March 2022 Sesshin, Day 7: Ordinary Wonder: Zen Life and Practice by Joko Beck
3:00PM Apr 7, 2022
This is the last day of this seventh day, March, April 2020 to sesshin. And I'm going to read again today from this book by Charlotte Joko Beck, book of her talks, entitled Nothing Special: Living Zen.
This is a interesting little section entitled "Melting Ice Cubes". And she says, "It's useful to understand the technical side of practice the theoretical basis of sitting. But students often dislike technical explanations and want concrete analogies. Sometimes the best way to explain is through simple, even silly metaphors. So I'd like to talk about Zen practice as the way of the ice cube. Let's imagine for a moment that humans are large ice cubes, about two feet along each edge, little heads and spindly feet. This is our life as humans most of the time running about like ice cubes, bumping into each other sharply. Often, we hit each other hard enough to shatter our edges. To protect ourselves, we freeze as hard as we can, and hope that when we collide with others, they will shatter before we do. We freeze because we're afraid. Our fear makes us rigid, fixed and hard. And we create mayhem as we bumped into others. And the obstacle or unexpected difficulty is likely to shatter us.
Ice cubes bad.
She says ice cubes hurt. Ice cubes have a hard time. When we're hard and rigid. No matter how careful we are, we tend to slip and slide out of control. We have sharp edges that do damage and we hurt not only our others, but ourselves. Because we're frozen. We have no water to drink. And so we're thirsty all the time. Like how koans words were like one in water, crying I thirst. at cocktail parties, I guess that was a thing. Back in her day, at cocktail parties we soften up a bit and drink. But such drinking is not really satisfying. Because of our underlying fear, which keeps us frozen and parched. The softening is only temporary and superficial. Underneath we're still thirsty and yearning for satisfaction. I have a bit of experience with drinking. And you know Carl Jung felt that drinking problem with alcohol was a spiritual problem. The root of alcoholism often is this dissatisfaction with life the way it is, say with life, it has an ice cube
the relief can actually be pretty tremendous. That's where the problems begin. Of course we have to be we have to be drunk to get that relief that our lives go to hell. But really, we're all looking for some way out of that bind out of that incomplete, rigid, fearful, restrictive. Egotistical life
she goes on some of the more intelligent ice cubes seek other ways out of their miserable lives, noticing their sharp edges and their difficulties in meeting one another. They'll try to be nice and cooperative. That helps somewhat still, an ice cube is an ice cube. And the basic sharpness remains the A lot of people go to great lengths to be compassionate to be open and generous. But when it's directed by thought when it's an agenda that we have, it isn't thoroughly genuine. We haven't really softened we haven't yet really opened up, take something more than just good intentions. She says a lucky few, however, may meet an ice cube that has actually melted and become a puddle. What happens if an ice cube meets a puddle, the warmer water in the puddle begins to melt the ice cube. Thirst is less and less of a problem. The Ice Cube begins to realize that it does not have to be hard, rigid and cold. That there is another way to be in the world. The Ice Cube learns to create its own heat. By the simple process of observation, the fire of attention begins to melt its hardness. Awareness wareness is coming alive begins to melt its hardness. Observing how it bumps into others and causes hurt. Seeing its own sharp edges. The Ice Cube begins to realize how cold and rigid it has been. A strange thing begins to happen. As ice cubes begin to notice their own activities to observe their ice cube Enos they become softer and bushier. And their understanding grows simply by observing what they are. The results are contagious. Suppose that two ice cubes are married.
How's that gonna go. Each is protecting itself and trying to change the others the other, but neither can really change or fix the other since they are both rigid and hard with sharp edges. If one ice cube begins to melt, however, the other ice cube if it gets close at all, has to begin to melt also, and it to begins to gain some wisdom and insight. Instead of seeing the other ice cube as the problem, it begins to be aware of its own ice cube pneus. Both learn that the witness the awareness of one's own activity is like a fire. The fire cannot be stoked by effort. One cannot try to melt oneself. awareness isn't an effort. Awareness is what's already there. The effort is letting go of everything that blocks it.
She says the melting is the work of the witness, which in one sense is nothing at all. And in another sense is everything.
And then she goes Christian on us for a moment. Not I but my Father in me as Christ said. The awareness the witness within is the father, which is what we truly are. This This is helpful if you need a translation into Christianity. It's really really, this is in every religion, every legitimate religion that still in touch with its own truth.
