Ups and Downs of Practice
1:15PM Mar 16, 2022
Today is March 13, 2022, and for teisho today, my topic, tentatively, is the ups and downs of practice. It's something I've been thinking about a lot recently, the whole question of our enthusiasm for practice, our ability to open, to be aware, to be responsive, to feel that we're on the right path, to have confidence in our ability to do this work, to be free from grasping, from what Tibetan teacher Trungpa called "spiritual materialism" (trying to get something), to be free of self-criticism (ideas about how we're better than others or worse than others, the feeling of not being good enough). All those annoying problems that come up with a sustained Zen practice, everybody has to face up to them.
For most people, there is a great deal of enthusiasm when we begin because at some level or another we realize we've found something that's really special, that's really different, and that has the potential to change our lives. We have what's called "beginner's mind." Most people know about the book by Shunryu Suzuki, the founding teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, the book that was written based on his talks. It's one of the early books that introduced people to Zen. In fact when I looked at "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" on Wikipedia, it quoted Roshi as saying that it was one of the two books (the other one, of course, is "The Three Pillars of Zen") that brought so many people into Zen practice. And I've talked to a lot of people who are really fond of this book. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It meant a lot to me when I when I first read it.
So I'm just going to read a little bit of what he says in the beginning of the book. "People say that practicing Zen is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in the cross-legged position or to attain enlightenment. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our practice pure in its fundamental sense."
He goes on, "I am interested in helping you keep your practice from becoming impure. In Japan, we have the phrase "shoshin," which means beginner's mind. The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner's mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita sutra only once," what we just did. "It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner's mind. But if you continue to practice one, two, three years, or more, although you may improve some, you're liable to lose the limitless meaning of Original Mind.
"For Zen students, the most important thing is not to be dualistic. Our Original Mind includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything. It is open to everything.
"In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind, there are few. If you discriminate too much, you limit yourself. If you're too demanding or too greedy, your mind is not rich and self-sufficient. In the beginner's mind, there is no thought 'I have attained something.' All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners."
It seems so clear. The minute we're attaining something, the minute we're grasping at something, how can the mind be open? How can we be with things as they are? I think that Suzuki's terminology was "things as it is."
So as I say, we start out and it happens with almost everything. Anything you pick up, there's usually that sort of carefree enthusiasm in the beginning. Everything is new, we're open to it, we don't know what it is. Because we don't know what it is, we're open to it. And then later on, we think we do know what it is because we've been through it, and then it becomes a little more dry, a little less rich. It's so common for people to get stuck.
One of the reasons I wanted to give this talk is just seeing people in dokusan so many times who feel so diffident about the fact that they've been practicing for a decade or two or three even, maybe more. And they haven't gotten through Mu or they haven't had kensho or they haven't accomplished this or that. It's so poignant that the focus is there and not in this amazing world that we're right in the middle of, that we're fixed on achievement and not on just opening up, seeing what's there, being willing to be with things as they are.
Of course, we can't just snap out of it. I'm not sure if I'm going to fix anybody with this talk. But at least it gives us some direction, something to make a difference, to change, to start to change. We're really working against our normal habits, the habits that fill our lives from beginning to end. It's not just a problem of Zen practice; it's a problem with everything. It's a problem of our life. It's a natural habit; we've been built to make things routine. Once people know what to expect, then they can take their attention off of that and devote it to whatever else seems important. I think we're programmed that way because we're programmed to succeed. Nature really doesn't care whether we're happy or content. It just wants us to have some children and pass our genes along.
And so anybody who pays attention to what their life is like, hopefully that's all of us here, has noticed a tendency to go on automatic pilot. I think I mentioned once I have a friend who was driving down to Florida, and he woke up in Tennessee. He had just been driving for hours and all of a sudden he realized he was in Tennessee. He'd had no idea how he'd gotten there, just automatic pilot, works real well.
There are different networks in the brain. Neurologists or scientists have talked about the default mode network and the task positive network. There are two patterns of mind, two patterns of mental activity. The one is this sort of drifting, no focus in particular. Thoughts just come into the mind. And there's a lot of value to that because that's how we remember things, or that's how we suddenly have an idea. We're not really looking. We're just sort of floating along and things pop up.
And then opposed to that is the task positive network where we're actually focusing on something. It could be practice, it could be juggling, it could be watching a movie or reading a book, anything we do where we're focused, then we're no longer in that drifting mode.
The trick is to develop awareness of what's going on in the mind. That's the skill that we pick up as we practice, knowing what's going on, knowing when we're bummed out, knowing when we're drifting, knowing when we're afraid, knowing when we're angry.
