our mobile devices. Checking one cell phone itself can be a kind of addiction to some what we're one feels that this urgency to be in the know whether to see what's happening in the world, or, you know, maybe do some scrolling to find out what's going on, or what's happening with your friends or your family. What are they up to? And there's even a name for this. Nomo phobia, no mo phobia, the fear of being without a mobile phone. When I was a college professor, not too long ago, I witnessed this phenomenon in some of my students, we have this policy of no texting or checking your phone during class. And aside from observing how they got really fidgety with their hands, some really just could not resist the urge to sneakily check their phone. They place it inside a book and pretend that they're looking at reading the book, when they're actually checking their phone. Or they put their position a bag like a purse or a backpack on the top of the desk and like slipped the phone in there in a certain way, where it was slightly open, and they could see it and yeah, pretend that they weren't checking. I saw right through it. And many of you know that during sesshin, during our meditation retreats, we actually invite participants to turn in their phone. So they don't have to deal with that that temptation. And interestingly, not many people take us up on that offer. So hopefully that means they're able to resist the urge on their own. But there is a price to pay with the availability of so much information at our fingertips. And worst of all, is that we distract ourselves from the sheer intimacy of just being. Being in a body being in the present moment. connecting, connecting with life, just as it is but from the vantage point of our deluded self. That self that perceives itself as separate and is habitually knotted up in thoughts and feelings. The present moment seems boring.
In Buddhism, mental constructs and feelings are part of what's called the five skandhas, which are identified in the opening line of the Heart Sutra that we chanted this morning. Skanda is a Sanskrit word that translates to mean, aggregate or heap. So what we identify as a self is basically comprised of a collection, a heap of things that are part of the experience of being human. In other words, the five skandhas are the components that come together to make us experience life as an individual. So everything that we think of as an AI, a me is a function of the Skandhas. Without getting into much detail, the Skandhas are one form, our physical body, our eye, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind, feeling, all the sensations we experience in our body, ranging from pain, to pleasure. Thirdly, perception, we use our sense organs to name and define the world. We hear chirping outside, that's a bird
or a Robin. And then, fourthly, mental formations. These consists of all the concepts, thoughts, judgments, that we make from the most ordinary, to the most imaginative. We can see them as triggered by by our feelings and perceptions, which are conditioned by habit forces, and lead us to act in one way or another. And then the fifth one is consciousness. The nature of consciousness is is a huge mystery. It's our basic awareness of being a self which requires the other force for scandalous. It gives rise to a sense of self in relation to others, to and to the world around us. And yet, that's just a abbreviated textbook description of what what the Skandhas are or what and particularly what consciousness is especially. Which is the grip really greatest mystery of life. Consciousness. In Zen, that's the mystery that we're, we're exploring, looking into the experience of being a living being, like a sense of wonder and awe. If we're working on a koan, it's activated by the questioning. Why is this? Who is this? What is Mu and if we're working on a breath practice, it comes from the simple awareness of breathing. Breathe breathing itself is wondrous. We just breathe. We don't have to think about it. We just do it. Who is doing that breathing? Why is breathing
a couple of months ago, I came upon an article about the power of ah, and found it to be a really good cross reference for understanding the way practice works. The title of the article is the quiet profundity of everyday ah, it's by Decker Keltner. And it was published in the Atlantic in January, earlier this year. Dr. Keltner is the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, and a professor of psychology at the at the University of California, Berkeley. And the article that appeared in The Atlantic is excerpted from a new book that he published. And the title of the book is, ah, the new science of everyday wonder, and how it can transform your life. So he writes from the vantage point of a scientists. But what he has to say about our human capacity for all relates to the nature of practice. And we won't have time to cover the whole article, but I'm going to zero in on some of the more more relevant parts.