The awareness is what we truly are. In order to allow the witness to do its work. However, we must not be caught up in stiffening and hardening ourselves, throwing our weight around bumping into others and trying to change them. If we do these things, we must be aware so that the witness can do its work. Some ice cubes begin to get the idea and do the necessary work. They may even get a little mushy. First thing I noticed about Zen students who are practicing is that their faces change. They're softer. They laugh differently. They get a little mushy. See the shoulders come down. They're easier to hit with the Kiyosaki.
But the work is difficult, and some ice cubes even as they begin to soften gets sick of the process. They say I just want to go back to being a comfortable Ice Cube. True it's lonely and cold. But at least I didn't feel so much distress I just don't want to be aware anymore. The truth is, however, that once one softens and becomes a bit mushy, one can't become hard again, you might say that that's one of the laws of ice cubes. With apologies to physics, and ice cube that has become mushy can never forget as machinists. That's why I say to people don't practice unless you're ready for the next stage. We can't go back.
Joko seems to emphasize a lot. The miseries of early practice, it's not always that way for everybody. If you're not miserable, don't worry. If you are miserable, don't worry. Once we start to practice once we're a little mushy, we're a little mushy. And that's that. We may think we can return to life as it was before and we may even try to do it. But we can't violate the process. The basic law of ice cubes once we're a bit mushy, we're forever a bit wishy washy. Some ice cubes because they have only a sporadic practice, change only slightly over a lifetime, becoming just a little mushy. Those who truly understand the path and practice diligently, however, actually turn into a puddle. Let's the practicing diligently.
Not not frantically, not greedily, diligent, diligently. Think back to go Gu. That contentment with where we are that confidence in the method and where we're going. Have the determination to keep going. Not to settle into our old life. Thinking and scheming. Worrying, controlling
actually turn into a puddle. The funny thing about such panels is that as other ice cubes walk through them, these ice cubes begin to melt and get a little mushy. Even if we only melt slightly, others around us soften to it's a fascinating process. She says many of my students are mushy, they often hate to go through the process. When we come down to it. However, the work of an ice cube is to melt. When we're still frozen solid. We think that our work is to go around slamming other ice cubes are getting slammed by them. Such a in such a life. No one ever really meets another like bumper cars, we hit and bounce off of each other and then pass on. This reminds me of something that happened to me once. It was in my years of barely ever going to the Zen Center. And often drinking but I went one night and set for two hours. That was kind of nice. And I was walking back along Park Avenue. My wife and I and kids lived in a apartment on Oxford Street. And as I'm walking down the street, one of the monitors, somebody who has a monitor at the center came was out for a run I guess must have gone out for a run right after the sitting. And he came running down the street I noticed him and the distance coming closer and closer and closer. And he wasn't slowing down. And so at the last minute I just turned sideways and planted a foot and he bounced off and said good God and ran on and I scratched my head and walked home
there was a lot of bumping into each other I think back in those days.
She says it's a very lonely and cold life. In fact, what we really want is to melt we want to be a puddle. Perhaps all that we can say about practice is that we're learning how to melt. At intervals we say let me alone stay away. Just let me be an ice cube. Once we started to melt at all, however, we cannot forget, eventually what we are as ice cubes is destroyed. But if the ice cube has become a puddle, is it truly destroyed? We could say that it's no longer an ice cube, but it's essential self is realized. The comparison of human life to an ice cube is of course, silly. I see people bettering one another, however, hoping that by bettering others something will be gained. It never is. Someone has to stop battering, and just sit with being an ice cube. We need to just sit and watch and feel what it's like to be what we are really experienced that really experience it without judgment. Without shame, without feeling there's something wrong.
You have to watch with interest. What's here? What What am I? What is this
she says we can't do much about the other ice cubes. In fact, it's not our business to do so. The only thing we can do is more and more to summon the witness. We turn to the witness, we begin to melt. If we melt other ice cubes due to little by little. It's perfectly natural to resist the melting to want to want to go back to being frozen, trying to control and manipulate all the other frozen creatures we meet. I never worry about that. And she says, because for anyone who's been practicing for a while, there's too much knowing we can't become rigid again. Because deep within us, we know something we didn't know before. We can't go back
the next time we speak sharply or complain or try to fix another or analyze them are playing the futile IceCube game. Such efforts just don't work. What works is to cultivate the witness, which is always there, that we can't see it if we're busy banging other ice cubes. Even though we may not allow space in our lives for the witness. It's always there always sees even when we're getting away with things, even when we're alone and no one else is there. We know why it's who we are. Although we often try to avoid it we can't. going on as we become softer, we find that to be a puddle attracts a lot of other ice cubes. Sometimes even the puddle would rather be an ice cube. More like a puddle the more like a puddle we become, the more work there is to be done. A puddle acts as a magnet for the ice cubes that want to melt. So as we begin to drift more, we attract more work to ourselves, and that's fine.
