Zen Practice and the Thinking Mind
4:44PM Dec 7, 2021
Good morning. Today is December 5, and teisho today -- I have a title already figured out. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but Zen practice and the thinking mind. And we'll we'll sort of delve into that and see where we go.
I wanted to start out just by trotting out to one of the little demonstrations, one of the little things that we bring into the workshops. We just had an online workshop yesterday. And I found myself in front of the camera without a snow globe in my hand. Got to have that snow globe. But it was forced to mime it and I'm going to do that again.
This is Roshi's favorite metaphor, I guess, for working with the mind. So you take a snow globe - I think everybody knows what that is, you know, a little sort of half dome, and it's full of liquid and mixed in there, there's probably a Santa Claus, our version has a Buddha. And there is a lot of flakes of whatever that represent the snow, and you shake it up, and it's swirling around looks like a blizzard. What we do, what we do in practice, is we take the snow globe and we set it down, we just put it down. And when you do, all the swirling flakes gradually come to rest. And all of a sudden, Blizzard is gone. And it's clear. And this is sort of analogous to our being able to see more deeply in the mind when it settles. And the other great thing about this example is that the way it settles is not that we do anything other than leave it alone. It's the same way was thoughts. We don't have to do anything with them. We don't have to counter them. We don't have to deny them, we don't have to agree with them. We just have to turn back to whatever our method of practices, it's all that's required. So it is it's simple. It's very simple. Not so easy. Ramana Maharshi, the Indian amazing. Indian sage, of about 100 years ago, well, he died about seven years ago, said when there are thoughts, it is distraction. When there are no thoughts, it is meditation. Of course, anytime we sit down on the mat, we're going to see both, we're going to have moments where we have no thoughts in the mind. You maybe even just for a split second, when you notice a thought and you turn back, let's say to the breath. At that moment, the mind is clear. It's just the breath. They may not last long, but it's there. And of course no matter how concentrated you are, there are going to be some thoughts coming into the mind. And unless you're in a really, really profoundly deep state of absorption. Roshi is fond of saying the mind is an organ of the body that secretes thoughts. It's just natural. It's nothing wrong with the fact that thoughts come into the mind. So we all most of us been doing this for a while we know this. I haven't told you anything new here. But it's so easy to get swept up. And the danger that I kind of want to point out really got me thinking about about using this is a topic for a teisho is the danger that we'll come to sort of accept it expected. You know, it's yeah, you know, I'm thinking I try not to remember now and then, you know, that's just the way it is with me. And so we're there sifting through our thoughts on the mat and never really breaking free or breaking free very rarely. It's such a complicated dance, you know, we really need this intense attention. And yet, the minute we start criticizing ourselves or physically pushing which is a very natural thing to do. We get in our own way.
It's why first principle of good meditation is to relax. But none of us should have any misconception about whether it's easy or not. It's not it's hard.
The Chinese Zen master, doubt way. But 1000 years ago, I wrote a letter to one of his students. And he said, the obstruction of the path by the mind, we can say the obstruction of the way thank you tripping. The obstruction of the path by the mind in its conceptual discrimination is worse than poisonous snakes and fierce tigers. Why? Because poisonous snakes and fierce tigers can still be avoided. Whereas intelligent people make the minds conceptual discrimination their home. So there's never a single moment, whether they're walking, standing, sitting or lying down, that they're not having dealings with it. As time goes on, unknowing and unawares, they become one piece with it. And not because they want to either, but because since beginningless time, they have followed this one little road until it's become set and familiar. Every time we give in to the flow of thoughts just sort of let the mind drift. Sifting through one after another jumping from stone to stone, so to speak, we reinforce that path. So just the way the mind works, whatever we do, will do more readily next time. The whole truth of habit energy. He says though, they may see thought through it for a moment and wish to detach from it, they still can't. Thus it is said that poisonous snakes and fierce tigers can still be avoided. But the minds conceptual discrimination truly has no place for you to escape.
You can find that a little discouraging. But it's it's realistic. It's it's quite a job that we've set ourselves. When we sit down on the mat, and attempt to look directly, not through a screen of thoughts. We're going against the stream, we're going against what we've done, as he says since beginningless time. Nevertheless, none of us is hopeless, and all of us can make progress. But it's just good to be realistic about how difficult it is to break free of thought and how important it is to truly becoming one with anything that we're trying to become one with.
