Today is October 15 2023. And we are going to try to give a talk today. And the title is establishing and sustaining Zen practice. I want to apologize in advance for my voice. I've never quite had this happen before, but new experiences are good. And maybe it'll, it'll come along as we as we move through this material.
So I want to start out with the key, the key to practicing Zen. And that is don't separate practice from your life. Your life, your practice, the same thing. I'm giving this talk today, partly because Dora Sensei, gave a workshop yesterday. And I know there are people here who may be just starting out. And there was a time, a half a century ago, and I was just starting out. I remember, I remember, full of so many ideas. And as as my practice went on, over the years, I got caught up in all kinds of self judgment and just agony over my perceived lack of success is banging my head against the wall. And I didn't really know how to do that. Today, I see it more clearly, not completely, clearly, for sure. Like to talk to somebody who does. But what practice really means is turning returning to direct experience, right from the beginning of Zen in China, centuries ago, millennia ago. Zen was a teaching beyond words and letters pointing directly to the mind.
And so if you're awake to your life, if you're just in tune with what's going on, even if it's not so great. You're practicing. What's not practicing, shoving it back into a corner of the mind, and getting caught up in a narrative and a story and what you like and what you don't like trying to get what you think you don't have tried to get rid of what you think you do have. Practice has nothing to do with some sort of special, oriental flavor. It's there's nothing wrong with being enamored of the the aesthetic of Japan the amazing teachings of the Chinese masters. But it has nothing to do with any country with Japan or China or with America.
It's wonderful in your practice, to develop a reverence for life for this adventure that we're on for everybody who's in it with us, which is everyone, everyone. But don't become too holy. Don't become too caught up. The great Zen master Zhao Jo Jo Shu said when I speak the name Buddha, I want to wash my mouth out for three days afterwards. What wonderful about Zen. It's just this right here, right now. Clear, natural direct.
Obviously, we have to pay attention to what's going on. telling you not to get caught up in self blame or criticism doesn't mean you shouldn't be aware when you're going going off in a bizarre direction, or an unhelpful direction. Anytime you're unsure of what's going on, just ask yourself to what am I paying attention. And if you find it's on a story that's running through your mind, you know, you're missing what's real. And we're reading a talk that the Zen teacher Joko Beck gave, she said, Whenever she feels squirrely, she listens for the sound of traffic outside the windows of her Zendo. Anything at all, anything natural. A sound, feeling, bodily sensation. Whatever is right in front of you, is like an immediate way back into presence into being here. And being here with this moment. Maybe when we begin, we don't realize how important that is. But the awareness grows as you continue to practice. You realize how wonderful it is to be sitting here. Feeling whatever we're feeling.
When we start out in practice, usually we're gonna sign to breath, practice, counting the breath initially and then moving on maybe over time, if we want, if it works out for us, to just following the breath, being aware of the breath. That's it.
But if you're on the mat, and you're thinking about other things, or if you make the mistake of thinking about what you're doing, doesn't matter whether it's other things or what you're doing, if you're thinking you've gone astray. The Great Indian master Ramana Maharshi, who flourished in the first half of the 1900s said when there are thoughts, it is distraction. When there are no thoughts, it is meditation. It's a it's a revelation to some people, that the mind can be free of thoughts.
When we first start to practice, one of the first things we learn is that we're a mess. There's there are thoughts and judgments and preferences and worries anxieties. Daydreams, running through our mind nonstop from morning to night. It's overwhelming. I've compared it to floating down a stream and then hopping off the raft and deciding you're going to stand in the stream. The power of that stream is overwhelming. You really have to sink your feet in if you don't want to be swept away. There's a guy named Dan Harris. He was a co anchor I think on maybe NBC one of the major networks. He got interested in meditation after having a panic attack on air which was related, I think, to a cocaine habit that he had. However you get here it's good.
Anyway, he took up insight meditation, mindfulness meditation, and wrote a book called 10% happier people may have heard of it. Some people may have read it. You is I like him. He's a good guy. And he says this early in that book. Meditation is hard, especially if you're doing it right now Does that mean that means you're not daydreaming? It's easy to sit there and just let the mind wander from here to there and think, Okay, I'm meditating. This is kind of groovy.
I had a friend once who walked into Doakes onto a private meeting with Roshi Kapleau. And announced, I shall become a great yogi. The bell rang immediately.