The student asks, could you talk more about how the witness is born. And Joko says the witness is always there. But as long as an ice cube can't see anything to do except to bump into others or avoid them. It's as though the witness can't function. There has to be a change in the ice cube to allow it to become aware of its own activity. As long as our total awareness is turned to what the other ice cubes are doing, the witness can appear even though it's always present. So long as we're totally wrapped up in our outward directed criticism or comparisons, or complaints how much we complain
when this can appear, even though it's always present, when we begin to see oh, the problem isn't with the other ice cubes. I guess I have to look at myself. The witness automatically appears. We begin to realize that the problem is not out there. It's always here.
So much better when we can locate the problem here in this body, this body mind, it's the one thing we can do something about. student says, in the ice cube state, I can entertain the delusion that nothing can get in and out, so I'm protected. When the machine starts, however, then it dawns on me that everything interpenetrates including pollution, war, hopelessness, and so forth. The insight into this interpenetration can be frightening and discouraging. Could you talk about the fear and the other emotional states that arise when one is between being an ice cube and a puddle? basically talking about vulnerability.
When we're open, we can be easily hurt or not armored. Joko says it's true. The intermediate intermediary stage of being mushy involves a lot of fear and resistance. In a way being an ice cube works or seems to work. It's just the the ice cube is lonely and thirsty. When we're mushy, we're more vulnerable to others. If we don't see what's happening, we experience more fear. So that mushy state, which is the beginning of the melting is always accompanied by resistance, by fear of having the world rush in on us. We want to stiffen ourselves up again. Because we're beginning to have demands put upon us that we don't know how to handle the demands may be unwelcome, or resistance will attempt to solidify itself. Still, the resistance can't last. People sometimes tell me, I've been practicing six months and everything in my life is worse. Before practice they had the illusion of knowing who they were. Now they are confused and that doesn't feel good. It may feel terrible, but it's absolutely necessary. Unless we recognize this fact, we may become totally discouraged.
Practice is sometimes most unpleasant. The idea that everything feels steadily better, onward and upward is not true. Nevertheless, as we begin to practice, we also begin to sense something wonderful. We noticed a difference. And as we begin to trust, trust the process. See that opening is the only way that makes sense. It's a lot easier to handle those bouts of discouragement. So we begin to be less grasping. Less likely to become discouraged. Discouragement always comes from not getting what we want begin to realize that you can't always get what you want. But if you try some time just might find get what you need.
Gotta move on to another talk, leave the ice cubes behind. This one is called coming to our senses. She says we all desire wholeness, we want to be whole persons. We want a sense of completeness. We want to be at rest in our lives we try to figure out this problem to think our way to wholeness and that effort never works. We need a different approach. Suppose we're hiking in the mountains and we sit down by a stream. What would it mean to behold in this moment and going back and forth with our students they paint a picture of sitting by a broken taking in all the sounds sensations waking up in our presence
here the birds when moving sunshine smells sit by a stream sometimes the smell is wonderful.
She says, if we're just sitting by the stream and sensing all there is to sense it's no big deal. We're just sitting there. Suppose, however, we begin to think about our troubles in life, we become absorbed in our thoughts, poring over how we feel about our problems and what we can do about them. And suddenly, we're oblivious to everything we were sensing a moment ago, we no longer see the water, smell the woods, feel our body, sensations are gone. We have sacrificed our life in this moment, in order to think about things that are not present, not real here and now. The next time you're eating Thanksgiving dinner, or any meal for that matter, ask yourself whether you are truly tasting your food. For most of us, the experience of eating a meal is at best partial. plies not only to eating but to walking to working to watching TV. How much richer it is, when we really really look see and hear. taste and touch can have so much more. Without awareness of our sensations, we're not fully alive. Life is unsatisfactory for most people, because they are absent from their experience much of the time. If we have been sitting for several years, we do it somewhat less. I don't know anyone who is fully present all of the time. However, we're like the fish that is swimming about looking for the great ocean of life, yet oblivious to its surroundings. Like the fish we wonder about the meaning of life, not awake to the water all around us and the ocean that we are. The fish finally met a teacher who understood the fish asked, what is the great ocean? And the teacher simply laughed? Why? And a bright student says because the fish was already in the ocean, and just didn't realize it. Joker says yes, the ocean was its life.