Thinking is a habit. And the most intelligent way to work with a habit is to replace it with a healthier habit. In our case here sitting in Zen, it's with the habit of noticing the habit of awareness. The habit of returning to our practice. So when a thought comes into the mind, it's a trigger for other thoughts or for or it can serve as a cue for noticing and returning. I have a friend name is Sally Schneider, and she writes a blog. She used to be a cookbook author. She has a blog
called The improvise life. And she wrote something about habits changing habits. Kind of nice. I've learned that the pattern I want to change is a habit of behavior or thinking that is etched in To my brain from repeating it so much similar to a path that has been worn by people repeatedly walking on the same place over and over. To change the habit, I slowly patiently replace it with a new one. That is practice a new one until it creates a stronger deeper path than the old one. That requires in many many fails because habit doesn't habits don't change overnight, just as they weren't created overnight. So I always used to hear and a spent a long time getting this way. It's gonna take a long time to change. Not overnight.
There's a tennis player Stanwell Branca, the second blood best tennis player from Switzerland, who said, I have a Samuel Beckett quote tattooed on my arm, ever tried, ever failed, no matter. Try again. fail again, fail better?
So how do we deal with thoughts? Well, we notice and we let them go. But it might be more accurate to say we notice. And we're willing for them to go. Because what we're actually doing is turning our attention back to our method of practice. Just to say it again, there's no need for us to answer our thoughts, or criticize them. In Zen, we don't even label them. That is another method that is used in classical I guess, mindfulness meditation, you have a thought and you say, okay, thinking about lunch, thinking about sex, thinking about how I'm a worthless human being, whatever little thought road, you're going down, you label it, whatever you do, label or notice, you've created a little bit of space, you've got some distance from the thought. And that's really the problem. The problem that when we're syntonic, when we're one more united with our thoughts, when we're just in that mode, we don't, we won't even notice and we can go on for minutes for hours. Some people do that for their entire life.
But no one thought is ever going to stay for any length of time. It's always one thought followed by another one. One thought we react to it, we follow it up with another and we're just following thoughts Roshi wants in. So sheen, had a great metaphor. He says basically, what we're doing is we're just trying to drive down the highway, we're just trying to go straight, go directly. But what happens is we get caught up. And we find that we've let's say it's let's say it's a limited access highway. You know, there's no crossroads, it's just exit ramps and entrance ramps. So all of a sudden, we find ourselves on the exit ramp. What do we do, get back on the entrance ramp and get back on the highway. But sometimes the thoughts are thick and we follow them for a long time. And now we've gone off the exit ramp and turned right and we're winding down through town. And when we wake up we're in a trailer by the river
love that. The difference is you may be in a trailer by the river but you can be back on the highway the minute you notice you don't have to wind your way back through all those streets. You don't have to retrace through all your thoughts. It's just Oh, and you're back. That oh and returning is such a important skill to learn. I think it would be a very rare person that does doesn't go oh shit. Or oh, what kind of a meditator Am I you know what kind of a Zen student am I? There I go again, this is that and then into all the This is hopeless. This is hard. along this route. I'm gonna last all those thoughts. Follow just from are noticing that we're thinking whereas what that noticing should be is a trigger for practice. Someone once said, it's it's like doing a push up, you know, the the act of will, to return to whatever the subject is to whatever we're really trying to do is like doing a push up. It's not pleasant. But we get good at it, it gets easier and easier, we develop our mind muscle. Or we can say we develop a habit, the habit of returning. There are there are two aspects to Zen to any meditation. There's the awareness or mindfulness aspect. And there's the concentration aspect. For thoughts, what we need is first, the awareness, and then the ability to concentrate on our method.
And I want to turn to an article from Psychology Today, written by a guy named Matthew MacKinnon, see if I can see anything about him. Obviously, a psychologist. Yeah, he's a doctor. That's all I know, Matthew MacKinnon writing in Psychology Today, on December 2 2015.
And he introduces two opposing networks in the brain. This is something that's been studied. And there's been stuff published about this. Some of you many of you may have heard of these concepts before. There's two opposing networks in the brain, known as the default mode network or the dmn, and the task positive network. The TPM says, These two networks are like the ON OFF position of a light switch. In the activation of one, by definition inhibits the other. The dmn, the default mode is labeled default, because it represents the mind in a neutral state without a mental or physical focal point. The dmn is the network that allows us to daydream, remember, and imagine it's unstructured. The TPM task positive network, on the other hand, becomes active when we have a mental or physical task that we are willfully engaging with. The TPN is engaged when we focus on external or internal sensations, make plans or perform complex physical tasks. He goes on to sort of layout which parts of the brain get activated when either one is, is in effect. It's interesting but a little, a little dry and not really important for us here.