He begins, what gives you a sense of awe. That word, ah, the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world. It's often associated with the extraordinary. You might imagine standing next to a 350 foot tall tree, or on a wide open plane with a storm approaching, or hearing an electric guitar, feel the space of an arena, or holding the tiny finger of a newborn baby. Ah, blows us away. It reminds us that there are forces bigger than ourselves. And it reveals that our current knowledge is not up to the task of making sense of what we have encountered.
He continues, you don't need to, you don't need remarkable circumstances to encounter are what when my colleagues and I asked research participants to track experiences of awe in a daily diary. We found to our surprise that people felt it a bit more than two times a week on average. And they found it in the ordinary a friend's generosity, a leafy trees, a leafy trees play of light and shadow on a sidewalk, a song that transported them back to a first love. We need that everyday ah, even when it's discovered in the humblest places. A survey of relevant studies suggests that a brief dose of awe can reduce stress, decrease inflammation, and benefit the cardiovascular system. Luckily, we don't need to wait until we stumble upon it. We can seek it out or is all around us. We just need to know where to look for it.
We just need to look directly. No special place that we need to find.
Keltner sees experiencing everyday awe as an antidote to the kind of emotional suffering that the surgeon general wrote about a couple of weeks ago. In other words, it treats the body mind by activating The vagus nerve, which regulates bodily functions include, including slowing our heart rate, eating our digestion, and also deepening our breathing. And participants in Keltner study even reported a reduction in negative self talk, that critical voice telling us we're not good enough.
But how can we understand this in the context of Zen practice? First, it's important to recognize that practice isn't about trying to experience ah, we don't, we don't need to look for anything. Let alone any try to experience any special sensation. There's, there's no purpose to practice in the sense that we're not trying to get something we're not trying to get from point A to point B. As long as we hold in the mind, the idea that we're lacking something, or that we need to get to a more pleasant place, then we're caught up in thoughts. That said, Ah, does arise naturally, in doing Zen, especially if we do it regularly. As our saw as our thoughts settle, and we concentrate the mind. Naturally, we become less preoccupied with herself, and more in tune with everyone and everything else. Even fascinated by others and the world around us. Life becomes wonderous, when we're paying attention. So it's interesting that Keltner he describes our as this feeling of vastness, or that which is bigger than ourselves. And the Buddha taught that our true nature is like vast, empty space. This self that has no boundaries or borders. And it's not other than who we already are. It's not outside us
when we take a bite into an apple, that's it right there. When we're washing our hands, and as we're rubbing them, all these soap bubbles are forming. It's wondrous. It's right there
Roshi, there's a line that Roshi would often say, vote in Roshi, behind the divisible there's always something indivisible.
So you don't need to visit a national park, or experience the birth of your child or witness some spectacular event to experience all can be accessed in the most ordinary things if we're paying attention. And yet, from a scientific standpoint, this seems to kind of run counter to how the human brain functions actually, through the course of our lives, in the process of feeling, sensing assessing situations, making calculations and decisions, making plans, you know, this is all the work of our brain work that our brain is designed to do. In the process of that we develop this storehouse of knowledge and experiences that we rely on to make sense of how we experience the world. Scientists call it the D False mode network. And it operates as a kind of a kind of filter or mental map in order to survive and participate in the social world. And, frankly, it is helpful to be able to remember how to tie a shoelace. You know, how to how to drive a car, how to speak and act appropriately around other people. Those are all good things that our brain helps us do. And practicing Za, Zen, an aspiring for enlightenment doesn't require us to undo that vital work of the brain. But it's interesting to recognize that this this process of Zen, of turning and returning our attention to our practice, kind of temporarily, lets go have that habitual mode of sensing. It let we let go of our ideas and judgments and narratives that that default mode network for a period of time
our likes and dislikes so that we can look directly and see the world as it is not not how we want it to be or think it should be or through the lens of our past conceptions. You know all those all that storehouse of knowledge and experiences we have.
So it's clear that scientific research on the nature of human consciousness dovetails with how we understand meditation practice.