Teacher just laughed, reminds me of what Ramana Maharshi said, There is no greater mystery than this, that we keep seeking reality, though, in fact, we are reality. We think that there is something hiding reality and that this must be destroyed, before reality is gained. How ridiculous. A day will dawn when you will laugh at your past efforts. That which will be on the day you laugh is also here now.
Separate a fish from water and there is no life for the fish. Likewise, if we separate ourselves from our life, which is what we see, hear, touch, smell and so on. We have lost touch with what we are. Our life is always justice life, our personal commentary on life, all the opinions we have about it is the cause of our difficulties. We couldn't be upset if we weren't leaving out our life. If we weren't leaving out the hearing, seeing smelling tasting the kinesthetic sense of just feeling our body. We couldn't be upset. Why is that? Student says because we're in the present. And Joker says yes. We can't be upset unless our mind takes us out of the present into Unreal thoughts. Whenever we're upset, we're literally out of it. We've left something out like a fish out of water. When we're present fully aware, we can't have a thought such as Oh, this is such a difficult life. It's so meaningless. We do that we've left something out just like that.
Byron Katie calls it a compassionate alarm clock. Anytime we're feeling that anxiety or dissatisfaction or despair. Reminder we're in a dream. And Joko says a good student recognizes when he or she has drifted away and returns to immediate experience. Sometimes we just shake our head and reestablish the basis of our life. The foundation and experience out of that foundation will become will come perfectly adequate thinking action, creativity. It's all born in this space of experiencing, just letting the senses be open
takes a while to begin to trust that
she says when I was 16 or 17 years old, I like to play Bach chorales on the piano. One that I particularly loved was called in thine arms, I arrest me. The translation goes on foes who would molest me cannot find me here. Though it is from the Christian tradition, which is often dualistic, this corral is about being, I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. It's about being present and aware. There is a place of rest in our lives a place where we must be if we are to function. Well, this place of resting the arms of God, if you will, is simply here. And now, seeing hearing, touching, smelling, tasting our life as it is. It's a also it's not static, or resting. But we're not frozen. We're not. We're free to move. We're in the middle of change, flowing. And she says we can even add thinking to the list if we understand thinking as simply functional thinking, rather than ego thinking based on fear and attachment. Just thinking in the functional sense, includes abstract thinking, creative thinking or planning what we have to do today. Too often, however, we add non functional ego based thinking, which gets us in trouble and takes us from the arms of God. Life that works rests on rests on the six legs, the five senses, plus functional thought, when our life rests on the six supports, no problem or upset can reach us. It's one thing to hear a Dharma talk on these truths, however, and another to live by them. The minute something upsets us we fly into our heads and try to figure it out. We try to regain our safety by thinking. When we begin practice, for normal people thinking is option number one. So we go to armor ourselves to protect ourselves to watch out for ourselves. But there's a shift that happens in practice. And you get to a point where when the threat comes, you're back in your body. stead of dissociating stead of getting lost in recriminations we're here.
To reestablish our lives on a secure foundation, we have to return to the six legs of reality over and over and over again. If I have the faintest thought of irritate your irritability about anybody, the first thing I do is to begin figuring out in my mind how to fix the sensation. I do not I first thing I do is not to begin figuring out in my mind, how to fix the situation, but simply to ask myself, can I really hear the cars in the alley? When I fully when we fully established one sense such as hearing, we establish them all, since all are functioning in the present moment. Once we reestablish awareness, we see what to do about the situation or action that arises out of awakened experience is nearly always satisfactory. It works
good simply remember that we're in the room or in a room so we were inside. In our body, feel our body hear the sound around us. Every room has a tone furnace or refrigerator humming.
We do that we rekindle our awareness. That ability we have to see directly. That ability that we cultivate in practice Spend round after round bedeviled by feeling separated from our from our practice from our method
weigh in is always this awareness beyond thought.
mind becomes still things become more vivid. We're working on a koan comes to life the interest grows.