But he goes on the details of the dmn and the tpnw are less important than is the fact that the dmn and TPN are effortlessly mutually exclusive. The relation between the two is analogous to the relationship between inhalation and exhalation. Despite their intimate nature, the two cannot exist simultaneously. Thus, rather than binding oneself in the mental straitjacket that is battling thought with more thought, you can simply engage fully in a mental or physical activity. I remember Roshi pointing out that no one can be depressed or playing with depressive thoughts when they're eating spaghetti is just it's requires too much attention.
He says you only have the mental power to run a single network. Overcoming the dmn is not a matter of pushing through a mental barrier so much as a simple matter of bypassing the barrier altogether. Returning to our light switch analogy, it's important to remember that our attention is fickle, and the oscillation between dmn and TPN resembles the frantic flicker of a light switch in the hands of an overeager toddler description of ourselves and you will focus intently on your breath engaging the TPN the task positive network, only to be interrupted. The next Second by the return of a ruminative thought, as the default mode network takes over and the TPN goes dark. As with most things, practice makes perfect or more perfect. Your Practice meditation you practice meditation to strengthen your TPN so that you might have longer stretches of attentional focus before the dmn interjects with a wayward thought. Your brain evolved to balance the dmn and the TPN. The default mode network was an excellent mental simulator for reviewing or imagining past or future hunts when the TPN when the task positive network allowed complete, while the task positive network allowed complete immersion in complex physical or mental tasks.
However, in modern cerebral humans, overactivity of the default mode network is associated with depression, and anxiety. And there's a footnote to some study that has been done to demonstrate that the practice of mindfulness or we could say the practice of awareness word I like better involves learning how to restore this natural balance to a world that favors the dmn to a world that favors daydreaming and rumination per separation. So there's an extra layer of difficulty, when the thoughts we're dealing with have an emotional charge when they're painful. And that's when things tend to break down. Joke Beck pointed out that no matter how good we are at handling things that come up, everyone has the point where they're not so good. Something is just too much and we do something that's not helpful. We become unskillful. And then, that right there is our point of practice. It's not a problem that we run into things that are too much for us. The problem is that then we react to it in a way that doesn't help it's, it's we're continually able to take on more and more as we work seriously on ourselves. Able to be more available in crisis situations, able to be more present with people who are in extremis. able to handle all the things that happen in anybody's life that are caused for sorrow and grief.
Lot of times what does happen is that we go into a negative thoughts spiral. So a term for this. It's a little acronym ants, automatic negative thoughts. And what's going on there? When we sort of just jump on thinking into some sort of blanket thought, like, I'm no good at this, I should quit. This always happens to me. Why is this happening to me? I hate this. What we're doing is we're just finding a not very skillful way to get out of the pain to escape. It's not working very well. But what we're trying to do is turn away from whatever is bothering us. We fail at some task. We don't want to feel the regret of having failed. And so we turned to beating ourselves. Now we're the one beating up. No one else can criticize us because we're doing such a good job
what what helps instead, when any strong emotion comes is to return to the body. When you have that pain of Oh no, not again. Whether it's whether it's severe or even for little things, get up in the morning and you take a couple of steps and know your trick knee is flared up again. You know what? That's, you know, even even if you're okay with it, you know, you know, I'm breaking down getting old. What would I expect? It's nevertheless that kind of that, you know, oh, geez, not again. Just to feel where that arises, you know, is it a tension in the chest, uncomfortable feeling of the gut, creating the teeth, what's going on in the body, because it's always reflected there. And the wonderful thing about doing that is it's not a thought. You're not fighting thought with thought. You're actually turning back, you're actually engaging the task positive network, in a very direct way. There's a psychologist name is Marsha Linehan. She's also a student. In fact, I think she was sanctioned to teach at one point. She, as a girl, spent a lot of time in a mental hospital. A lot of it in a locked room. I think she was there for maybe four years. She later went on to develop. She's the sort of founder of DBT Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which was the first of any therapies found to have any success in dealing with people with personality disorders, especially borderline personality. She She says, when she was in the hospital suffering, suicidal, she said, I was in hell, she said, and I made a vow, when I get out, I'm going to come back and help others out of here. And she did that. It's really pretty inspiring. So anyway, she said this, by refusing to accept the misery that is part of climbing out of hell, you fall back into hell turn towards the feeling rather than away from it. That's towards the feeling with no label with no expectation with no judgment.
I'm going to read from good old Pema children because she talks about this quite a bit and quite well. And this is from a book of hers, called Living beautifully with uncertainty and change.
I think this section is the fundamental ambiguity of being human.
