2021-04-22 Harmony of Zen and Vipassana (4 of 5) The Suchness of Thinking
2:57PM Apr 22, 2021
I was introduced to vipassana practice in Southeast Asia – first in Thailand, then a bit in Nepal and then quite a bit in Burma. Then I came back to the United States and began participating in the vipassana practice that was taught here by Western teachers. One of the differences was that Western teachers, when they taught retreats, would have this systematic way, in the first days of the retreat, of laying out the instructions. Much like I have done it this week so far, they would begin the first day with mindfulness of breathing, second day mindfulness of the body, the third day mindfulness of emotions and the fourth day mindfulness of thinking, like today. Then maybe a few more days of something.
At some point, the instructions were to bring all those together into a seamless whole. It turned out that these instructions, in the beginning, were kind of like learning the alphabet. Once you learn the alphabet, then you can put ideas together into words and sentences and communicate. Say to people, write to people, "I love you," or "I apologize," or "I forgive you." All kinds of profound things we can say and write, once we know how to put those words and letters together.
In Asia, though, it was not laid out in this kind of step by step way. You would go to the monastery, and you were given the instructions relatively quickly, maybe 15 to 20 minutes. The basic idea was that you sit down and you are present for whatever is the most predominant experience of the moment. If there was nothing that was particularly predominant, more predominant than the breathing, then you would focus on the breathing. That was the default – that was the anchor to the present moment that keeps you tethered to the present. "Stay with the breath, stay with the breath."
The idea was not to hold everything else at bay. Rather, if something else arose that was predominant, meaning it was compelling and got your attention, then the instruction was to let go of the breath, and bring your attention to this new experience.
If it was a compelling experience in the body – your knees hurt or a pleasant sensation arose – you would let go the breathing and offer your mindfulness awareness to be present for this new experience. Just take that in. If it was an emotion, the same thing. If it was thinking, the same thing. No matter what it was, you would just bring your attention to it.
When I was a relatively new Zen student, I had this koan, this question that I was very curious about. I don't think I was perplexed exactly, but I didn't really have an answer. Maybe I didn't need an answer. It was enlivening to have this question. It felt like there was something really true here, in this question.
I asked one of my teachers – I think this way – I said, "It's easy to see how everything is different. The rug in this room is different than the wall. It is different than the ceiling and the lamps that are here. Each of these are different things. But how are they all the same?" I never tried too hard to actively think logically about how they are all the same. I believe what was happening was that the sameness of these experiences was somehow associated with how I was aware of them.
I was aware of everything with a certain kind of equanimity or openness or respect for each thing. Each thing deserved its own respect from me. In this idea of vipassana practice – when you know the alphabet, put it all together, and it becomes a seamless whole – there is no part of human life experience that is considered to be outside the domain of the practice. No matter what we are experiencing, it is included: "Yes, this too is for my presence, for my mindfulness."
What I valued so much about the instructions of vipassanā was the clear instructions around doing vipassana with things like emotions and thinking. These are things I mostly ignored when I was practicing Zen – sometimes to my detriment. There were emotions I had, which I was not aware of. And I did not know to pay attention to them in the seamless whole, which I learned was where everything is allowed to be included.
There is an element of respect that goes into this touching awareness – touching the experience with awareness, taking it in, and letting it register. You are allowing it to be felt and known in a deep way as a valuable thing. Everything is allowed to be there.
There is an idea in Zen – which was very important for me – of the suchness, the thusness of experience. Each thing in its own suchness can exist. How I understood this suchness is to know whatever is being experienced – how it is experienced before the judgments, the ideas of being for or against it, before what clearly can be seen as the mind's response and reactions to, and ideas about it. Just the experience in its own pristine simplicity.
This can be done with something like thinking. Rather than the idea that thinking is bad – that thinking is the problem, because thinking is the reaction that does not allow things to be in their pristine suchness. Rather than having that attitude towards thinking, instead having this wonderful idea of turning the attention 180 degrees around. When thinking is strong or predominant, be mindful of thinking – in a sense, the pristine suchness of thinking.
Have you ever considered what a thought is? Have you ever held a thought in the palm of your hand to feel its weight? Or have you ever tried to touch a thought and see how flexible or pliant is it? Can you push it and it gives? Or is it hard? Or do you go right through it with your thought? Have you ever considered what color your thoughts are, how large they are, or how small they are? For some of us, when we have these kinds of thoughts, our whole relationship to thinking begins to shift.
A lot of the substance of thinking has to do with our involvement with it – our desperation, or anger, or desires – our intensity around how we think. Carrying the burden of the world on our shoulders has a lot to do with our relationship to thinking – how intensely we are involved in all these thoughts and ideas.
This question, "How much does thinking weigh?" is one of the ways for some of us to shift back out of being so glued to and glommed on to thinking. We are carrying it so heavily. Or it is claustrophobic in our mind because of it all. Then to start creating space.
A very common experience for people as they meditate – if they are able to get settled – is that the thinking mind does not necessarily go away. But it stops being one thought after another. Or the thoughts stop feeling so heavy, so dense, so compelling. And they get lighter and lighter, thinner and thinner, softer and softer. They can be just as profound as before, but all this extra way in which we infuse them with weight and intensity begins to quiet down.
We turn attention around to look at thinking, to be present for thought, just the way we are present for thinking – with a light touch, just seeing it for what it is. Part of what we are also looking at is the way we relate to thinking. What is our involvement with thoughts? And the pristine suchness of seeing our involvement?
It is very easy to say, "Well, now it's okay. I've learned I don't have to get rid of my thoughts. They are not my enemy. But I am not supposed to be so attached to them or so involved in them. Now I'm a bad meditator."
In vipassana practice and in Zen practice, I believe, there is no such thing as a bad meditator. It is just one more thing to experience in its pristine simplicity. "Oh, this is me chasing my thoughts." "This is me contracting around this set of thoughts." "This is me being so interested in this particular concern." "Oh, this is what it is. This is what it is."
As we do vipassana practice, we learn more and more this seamless whole – where we bring this quiet, light touch, presence, to anything that is happening, anything that is compelling in the moment. With time, we get a sense that because the attention, the awareness now, is inclusive, nothing is left out. It becomes sacred, or the world becomes sacred. Because the awareness and the world are not exactly two different things. We have an awareness, which includes everything, not actively in the moment, but it is ready to include everything.
As soon as awareness has something that is outside of what is acceptable for awareness – what we are not supposed to pay attention to – then my sense of this sacredness disappears. When there is no outside and everything is included, if there is no outside, then maybe there is no inside either. It is just this seamless whole that we are able to sit in, not being bothered by anything, but ready to respect and care for everything.
In these next 24 hours, may it be interesting for you to look at your relationship to thinking, and consider: "Is there some way, a wiser way to relate to thinking? Is there a useful vantage point from which to experience and know that you are thinking, which suggests to you something about this sacred dimension of this world that comes through the medium of being aware?