Fundamentally, the five skandhas are empty
there's nothing permanent about ourself nothing fixed, no substance. It's just just this
the exquisite sound of birds chirping that's it.
As Keltner goes on, he gets into how art can be sparked not just by things and experiences but by people. He says in our daily diary studies, one source of awe was by far the most common other people, regular acts of courage, bystanders, defusing fights, subordinates standing up to abuse of power holders inspired Ah, so did the simple kindness of others, seeing someone give money to a broke friend, or assist a stranger on the street. But you don't need a serendipitous encounter with a good Samaritan to experience ah, we often find inspiring stories and literature, poetry, film, art and the news. Reading about moral exemplars say protesting racism or protecting the environment was a pervasive source of awe for our participants.
And what he found was that when we see or even just read about others doing acts of kindness or standing up for social justice, when we see that we feel better, and more likely to perform such deeds ourselves If that makes sense that if you feel more connected, you're more likely to help out. And feeling connected, just like the sensation of awe. naturally arises out of doings Zen.
I was telling the folks at the workshop yesterday how a Sangha member recently told me that he was recently he was recently able to finally get a daily practice going really got some momentum. So he's been sitting every day. And he has a very stressful job. And, you know, prior to sitting regularly, you know, it was quite common that he would get really annoyed and irritated by his co workers, he found them to be obnoxious, you know, you get angry, really impatient with them. But once he got his sitting practice going, he noticed that he was a lot more calm, and relaxed around them, and wasn't really bothered by them. And more than that, he was interested in their lives, he was curious about them. And he found himself starting to get to know them, get to know them as individuals, instead of, you know, putting them in this box, you know, of being an annoying person. So, he has Zen can really help us to override that part of our brain functioning, that wants to filter the present through the past. And it does that by sharpening our attention to the present, flexing that muscle, keeping on returning, returning, returning. Then Keltner describes how the everyday activity of walking can be a source of art as well. And he says about what he says about walking is a good reminder about the power of Keene. He's been walking meditation as a bridge for practice while sitting into practice, during activity. Being one with whatever we're doing, and he says, another common source of art is just taking a walk. Along with Virginia Sturm, a University of California, San Francisco neuroscientists, I studied the effects of an all walk that was in quotations and all walk. One group of subjects took a weekly walk for eight weeks, the other group did the same, but with some instructions. Tap into your childlike sense of wonder, imagining you're seeing everything for the first time. Take a moment during each walk to notice the vastness of things. When looking at a panoramic view, for example, or at the detail of a flower and go somewhere new, or try to recognize new features of the same old place. All the parties, all the participants reported on their happiness, anxiety and depression and took selfies during their walks. I don't know about the selfies. We found that the all walkers felt more odd with each passing week. We might have thought that their capacity for a would start to decrease. This is known as the law of hedonic adaptation. That certain pleasures or accomplishments a new job, a bigger apartment, start to lose some of their thrill over time. But the more we practice all it seems the richer it gets.
So yeah, we can say the same thing about practice while sitting or in motion. The more we do it, the richer the richer it gets. Because the less burdened we are by thoughts when when walking, just the sheer you know x perience of of our body moving through space, the sensation of lifting our foot up touching the ground, and then the other foot can be full of awe. But because most of us know how to walk, we've done it a lot, done it a million times, our brain doesn't naturally see it as amazing. In fact, a lot of times when we're walking, we're planning, you know, we're thinking about what we're going to have for lunch, or what we're gonna do later, or we're rehearsing something or, or maybe we're back in the past, and, you know, reviewing a conversation we had and how it went, etc. We're not just walking.