So she talks about this whole thing of feeling pain directly. Talks about athletes who say that saying feel the burn. You know, there was a bike racer, somebody in the Tour de France. Like Lance Armstrong, he's actually a teammate of Lance Armstrong. And like Lance, turned out to be doping. And so it was stripped of the title because he won, won the Tour. And when he was racing, he had such damage to a hip, he was going to get the hip replaced, but he couldn't get it replaced before the season. So he had a choice. He could race with a hip that was actually bone on bone. All the cartilage was gone. The doctors told him, basically, it's wrecked already. You can't do it any more damage. So if you can live with the pain, go ahead. And he did. He also use testosterone. But nevertheless, it's just amazing that he could do that he could just ride with one bone grinding on another and just eat the pain, so to speak. And it's amazing what people can do. But Pema says, I'm reminded of something that happened when my Daredevil son was about 12 years old. We were standing on a tiny platform on the prow of a large ship, kind of like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the movie Titanic. And I started to describe to him my fear of heights. I told him I wasn't sure I could stay there. But I was having also sorts of physical sensations in my legs were turning to mush. I'll never forget the look on his face when he said, Mom, that's exactly how I feel. The difference is that he loved the feeling. All of my nieces and nephews are bungee jumpers and spelunkers. And enjoy adventures that I avoid at any cost. Just because I have an aversion to the same feeling that gives them a thrill. You know, when Roshi got married to Angela, she, with her psychological background, was able to point some things out to him. And one of them was, which was, what he felt as excitement was actually anxiety. The the he was having all the symptoms of anxiety, but he's just built, that that feels exciting, and energizing. Like to have somewhat of what he is drinking.
She says, but there is an approach we can take to the fundamental ambiguity of being human. That is the uncertainty that we all live with the fact that things can fall apart can change at any moment. certainty of death and the uncertainty of the time of death.
An approach we can take that allows us to work with rather than retreat from feelings like fear and aversion. If we can get in touch with the sensation as sensation, and open ourselves to it without labeling it good or bad, that even when we feel the urge to draw back, we can stay present and move forward into the feeling. She goes on. In my Stroke of Insight, that's the title of a book, the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor talked about her recovery from a massive stroke. Taylor explains the physiological mechanisms behind emotion, and emotion like anger, that's an automatic response lasted just 90 seconds from the moment it's triggered, until it runs its course. Basically, the anger or whatever the emotion flares up, and there's a chemical reaction. And that's not going to dissipate no matter what you do for about 90 seconds. But one and a half minutes, that's all when it lasts any longer, which it usually does. It's because we've chosen to rekindle it. The fact of the shifting changing nature of our emotions is something we could take advantage of. But do we know? Instead when an emotion comes up, we fuel it with our thoughts, and what should last one and a half minutes, maybe drawn out for 10 or 20 years. People who don't speak to each other for the rest of their lives. Something is being nurtured there. She says we just keep recycling the storyline. We keep strengthening our old habits. Most of us have physical or mental conditions that have caused us distress in the past. And when we get a whiff of one coming. an incipient asthma attack, a symptom of chronic fatigue, a twinge of anxiety, we panic. Instead of relaxing with the feeling and letting it do its minute and a half while we're fully open and receptive to it. We say oh no, oh, no. Here it is, again. We refuse to feel the fundamental ambiguity when it comes in this form. So we do the thing that is most detrimental to us. We rev up our thoughts about it. What if this happens? What if that happens? All the other automatic negative thoughts. I'm no good. This is never going to end. We stir up a lot of mental activity, body speech and mind become engaged in running away from the feeling which only keeps it going and going. What you resist persists. She says we can counter this response by training and being present. A woman who was familiar with Jill Bolte Taylor's observation about the duration of emotion sent me a letter describing what she does when an anxiety when an uneasy feeling comes up. I just do the one and a half minute thing she wrote So that's a good practice instruction. When you contact groundlessness. One way to deal with that edgy, queasy feeling is to do the one and a half minute thing. Acknowledge the feeling. Give it your full, compassionate, even welcoming attention. And even if it's only for a few seconds, drop the storyline about the feeling. This allows you to have a direct experience of it free of interpretation. Don't feel it with concepts or opinions about whether it's good or bad. Just be present with the sensation. Where is it located in your body? does it remain the same for very long? Does it shift and change? Just become interested in it. It's an opportunity. It's grist for the mill.
