Untangling the Knots, Engaging with the Practice
4:23PM Aug 1, 2021
Good morning. Today is July 18 2021. And this Dharma talk is going to be about what it means to engage with our practice. And by that I mean, where we place our attention, showing up for our practice, whether it's a breath practice or working on a koan, or shikantaza.
Of course, if we're paying attention, we're going to notice all sorts of random thoughts, drifting through our mind. Perhaps thinking, hmm, a cup of coffee that tastes really good right now. Or, where should I go for summer vacation.
Or maybe there's there goes again, there's that achy knee, you know, our mind tends to veer toward the future, or the past, making judgments, or just fantasizing launching off into some imaginary world. But in each moment, each breath, as long as we're paying attention, we have a choice. We can choose to latch on to those thoughts and run away with them. Removing ourselves from the present. Or, upon noticing them, we can return our attention to our practice. And in hearing this, I know that there's a risk that some people might be inclined to launch into a guilt trip, a string of self judgments about their noisy mind.
Guess what, that's just a bunch of thoughts.
Thoughts are the terrain of our practice.
So how do we work with them?
If we're if we're vigilant with our attention, then we're not going to become aimlessly and passively lost in our thoughts. If we reject our thoughts, if we say Oh, I wish it just go away. Then we're just adding another layer of thoughts to the mix.
And in exploring this topic, I'm going to be reading from a new collection of talks by Charlotte Joko Beck, and it was published just last month. This book is titled ordinary wonder, Zen life and practice. And it's Edited by jocose daughter, Brenda Beck, Hess. joco died in 2011. So it's a posthumous collection.
And in her introduction to ordinary wonder, Brenda explains how she set out to digitize her mother's talks in order to preserve them. And in the process, she came upon a statement where Joko said, If I were to ever publish another book. So that planted the seed for this latest collection, and it's her third book, the other two being everyday Zen, loving work, and nothing special living Zen. And the theme that's woven throughout ordinary wonder revolves around how our clinging to habitual thought patterns prevents us from experiencing life as it is experiencing it directly and intimately. Without the filter of our thinking mind. She borrows from some basic psychological principles. She uses the term core belief and also the term basic strategy to refer to the habitual thoughts and related behaviors that we all have to work with. Joko says that our core beliefs arise in the process of our development as in So let me start reading.
She begins before we are born, we actually have it pretty good. For most of us, everything suits us in the womb, we're warm enough, we have enough to eat. Nothing threatens us, the minute we are born, though we no longer experience that totality of being fed all the time, in a warm, peaceful environment. It doesn't mean that our parents are not good parents. There's no parent who can supply the craving of an infant for total love and safety. The infant's view is that they should have everything they want immediately. It's just not possible. We aren't physically equipped to serve anything, even a baby in that way. So very early on the infant without thinking, of course, begins to get the idea that this is a rocky road out there. Perhaps there is even a pre verbal version of the thought, I'd really like to go back. But here I am. The baby doesn't know what to do. So as it grows into a child, it works out its own plan. And when things go wrong for us as a young child, as they will, you can't conceive that it's because the adults around you might be something less than perfect.
You can only conceive that there's something wrong with you. And that is why you're not getting the thing you need. I'm unworthy, good things can't happen to me. Depending on the exact circumstances you went through as a child, your belief will have its own tenor. No two are precisely alike. But they're always some form of, there's something wrong with me. So here's she's speaking of the, the separation of self and other that occurs as part of our natural social development. At some point early in our lives, we begin to develop an individual identity, this thing we call AI, that is distinct from you and them. There's nothing bad about this. After all, we do need a sense of self in order to engage in our social world. If we didn't respect social boundaries, we'd get into all sorts of trouble. We also need to have a sense of self. To survive as living beings, we need to take care of ourselves and protect ourselves. But in the process of developing our sense of self, depending on the the nature of our early childhood experiences, as we mature into adulthood, we also acquire a self narrative. A core belief that is grounded in this perception of separation. core beliefs take the form of different thoughts and assumptions that we hold about ourselves and others. And they can be they can be framed in a positive or negative way. Here are some examples. I can do anything I set my mind to. I must work hard to prove myself. I need to earn the respect of others. I'm always being left out. People take advantage of me. No one appreciates me. I don't belong here.