I don't know Roshi Kapleau, didn't find it funny. Meditation is hard, especially when you're doing it, right. It's like holding a live fish in your hand. As you sit there and try to watch your breath, it's going to wiggle away from you millions of times, the trick is catching yourself and coming back. I love that image. There was a time when I used to fish. And you'd be surprised how strong fish are.
In, in early practice, because it's so hard to keep the mind on the breath, or whatever the focus of your meditation is, because that's so difficult because it keeps being interrupted. Because we keep forgetting what we're doing. It's easy to become discouraged. And to think, Well, some people have a talent for meditation, I'm not one of them. Maybe there's just I'm just wasting my time. Gotta be something else I could be doing. But that's a misunderstanding of how meditation works. Anything we do, again, and again devotedly, has an effect. But I'm reminded of it in this process of recovering from the two knee replacements I've had in the last one about a month and a half ago, and another one maybe about five months ago. Every day, pushing to the point of discomfort, and you're not seeing a whole lot happening. But as the weeks go by, all of a sudden go into sleep, your physical therapist, and they get their little Protractor out and crank your knee in flexion about as far as you can humanly go. And they say you've improved or four degrees better. It does, it gradually gradually makes a difference. There's so many things in our lives where just repeated practice, repeated exercise changes things.
When we first begin to practice, we don't necessarily thoroughly know that it's going to work for us, we may have a real suspicion that it will some people come in and they're extremely enthusiastic. It's great. But what you need is to put it to the test to put it to the proof and to begin to see things change. Somebody told me recently, they were I think they may have been feeling a little discouraged. And they looked down at their fingers. And they noticed that their fingernails weren't bitten to the quick. And they realized, oh, something's changed. If you find a difficult conversation a little easier than it used to be. Maybe you find yourself able to drop whatever's keeping you from doing what you need to do. Gradually, the power of our thoughts weakens. We're no longer whipsawed by what we think we can and can't do.
I read this in the Zendo the other night or the other. I think I actually read it last week and the Sunday sitting said quote from St. Francis to sales, which I'll read again. If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently. And even if you did nothing for the whole of your hour, but bring your heart back, though it went away every time you brought it back. Your hour would be very well employed
It's hard to break the habit of attending to our thoughts of being driven by our thoughts, living in them. And often, even even with someone with a, you know, a practice that they've sustained for some time, it's easy to compromise. We find ourselves tolerating a certain amount of thought in the background. Or maybe we tolerate a little bit of grasping, sort of straining, to focus more clearly, as if there was something out there that we had to get. Even for a seasoned practitioner, it's good to bring this to mind. To really look to let the mind fall completely silent. Don't be afraid of it. Don't be discouraged. But don't sit there with a running commentary. Trying to figure out what yard line you're on.
thinking mind is, of course, a wonderful gift. So much that we do in it. But I think everybody in here understands that it has a place and when it's out of its place, then it's a big problem. There is an article I read recently. It was published in the New Yorker quite a while ago. It's called Eureka hunt. And it's looking at the whole process of people having insight.
And the article begins by sort of laying out a story of a case of somebody having a life saving insight. Right at the last minute. It's a story I'd read before. It's in a book. I first came across it in a book called young men in fire. It's a story about this fire that happened in the man Gulch, I think in Idaho. No, in Montana, in Montana, and I'll let, I'll let the author here. This is an article in The New Yorker and the writer is Jonah Lehrer says the summer of 1949 was long and dry in Montana, on the afternoon of August 15, the hottest day ever recorded in the state. I think we might have taught that by now. A lightning fire was spotted in a remote area of pine forest, a parachute brigade of 15 firefighters known as smoke jumpers, was dispatched out to put out the blaze. The man in charge was named wag dodge. Great name. When the jumpers left Missoula in the C 47 cargo plane, they were told that the fire was small, just a few burning acres in Mann Gulch. I'm not going to read this whole thing. I'm just going to sort of skip through it. They parachuted in, and the blaze was already out of control, and dodge moved his men down hill towards the water. The fire was on an opposite side of a valley. As they move down towards it. The breeze which was blowing the flames away from them suddenly reversed, and the fire leaped across the Gulch, and sparked the grass on that side and began moving uphill with an updraft says dodge was suddenly staring at a wall of flame, 50 feet tall and 300 feet deep. In a matter of seconds, the fire began to devour the grass, hurtling towards the smokejumpers at 700 feet a minute. Screaming he screamed at his man to run. And they did they dropped their gear and they headed up for the ridge to escape the fire. After a few minutes he looked back and saw that the fire was moving faster than it was possible to run.