But any activity we do, whether it's walking, or taking a shower, or washing our hands, driving a car, can actually be truly wondrous, if we're putting our attention to it wholeheartedly. Dr. Keltner also recommends seeking out new experiences as a way of tapping into our capacity for awe. And the reason why we can more readily experience ah, through new experiences is that our brain doesn't have any reference point to connect with something totally new. Alright, so you know, we're there, we're present. As a consequence, that default mode network doesn't work in that situation. A good example of that is when traveling to another country, you don't speak the language. You can't read the menus, you can't read the signs, you're walking down the street, you can have this feeling of being like, totally lost. And just out of your comfort zone, and your senses are alive and alert. The simplest, act like taking a taxi or getting on a bus, you know, is is both challenging, and amazing.
And when it comes to Zen practice, actually, when folks feel like they're in a rut, they're their practice feels stale. That's a good time to shake things up, to introduce some some newness to kind of snap out of that. And it could be as simple as sitting at a different time of day, or lighting incense during a prostration if you don't normally do that. Making it making it new.
And in addition to so called all walking Keltner says the arts to can make us feel connected to something boundless and beyond words, in one diary study, many people wrote that music brought them moments of all and stirred them to consider their place in the great scheme of life. When we listen to music that moves us dopaminergic pathways, circuitry in the brain associated with reward and pleasure are activated, which open the mind to wonder and exploration in this bodily state of musical awe. We often get the chills, signs, studies have revealed that we are collectively engaged in making sense of the unknown. You know, a good example of that is like being in a large arena to see your favorite band. Right. And it's just amazing. Performance and and, yeah, it's a collective experience. There's this podcast I listened to with Keltner. And he, you know, he calls this collective sense making but you know, it's really multiple bodies acting as one. And he uses this great term he calls it collect If effervescence, collective effervescence. And it just really struck me what what a wonderful way to describe chanting. And in the Zen tradition and chanting, you know, the words don't matter. Just, it's all about pouring our whole being into it, and it becomes just one one vocalization.
And then Keltner ends his article saying, visual art activates the same dopamine network in the brain, and can have the same transcendent effect. When exposed to paintings. Research has found people demonstrate greater creativity. One study which involved more than 30,000 participants in the United Kingdom, found that the more people practice, or viewed art, the more those individuals donated money and volunteered two years later, nearly three years into a pandemic that's made many us many of us feel powerless and small, seeking out the immense and mysterious might not seem appealing, but often engaging with what's overwhelming, can put things in perspective, staring up at a starry sky, looking at a sculpture that makes you shudder, listening to a medley of instruments joining into one complex spine tingling melody, those experiences remind us that we're part of something that will exist long after us. We are well served by opening ourselves to our wherever we can find it, even if only for a moment or two. So again, opening ourselves to all comes down to simply being present, deactivating the default mode network, that filter. It's the difference between experiencing life as it is, versus what we think it is, or what what we believe it should be.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato had something to say about this distinction between our thoughts and life as it is, and it's known as The Allegory of the Cave. I'm sure some of you have heard about it. So there's a group of people who are chained together as prisoners inside an underground cave. And they're facing a blank wall. Behind them, behind the prisoners is a enormous fire that casts shadows onto the wall of the cave. The shadows are this like procession of figures and objects. And both the both the fire and the objects are behind the prisoners. And that's why all the prisoners see is this as the shadows. So all they know about the world comes from those shadows, and they take it to be reality. But the shadows are merely actually a fragment of reality, a fragment of what we can perceive through us through our senses, while outside the cave under the full sun. That's where truth lies. The point of the allegory is that we live in a world of delusion. And some of us are even very comfortable with that delusion or go to ways of sensing and thinking or habits of mind. We're comfortable with that. We cling to our habits of mind and our routine activities. Because it's what we know it's predictable. And it makes us feel like we're in control. Really, we're not in control. We can't be Everything's changing, we are change. Nothing static. And Zen practice enables us to let go of being in control, to let go of knowing itself and to explore not knowing. Releasing ourselves into that not knowing when we do that it's hard not to feel off
not knowing is the most intimate. That's got to be the most powerful line in the book of serenity. Not knowing not knowing is the most intimate.