I have to be perfect.
And on and on. And these core beliefs are accompanied by what joco calls basic strategies. And the basic strategies are automatic reactions, the things we do to avoid feeling that pain of separation. And here, Joko says, one person has to be busy all the time or talking all the time. Another person is always so quiet that you wouldn't know they're there. Some people will tell you off in a minute. Some people will never say anything that would hurt your feelings, strategies, strategies, strategies. And I'm sure we can all relate to one or more of these. We can see these behaviors in ourselves and others and For me, keeping busy really stands out. And sitting is the perfect counterbalance to that, when I first started practice, I remember being just so jittery, so uncomfortable. With sitting in front of a blank, blank wall, I just wanted to jump up, I just felt like I needed to be doing something, anything but sitting still. But over time, I was able to just sit with those feelings, and they saw them come and go. And eventually, I learned that as long as I kept my attention on my practice,
going to be bothered by the feeling. And also, over time, I learned how to let go of distracting myself by keeping busy slowing down was a side effect of sitting. joco then goes on to say that working with our core beliefs and strategies is the central work of our practice. And this work involves shifting away from our self centeredness and toward the whole of life. She says, With practice, our world opens to the wonder of experiencing, that this thing we thought of as our self is just a tiny part of everything we see. Okay, now I'm gonna, I'm going to jump ahead to a section titled The point of living. And she starts off by explaining how practice enables us to develop a strong foundation from which we can have a more genuine life. being one with what is not the way we'd prefer it to be.
is a long, interesting road. There are times it seems wonderful. There are times when it's absolutely boring, difficult, at least for the person doing it. from their point of view, it's unrewarding. Sometimes you just don't see the point.
If you wait six months or a year, you'll see it. But we have to have that kind of overview. Practice isn't a weekend seminar, you can have wonderful insights. Oh, wonderful, wonderful. I get it now, six months later, you may not get it at all, it may be a mess. But that's the wonder of our practice life, the ins and outs. The resistance and confusion. As long as we think the aim of practice is, is comfort, pleasure and being calm. We miss it. In reading that, I was reminded of an advertisement I saw recently for dove chocolates with the tagline. Choose pleasure. And of course, like many chocolate ads, it featured this sensual woman in a state of chocolate bliss. What if though, instead of choosing pleasure,
we chose this moment,
just as it is.
the hum of the city an itch on the nose.
helps us to keep it real, to be our authentic selves. And when when we open up to experiencing life just as it is then any pain that we have becomes just pain. We don't personalize it anymore. We get ourselves out of the way. But it all comes down to our direct attention engaging with our practice. To give a sense of the degree to which we must engage with our practice. Imagine having a long string or rope that is balled up into this messy knot. We need to unravel it. And in order to do that we got to give all our attention to disentangling it. trying different ways. Eventually, as you loosen it up, you start to see that not more clearly becomes less complicated. And it frees up. But that can only happen if we give it our full attention. And having had that experience, next time, we might be more mindful and avoid letting that string get all knotted up again. And if it does, we know what we need to do.