Says so dodge stopped running. The decision wasn't as suicidal as it appeared. In a moment of desperate insight. He had devised an escape plan. He lit a match and ignited the ground in front of him. The flames quickly moving up the grassy slope, and then he stepped into the shadow of his fire, so that he was surrounded by a buffer of burn land. he wet his handkerchief with water from his canteen, clutched the cloth to his mouth, and lay down in the smoldering embers. Then he waited for the fire to pass over him. In the story, as, as I read it in that book, young man on fire, he actually did manage to get a few of the others as they ran by to come into his patch of burn grass, and they too, were saved. But everybody who tried to outrun the fire died. Guess if you go there, you can see crosses where they where they fell. Then the the author begins looking at the question of how did that occurred to him, said, WAG dodge could never explain where his idea for the escape fire came from. It just seemed a logical thing to do was all he could muster. And it compares it to Archimedes shouting, Eureka, when he saw his bathwater, rise and realize that objects replace water certainly understood something which wasn't understood at the time or when Newton suddenly formulated his theory of gravity. And another key point about it was that Dodge knew immediately when the idea came that it would work. He simply knew that it would, which is another characteristic of insight. And he turns now to cognitive neuroscientists, various places, working on what happens in the brain, when we go beyond logical thought, and suddenly summon an answer from somewhere else. And they're just a few things about that, that I think are really helpful to to understand.
First is that we have two hemispheres in our brain, everybody knows this, these days, the left and the right. And the left hemisphere is devoted to language and logic. And the right hemisphere is really sort of the hemisphere of music and insight. And, and we're not really sure what all it does. In the old days, it used to be if somebody had brain damage, and it was in the right lobe, they would be told that they were lucky because all your language and logic is in the left. But people with with those kinds of strokes or lesions often demonstrated an inability to understand nuance. Just sort of sort of like somebody who's really way out on the autism spectrum, and can't really see some of the messages that are encoded below the surface when we talk with each other.
And this guy ran into a demonstration of something called verbal overshadowing, which is they they give people a problem. And it's a problem that is hard to solve logically, you're not going to, you're probably not going to hit on the answer if you just go through all the different possibilities. But if those people who are working on the problem describe what they're doing, sort of think out loud, they never can come up with with the solution. Because what they've done is they've put all their energy into the left side of their black brain. They're totally working with thought and when they do the right hemisphere, this hemisphere of insight of integration of sudden understanding shut down made a whole bunch bunch of little you know sort of brain teasers which he called compound remote associate problems are crap. So, knee later changes to CRA. We started publishing in journals. In a CRA word puzzle, the subject is given three words such as pine, crab and sauce, and asked to think of a word that can be combined in all three. Some people may already have the answer. It's apple, pineapple crab. Apple applesauce. They're given about 30 seconds. And sometimes you can get it just sort of going one at a time and thinking, what fits with this, what fits with this. But there's another process that happens. People who do crossword puzzles or any other kind of puzzle, are familiar with this, where you look for a while you work on it for a while. And then you let the mind relax, or you walk away and come back. And all of a sudden, the answer is right there. And what they found is that when the, when you reach an impasse, illogical impasse, the there I'm not going to get into all the different parts of the brain that are talking to one another. But basically, an area in the areas in the right hemisphere begin to branch out. And there's all sorts of stuff that we'll never know, consciously. But an answer can be found. When there's the right relaxation, all of a sudden, that answer is presented to the prefrontal cortex to our conscious mind. And we have it with no idea of how it came. Just all of a sudden, it popped into my mind.
They did a lot of work, mapped where everything was happening, identified areas of the brain that are intimately involved in all of this. And they found that when the insight came, got really, really interesting brain waves, said, sometimes just when the brain is about to give up, an insight appears, you'll see people bolt up in their chair, and their eyes go wide. Sometimes even say, Aha, before they blurt out the answer. The suddenness of the insight comes with a burst of brain activity 300 milliseconds before a participant communicates the answer. The EEG registers a spike of gamma rhythm, which is the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain. Gamma rhythm is thought to come from the binding of neurons of cells distributed across the cortex, draw themselves together into a new network, which is able then to enter consciousness. It is as if the Insight had gone in can doesn't. I hope I'm not geeking out too much about this. But it just it's just amazing. It's wonderful. And, of course, I think in all of our minds, there's the recognition that this is what's going on when we solve all difficult problems. And what's so helpful about talking about it, is understanding what's necessary for that kind of insight to happen. We have to be working seriously on the problem. We have to be banging our head against the wall. Anybody who's been assigned to koan working on something like what is this or who am I or what is Mu?