She goes on, you may say that may be true as simple problems, but I doubt that it will work with the big complex problems I face. In fact, however, the process works no matter how big the problem is, we may not get the solution we were looking for. But the resolution and the resolution may not be immediate. But we will see that we will see what steps to take next. Over time we learn to trust the process, to have faith that things will work out as best they can. Under the circumstances, the person we counted on who didn't come through the job, we fail to get the physical ailment that worries us. Instead of going round and round in our thoughts, worrying about the problem, we have reestablished the foundation of our lives in immediate experience, we see how to act appropriately.
Supposedly Mark Twain said, I'm an old man, and have known many problems, most of which never happened.
She says I'm not suggesting that we should act blindly out of mere impulse, we need to be informed. To know the obvious things about the problem, we need to use our natural intelligence, our functional thinking. For example, suppose I have a twinge in my tooth. If I begin to think of how I hate dental work, and drilling, and the needles in the discomfort, I'll go round and round in my head and create a huge problem for myself. Many of us have done this, if I return to the foundation of my life, in my direct experience. On the other hand, I'll say to myself, well, it's just a twinge right now, I'll keep an eye on it and go about my business. If the twinge persists, or gets worse, I'll call the dentist and make an appointment. With that approach, everything falls into place. And the student says, the danger for me in returning to my ordinary sensations is that I may block out my anxiety, or worry or worry entirely as if it didn't exist. This is a strange thing to say. Yeah, yeah. It's true that practice can be used. People do use it to block out things they don't want to look at. But if, if you're paying attention to what's there, you're going to notice when you're anxious, you're going to notice the tension. going to notice that sick feeling in your stomach.
What blocks things out is thoughts.
Joke gioco says anxiety is no more than certain thoughts and an accompanying tension or contraction in the body. Returning to our senses means to notice the thoughts for what they are, and be aware of the tension in the body. Awareness of the tension is after all, just another physical sensation, along with seating smelling and the like. Sounds crazy to say that when we have a problem, we should listen to the traffic. But if we truly listen, our other senses come to life too. Do we feel the contraction in our body to when we do that something shifts and how to respond becomes clearer?
A student says, returning to the senses doesn't always happen quickly with me. If I'm worried about a problem, I may think about it for a week, despite my efforts to pay attention to the traffic or whatever. And that's a that's a common phenomenon when there's something that's really really frightening for us. It does invade, invades our sitting. can remember all my concern about being drafted for the war in Vietnam? had just come to the center and no longer had my student deferment. It's one of those problems I worried about that didn't happen. Remember asking Roshi Kapleau about it. I don't remember what he said. It's probably too worried to pay attention.
Joko says yes, depending upon how long and how well we have practiced, the process does take time. The ability to move quickly is the mark of a practice that has gone on for many years. Some people can hold on to their misery for a long time. They really enjoy it. Someone was telling me recently how much she enjoys her self righteousness. That's a bad one. Nothing more poisonous than self righteousness.
Knowing that you're right. Watch out for that. Says who wants to listen to the traffic when we can enjoy our self righteousness. We don't want to abandon our patterns, our thoughts of who we are, even when we recognize intellectually that they get us into trouble. So we cling to them and return to them. Even after reminding ourselves to come back to our senses. We're not ready to trust the process fully to have faith in our direct experience.
I'm gonna leave off with Joko back there
to say a few words about this whole business of awareness and openness. Attention some people think that it only applies to somebody who's doing shikantaza Silent illumination. And that koan work means shutting the gate to the senses. But really, it isn't like that at all. The whole ability to open to what's there is the quality that we need to bring to any kind of practice. So, what we need to close the gap. So many people spend lots and lots of time just speaking from experience. Things dull and not quite vivid. Mechanical.
When we wake up when we really let go of trying to make ourselves a certain way, trying to picture things a certain way when we are open to say, no, let me see how they are. Let me see what it is. Let me look directly suddenly, there's life. Not always not reliably like machine work but there is room to move we have we have something to go on. We know that it's not something that we're creating, looking for what's there
now that we've all done so many days of sesshin there is a capacity and ability to be with our practice to ride through the disappointments and obstructions
get out of the driver's seat. See what's there. Then I continues after so sheen so important just stay here stay here. This is our home. So our true home everything we want is here it will just open up to it. We have a way of doing that we have a practice
we have the ability. Everyone, everyone can do this. Everyone can move in this direction. Just so rewarding for ourselves. So helpful. So rewarding for those we come into contact with direct and immediate way to help the world. Keep working. Stop now and recite the four vows