Joko continues in the long run, people who practice are calmer. But that's not the point of practice. The point is to begin to contact yourself as you are angry, resistant, depressed, phony, whatever you are, a lot of us want to practice just until we hit the hard stuff. And then we go around it. You're not practicing in a way that will fully benefit your life, until you pause once in a while at that point of difficulty. And just stay with it. Is there anybody here who wants to do that? I don't think so. I don't. But whatever stage of life you're in, as you learn to go right into and through the hard spots, that's what makes your life satisfying. So I'm trying to have a look at the fact that a sitting life is immensely rich, it's a struggle, but taken as a whole, people who stay with it have lives that begin to make sense for them. That can include their trials, their difficulties and their illnesses. But their lives have a certain base that is valuable to them, and valuable to others. Sitting life is immensely rich. So Zen is our anchor, in a world that is in constant flux. And we ourselves are flux. And we shouldn't take our practice for granted, things can change in a flash for ourselves and for our loved ones. Several years ago, my father had a stroke. Although he and my mother didn't know it. My partner Tom and I had just come out of a seven days machine, and we went to their home to visit them right after machine. We took one look at him, and knew immediately that he needed medical attention right away, we could see the droop on the side of his face. And it turned our world upside down. My mother had to rely on me to navigate the healthcare system. My father was in and out of the hospital for a period of about a month. And we wouldn't even weren't even sure that he'd be able to go home. In time, he spent a period in an inpatient facility doing cognitive and physical therapy. My mother was helpless during that entire ordeal. And so it consumed my time and energy for many, many months. Today, at 89 years old, my father continues to struggle with mobility issues and dementia. But he was able to return home and he's still at home.
that that experience taught me a lot about the power of sitting practice in building this firm base. from which to from which just to be with whatever arises, not rejecting anything, just responding being of service doing what needs to be done. But in order to live that way, we have this ongoing work to do. directing our attention, moment by moment, and breath by breath.
joco says, so much of our practice is noticing, noticing, noticing what we do, you won't notice it all, because some of it, we don't yet have any idea about what will notice something will know this the string of thoughts that continually arise when we sit. Not all our thoughts spring from our core belief, or its ancient attendant or basic strategy. Sometimes we are just noticing a car going by and thinking about that. But usually, even if we are just thinking about what to have for dinner, our thoughts are flowing out of our core belief. When we've labeled and noticed certain thoughts repeating hundreds of times, those strings of thoughts that were designed to fix or change, the fact of our experience, are no longer so interesting. Something begins to dawn on us. And we start to know ourselves, as we never have before.
through sitting, we do come to recognize those repetitive, sticky go to ways of thinking and acting. But we don't have to be disheartened by them. Again, they're just a product of our social conditioning. There's no substance to
them, they're just thoughts.
But even knowing that intellectually, we can still get really frustrated and feel like our thoughts are just out of control. The thing is, we actually don't need to control our thoughts, we need to do just the opposite, giving up control and giving in
to our practice.
It can be a real turning point. When we get so tired of our thoughts, which is a term that Roshi Kapleau used, we get so tired of our thoughts being that we just become determined to give it up. So So letting go of our attachment to thinking in and of itself, regardless of the content of our thoughts. Just our attachment to thinking is part of the journey of practice.
but there's no guarantee this will happen. Unfortunately, we usually want to escape from ourselves and get on with seeing if our basic strategy can figure out our life. The discipline of sitting, still done diligently cuts off that escape. When you cut it off, you're left with a direct experience of life. It's a very different thing from not having that direct experience. A life that has a little bit of that every day is very different from a life that has none.
Yeah, so true. We're fortified. By our sitting practice, we're more likely to be in tune with others and with everything
feel more routed
when we sit daily. And that's when sitting becomes truly enriching. And while there are lots of positive side effects to sitting, as I mentioned earlier, for me, it was really slowing down. There's lots of positive side effects that we can experience. It's not necessarily going to be pleasant all the time. There's actually no way around it. We're going to experience pain. Try trying to untangle or untangle a knotted up string is not easy. And with every misstep We make that not worse.