Coming back to it again and again. How is it that an answer comes?
The Insight process, he says he writes here, as sketched by these guys, is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource resource of attention on a single problem. But once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight the relaxation phase is crucial. This guy says that's why so many insights happened during warm showers. Another ideal moment for insight is in the early morning right after we wake up. The Drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. It's a pattern we see in scientific discoveries. So many scientists have been working day and night on a problem theoretical are usually and all of a sudden, the answer comes famous cases, a mathematician named Poincare Caray, who came up with a problem was he was working on. But it came to him as he was stepping onto a bus in new immediately he had the answer
plunk Ray actually wrote an essay called mathematical creation, where he said the best way to think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you hit an impasse. Then, when it seems that nothing good is accomplished, you should find a way to distract yourself preferably by going on a walk or a journey. The answer will arrive when you least expect it. And then he goes on to Richard Fineman talked about before the Nobel winning prize for Nobel Prize winning physicist who preferred to relax the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would SIP seven up and watch the entertainment and inspiration struck scribble equations on cocktail napkins. That's how I want to practice.
The researchers aren't quite ready to offer extensive practical advice, but when pressed, they often saw it sound like Plum plum Caray, you've got to know when to step back.
It's something that happens naturally, when you're just invested in looking for the answer. But for some people working on koans a lot of the investment is on wanting to be doing a good job are wanting to make the teacher happy, or wanting to feel worthy. And of course, that energy takes away from your focus, you now split the mind. And it makes it hard for you to just be hammering right on that point. It makes it hard for you to relax. How can you relax when you're fighting a battle with yourself over whether you're doing it right or wrong? My own motto is give the kid a break. Treat yourself with the same compassion you would anyone else. Be willing to do things differently. Maybe you have to turn your whole life upside down. Maybe you just need to drop some habit that you're clinging to Roshi is advice and sesshin is often just to do something differently. If you're used to going to every meal skip a meal
used to going to bed right when the evening sitting ends, try staying up a little bit. You're used to staying up until you're exhausted, try getting some sleep.
Stay with the practice.
One more thing from this article. One of the guys tells a story about an expert Zen meditator who took part in one of the CRA insight experiments. At first a meditator couldn't solve any of the Insight problems. This Zen guy went through 30 or so of the verbal puzzles and just drew a blank. He was used to being very focused, but you can't solve these problems if you're too focused. Then just as he was about to give up, he started solving one puzzle after another until by the end of the experiment. He was getting them all right. It was an unprecedented streak. Normally people don't get better as the task goes along anything they get a little board. Guy colonials believes that the dramatic improvement of the Zen meditator came from his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focused so that you could pay attention to those remote associations in the right hemisphere. He had the cognitive control to let go. He became an insight machine
As the years go by our instrument is refined our ability to operate without unnecessary thinking blossoms our ability to sit in silence just hear the rain coming down blossoms
our ability to put things down to drop, what's not helpful was not helpful is strengthened
but all of us have times when we're dominated by thought
there's a there's a term that's used in Act therapy AC t, it stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It's probably the form of psychotherapy, that's the closest to Buddhism. And I think they take in a lot of their terms, from Buddhist teachings. They have this concept of cognitive fusion, which basically just means you're stuck in your thoughts. It's presented like this by a guy named Ross Harris, one of the founders, I believe, says, why the term fusion? Think of two sheets of metal fused together. You couldn't use the term fused, how would you describe them welded, melted bonded joints attached, stuck. All these terms point to the same idea, no separation in a state of cognitive fusion were inseparable from our thoughts were welded to them bonded to them, so caught up in them that we aren't even aware that we are thinking most people this isn't happening on the mat, but it sure can happen off the mat. Especially if there's an emotional content to whatever's going on, especially if we're afraid or threatened or jealous or angry. Diffusion thus means separating, detaching or distancing from our thoughts, taking a step back and seeing them for what they are nothing more or less than words and pictures. So often hearing from Bowden and Roshi, especially in sesshin they're just thoughts. They have no substance to them all the power of our thoughts comes from our buying into them
someone sent out a picture of a car with a bumper sticker that said, Why believe what you think it's a really good question
just that that little bit of different distance. Not automatically buying into it changes your whole life makes you softer, makes you better able to meet with other people. better able to see what's needed.