Our Zen practice, or za Zen helps us to do this. It's what we're learning to do. helps us to notice and it helps us to respond. And the response is always turning into the pain. She says ego or fixed identity doesn't just mean we have a fixed idea about ourselves. It also means that we have a fixed idea about everything. We print we perceive I have a fixed idea about you, you have a fixed idea about me. And once there is that feeling of separation, it gives rise to strong emotions. In Buddhism, strong emotions like anger, craving, pride and jealousy are known as clases. Guess in Tibetan practice it's clashes. Same word as we use kind of conflicting emotions that cloud The mind thinks sometimes they're just called vexations. The cliche is our vehicle for escaping groundlessness. For not being willing, in other words, to rest in not knowing. And therefore every time we give into them, our pre existing habits are reinforced. In Buddhism, going around and around recycling the same patterns is called samsara is ordinary life, and samsara equals pain. Saying an A, if you keep running into the same wall, try turning right or turning left, do something different. She goes on, we keep trying to get away from the fundamental ambiguity of being human and we can't, we can't escape from it any more than we can escape change any more than we can escape death. The cause of our suffering is our reaction to the reality of no escape, ego clinging and all the trouble that stems from it. All the things that make it difficult for us to be comfortable in our own skin and get along with one another. It's really the same thing as the Buddha said, the cause of suffering. is ego attachment, grasping and aversion. Or is the third patriarch said, the great ways not difficult for those who don't who do not pick and choose or those who have no preferences.
She says if the way to deal with those feelings is to stay present with them without fueling the storyline, then it begs the question, how do we get in touch with the fundamental ambiguity of being human in the first place? In fact, it's not difficult because underlying uneasiness is usually present in our lives. It's pretty easy to recognize, but not so easy to interrupt. We may experience this uneasiness as anything from slight edginess to sheer terror. Anxiety makes us feel vulnerable, which we generally don't like vulnerability. None of us except for Roshi, which we generally don't like, vulnerability comes in many guises. We may feel off balance as if we don't know what's going on don't have a handle on things. We may feel lonely or depressed or angry. Most of us want to avoid emotions that make us feel vulnerable. So we'll do almost anything to get away from them. And that that impulse to get away from those unpleasant feelings is what causes people to close off their lives. lot of being a grown up is having difficult feelings. But remembering what it is you're there to do and moving ahead anyway, making a phone call that you don't want to make because you're nervous about how the conversation will go. Getting out of bed when it seems like it's gonna be hard. Sitting down on the mat when you feel restless and anxious and don't feel like doing it. She says, if instead of thinking of these feelings as bad, we could think of them as road signs or barometers that tell us we're in touch with the groundlessness then we could see the feelings for what they are the gateway to liberation, an open doorway to freedom from suffering, the path to our deepest well being enjoy. Similar what, what a woman named Byron Katie says about painful feeling. She calls it a compassionate alarm clock. That's reminding us you're lost in the dream.
Emma says we have a choice. We can spend our whole lives suffering because we can't relax with how things really are. Or we can relax and embrace the open end and endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, and fixated and unbiased.
The challenge is to notice the emotional tug, vexations when they arise and to stay with to stay with it, whatever it is, for one and a half minutes without the storyline. Can you do this once a day, or many times throughout the day as the feeling arises? This is the challenge. This is the process of unmasking, letting go, opening the mind and heart.
We all of us have the ability to do this. The fact that we're practicing the fact that we're doing Zen, that we're forging the habits of attention, and the ability to let go of storylines and thoughts.
puts this right in our wheelhouse. This is what we're practicing to be able to do. Right up to the end. Roshi is fine to sayings as in his practice for death. None of us are going to get out of this alive. We're all Bodhidharma said anyone who has a body is an error to suffering. All of us run into things that we don't want. Do we respond by thinking about them, especially with defeatist negative thoughts? Or do we suck it up? It's it's a gradual process. Not going to get good at this overnight. But if you keep trying, you get better at it. It does change. Another aa saying slow change is good change. A lot of people come into Zen. And the attraction is the promise the possibility of coming to awakening, having some sort of insight and that can happen. And that can be extremely powerful and helpful and redirecting our lives. But there isn't any sudden solution to our negative habit energies. We can have some insight but they're still going to sneak in the back door. The only answer is gradual working on ourselves over time with patients, hopefully with a sense of possibility, even enjoyment. It's a privilege to be able to do this. It's amazing that we can do something to make things better. So many people never get that chance. never encounter the Dharma so to speak. And encountering the Dharma means not only do you hear about it, but you understand there's something there. Sometimes you can hear the same thing 2040 100,000 times and it never catches on and never you never take it in until one day the penny drops and all of a sudden, oh, why didn't you tell me that before? One of the reasons why teachers keep saying the same thing over and over again
Well, I think we've come to a good place to stop. So we will stop now and recite the four vows