And on this matter of working with pain, this is what Joko says, what we need to do, but what we really don't want to do is return to the pain of our core belief. I'm using the word pain, because we know it that way. But it's really just a physical sensation. It's not going to kill you. Suppose you're, you feel you're never able to succeed. You're a failure. What does it feel like? Why don't we don't want to rest in that feeling. The core belief says, You're wasting your time, you need to be out fixing the world taking care of me, is always offering this escape from our feelings. To begin to rest in sensation is at the heart of practice. It's good to know what our core belief is to know it's a mistaken belief, and to be able to see what strategies we use in service of that belief. But all that knowing doesn't solve the thing. What solves it, is when we return and rest right here, where we don't want to rest. We try to do this, but instead we wallow in it, or obsess about it. wallowing and obsessing can be very dramatic. And of course, that drama is always interesting. But But we should be very suspicious of it. wallowing or obsessing, is still thinking about our experience, not residing in it. So if we're sitting on our mat, or chair, and in analyzing our afflictions, we're not proud, we're not practicing, we're thinking. Or we're spending time reading, maybe self help books, learning about our personality type or
self improvement strategies. When we do this, the premise is that we're incomplete. Something is wrong with us. And in turn, we're just feeding that core belief. That said, though, there are situations when we do need to think about ourselves and need to take care of ourselves, such as seeking out therapy, if it's needed. You know, on the one hand, working with a therapist can feel very self centered. But it's really not the process of a brooding, unresolved pain and emotions sometimes necessary, especially if we've experienced trauma in our life. Does it need to be seen as in conflict with our practice, it's simply work that needs to be done in order to heal. For me, when I did therapy, it really opened my eyes to anger that I had stored away and was carrying around unconsciously. And it was my sitting practice that made me more open to doing therapy in the first place. And once I was able to untangle that, that knot of anger with the help of a professional, my sitting practice transformed. But the upshot is that we need to find that middle way between being aware of our thoughts and behavior patterns, recognizing them and not dwelling in them. Again, just the noticing and returning. And when we commit to practicing this way, we're choosing to reside in direct experience. Not in some imaginary world of our self narrative. Now I'm going to shift gears to a section titled, boredom is another name for practice. If we're if we're engaging with our practice, not only are we going to encounter habitual thoughts, but also the feeling of boredom.
Everybody who sits, gets bored, after a little while. You can't look at your watch. 20 minutes can feel like a lifetime. Look closely at the boredom. For me, my core belief is always feeling that life is kind of a disaster. It's always hoping that something in, in this case, Zen practice will make me feel good that it's going to fix me. When we get bored, we're really saying nothing is getting fixed here. This is kind of dull stuff. I not getting anything out of it. I'm not getting that thing I'm hoping for. And she continues. We expect a lot from external things. Think about romantic love, we often start with such high hopes, this person is going to complete me. This person will make everything better. Then we're bored or disappointed when the other person doesn't do that for us. We will attach our desire to anything we can attach to having the Padres win the baseball game. If we're a padres fan, we can attach it to having the republicans win an election. If we're a Republican. We're always looking for something that momentarily fills us up.
Yeah, when we try to escape
we're really just rejecting being being in that moment when bored, feel bored. But also boredom can be a form of feedback, that's telling us that we need to reengage with our practice. If we're feeling restless, impatient, distracted, our attentions, probably scattered. being fully present, is never dull, or boring.
choko goes on to say you can be bored, if you want. But it's interesting to see if you can notice your boredom and also feel the fear
at the base of it. That fear arises because once again, something outside of you isn't fixing anything. Boredom is another form of desire. I want it to be different. I want it to be other than it is. I want it not to hurt. I want it to not be so hot.
we think we need something that we don't have and don't feel we are. So we experience it
With boredom, it's often I don't want to feel this pain. So I want something to distract me. I want something to entertain me. To really surrender to pain and to be friendly with it. To embrace it is probably not what we thought this practice was about. We thought it was about becoming enlightened. But enlightenment is not some tremendous state of being. It simply being with what is
Yeah, escaping from pain can be something that we do unconsciously. Let's say you're a longtime practitioner. You sit daily you go to Joke's on regularly. You go to sesshin. Outwardly, it looks like you're thoroughly engaged with your practice.
But are you?