He goes on and cognitive fusion basically means that our thoughts dominate our behavior. Thus an act we may talk with clients of being pushed around by your thoughts or allowing thoughts to tell you what to do. Or we may talk of thoughts as bullies or we may compare the mind to a fascist dictator. Or we may ask what happens when you let that thought run your life
what happens when you like that thought of not being good enough? Run your life. What happens when you let a thought of being unlovable? Sit there unchecked so much that we can See when we begin to look. And then if we can find the courage to act gradually, gradually, we can change that, for the sake of everyone, not just to relieve our own suffering.
He says, When our thoughts dominate our attention, we often talk about being hooked, entangled, caught up or carried off by them. As human beings dwell in two different worlds, at birth, we dwell only in the world of direct experience. The world as we know it directly through the five senses, the world that we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. But as we grow older, we learn to think. And as that ability grows, we start to spend more and more time in a second world, the world of language. Fusion means we're stuck in the world of language, we're so caught up in all those words and pictures running through our head, that we lose contact with the world of direct experience. Meditation or awareness is like a shuttle between these two worlds. It transports us from the world of language into the world of direct experience.
That's one of the reasons why every time they measure how behavior affects people's mental health, find that going out into nature, taking walks, spending time alone in the woods, such so restorative.
So besides the job of learning to focus, learning to keep the mind on one thing on the breath, or whatever the practice is, whatever we're doing we're also learning how to open
there's a there's a quote I read once before from Shodo heart at Roshi, he's the abbot of so Genji and in Japan where a number of center people have have gone to train.
He says this about the role of openness in Zen says the way to avoid haziness inside Zen is to open yourself up as much as possible. This opening is the point of Zen. In fact, the mind becomes clear in Zen, not through forced concentration, but through ever expanding openness. As we liberate our awareness, it becomes larger and more vast. To achieve this openness, you need to relax completely. When you feel sleepiness or mental distraction coming on. Or when you find yourself getting fuzzy in your focus, don't try to focus harder, just rest your eyes on the point in front of you in a way that you're clearly aware of it without forcing your concentration upon it. Thus, one pointed attention does not involve concentrating on one thing, and shutting everything else out. But rather opening your awareness so that everything is seeing clearly. When we begin to understand this, it's so much easier to take our practice out into the world. You know, when you're first assigned to breath, practice, hopefully the teacher will tell you, when you're off the mat. You don't try to follow the breath, you know, that would be cumbersome and ridiculous. Just become one with everything that you're doing. And most people hear that and they make some efforts do that. But it's hard to really catch on. But there's so so much that we can accomplish. So much change that can happen. When we develop the habit of just tuning in to what's going on around us. What am I experiencing directly? I don't mean singling things out and saying, oh, there's a bird. Oh, I see a house. But just feeling whatever comes up. Could be site could be sound. Could be just somatic awareness, just the site team. feelings and sensations we have in our body. Just to be aware of that. Just whatever is here in the present moment there's a saying in music. I'm not a musician. So just borrowing from them. Just you need to love the sound of your instrument. For us, this present moment is our instrument.
There's a story told about Bertrand Russell, I don't know if it's true or not, supposedly he was at a party standing off by himself. And the hostess came by and said, oh, Lord Russell, I do hope you are enjoying yourself. And he turned to her and said, It is the only thing I am enjoying.
I like to think he really was enjoying it. Yeah, yeah. A lot of talk. But it's just we know, to one degree or another, we know what we need to do. And it's right there for us. We're so fortunate to have a map to have some pointers to have other people that we can practice with, to have a center. So unusual. Not that many people live within traveling distance of a good Zen Center.
I said at the beginning that the key is don't separate your practice and your life. Maybe I should add, enjoy it. Enjoy your practice, and enjoy your life. Even when it's hard even when things aren't working out. Can all aspire to be a happy warrior.
Anyway, that's what I'm going to try to do. We'll stop here and recite the Four Vows