Or are you just going through the motions? I asked this from firsthand experience. The more we practice, the more we become aware of certain feelings and traits about ourselves, that make us feel uncomfortable. And in those moments, when those feelings come up, where we can choose, we can choose to fully engage with our practice, and sit with that discomfort, be with it, not pushing it away.
Or we can
avoid those feelings, we can dance around them, distract ourselves, blame ourselves, the core belief, the basic strategy kicks in. This is something that longtime practitioners can encounter, you know, we get into a routine. And although our practice feels stale, it also feels safe. Because we've learned how to navigate that pain. And as we go through the motions, we get into this this kind of headspace, where we're just busy with all of our anticipations thinking about how practice should be or what it should look like. Rather than just just being yet. With Zen practice is about direct experience, we can't think our way through it.
Next choco says,
our experiences when we're actually experiencing them, have very little to do with our anticipation. This doesn't mean we shouldn't have anticipation. Excuse me, let me back up. Our experiences when we're actually experience them have very little to do with our anticipation. This doesn't mean we shouldn't have aspiration. Big difference. aspiration gives us diligence and discipline. It's different than ambition, which is about trying to get somewhere. ambition is motivated by our core belief that there is something wrong with us, that can be fixed. If we can get to a certain place. Ambition says I will open the door, and I know what's on the other side. And I'll take it. aspiration is more like when the door opens, I will be there. Now, our true self doesn't know anything about ambition or anticipating life. It does not become busy with thinking waiting, measuring or worrying. our true self is just perceiving second, by second, by second. It's just being itself and responding to whatever happens to be there. When that millisecond of response is over,
We won't ever be able to be completely without thought or anticipation. But if we sit regularly, Ward or not, it weakens this ego process. it weakens our attachment to our core belief. And at the base. It's the core belief telling us what life should be like, instead of allowing us the space to experience life, as it is
literally, each second. Each moment is an opportunity for us to engage, to experience life as it is. And it's the more effort and attention we put into our practice. We come to realize that our true self doesn't care if our foot falls asleep. If our skin is dripping with beads of sweat, if the sky is blue or gray if the soup is hot or cold, our true self doesn't care about that. Things simply are just as they are.
And to wrap up, I'm going to read from another section titled your practice is the the conduit.
is a life that eventually has a transforming element to it. Trying to push to find your true self doesn't work. The idea of the core belief is in the mind. But when when you get back to the actual experiencing of that pain, with no naming of it, you get out of the dual nature of thinking. There's no subject and object, you're just being. If you say, I'm going to feel my anger, that's not feeling your anger, that's talking about it. But if we experience that anger, we have to give up our core belief for a moment and just settle into the pain of it. And if we can stay in this non dualistic experiencing, even for a few
it will slowly begin to transform us. There's a great quote that I came across from Eckhart toll that speaks to the the nature of direct experience. This is what he says. boredom, anger, sadness or fear are not yours, not personal. They are conditions of the human mind. They come and go. Nothing that comes and goes is you. I am bored. Who knows this. I am angry, sad, afraid. Who knows this. You are the knowing not the condition that is known.
Another way to put it is we're not nouns, we're verbs. verbs are never static.
Joko goes on. Over time, we develop our ability to rest in that non dualistic experiencing for more than two or three seconds. We don't want to do that our core belief is very dear to us. Until we know our true self. That's who we think we are. We have no intention of giving it up.
Not at all.
That's why practice is not easy. That pain becomes your true teacher. Out of this teaching, you slowly see yourself and the rest of your life in a very different light. It's not ever complete. But you can be there more and more. When you can even briefly experience your pain. Instead of thinking about it, it changes you. That non dual state is where you can experience your true self. your true self is peace, freedom. It's always compassionate. It's incapable of judgment. This true self can manifest more and more over the years. Your practice is the conduit. This is true Zen. That's it.
Practice is the conduit and it falls upon us to make that connection which is need to return to the work of unraveling that not bit by bit
moment by moment
with our practice.
We'll stop here and recite the four vows