I talked recently in a teisho about just being aware of the body, feeling those sensations that tug at us. So often, we're going along and not feeling terribly great, just sort of got that dissatisfied feeling. I guess the Buddha called it dukkha, suffering. We're not really with it; we're not satisfied. But we're also not paying attention to that. We're sort of pushing it off to the side, kind of struggling on. It's not a very satisfactory way to live. But if we're honest, we spend a lot of time in that kind of state.
When we first begin to practice, we get an idea of what it's like. We find out how much time we're just drifting, how much time we're doing what Roshi Kapleau used to call "thoughting," as opposed to directed thinking where we're actually intentionally thinking, trying to figure something out.
So I want to turn for a moment to a book by Robert Wright called "Why Buddhism Is True." And he talks about the first time he went to a Vipassana retreat and he discovered that he was really bad at meditating. It's just his mind was everywhere.
"So there was some sort of session where a number of the students, a group of eight or nine of us yogis," he says, "assembled in a room near the meditation hall. And there, for 45 minutes, we could air any problems we were having. So when my turn came to speak, I gave voice to my frustration. And the ensuing dialogue with my teacher went something like this.
'So you notice that your mind keeps wandering? Yes, that's good.'
'It's good that my mind keeps wandering?'
'No, it's good that you notice that your mind keeps wandering.'
'But it happens, like, all the time.'
'That's even better. It means you're noticing a lot.'
"This didn't have the uplifting effect that my teacher had perhaps intended. I felt a bit patronized. It was kind of like those times when one of my daughters, back in the toddler stage, would fail abjectly at something and I'd strain to find an encouraging word. Maybe she would fall down while trying to get on a tricycle. And I'd say, 'You got back up. What a big girl!' neglecting to note that, actually, big girls don't fall down while trying to get on tricycles in the first place.
"But I've since come to realize that this first bit of feedback I ever got from a meditation teacher was not just strained encouragement. My teacher was right. By frequently noticing that my mind was wandering, I was breaking new ground. In my ordinary. workaday life, when my mind wandered, I would follow it over hill and dale, not even aware that I was being led. Now I was following it for only short stretches before breaking free, at least briefly free, free for long enough to realize it had been leading me, a realization that would then give way to leading me some more."
It's a point we've made before but you can't make it enough. The whole key is knowing what's going on. And it does change things, the more we catch ourselves, wake back up, even though we do it again and again. We wear a groove, a path is formed, a habit is built. Everything we do, pretty much, is the product of habits. As we've done in the past, we do today. So what we do today, we'll do in the future. And changing it is a slow process. It's like turning a ship; a big ship doesn't turn on a dime.
Then besides our natural habit to make things routine and to drift, there's the habit of always trying to get something, having an agenda. There are so many people whose day is a constant stream of 'what I need to get done.' And this idea I think we have in the back of our minds is that, 'Well, once I get it all done, then I'm going to relax. Then everything is going to be smooth. Then I can enjoy my life. But first I have to do all these things.' Naturally, this maintains our sense of separation, sense of evaluation, and sets us up for discouragement when we don't do everything that we set out to do.
That sort of leads us into another pernicious habit, and that's the habit of negativity. That's really a big one, the sort of "aw, shit" reflex. Something goes wrong or we feel some kind of physical or emotional pain and everything goes south. We close down. Sometimes the phenomenon is referred to as pain on top of pain, or people make a distinction and they call one thing pain and another thing suffering. The Buddha in one of the sutras referred to it as the second dart.
He said, "When an untaught worldling," that's us, "is touched by a painful feeling, he worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps, and is distraught. He thus experiences two kinds of feeling, a bodily and a mental feeling. It's as if a man was pierced by a dart, and following the first piercing, he is hit by a second dart. So that person will experience feelings caused by two darts.
"It is similar with an untaught worldling when touched by a painful bodily feeling. He worries and grieves, he laments, beats his breast, weeps, and is distraught. He resists and resents it. Then, in him who so resists and resents that painful feeling, an underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie his mind."
A way of putting it would be "comes to be the tenor of our mind." How many of us struggle with that sort of habitual negativity?
"Under the impact of that painful feeling, he then proceeds to enjoy sensual happiness."
I think what he's saying here is that we escape into whatever. Sensual happiness can mean a lot of things; sometimes it's not so happy. Maybe we escape into playing with our phone.
He says, "Then why does he do so? An untaught worldling, oh monks, does not know of any other escape from painful feelings except the enjoyment of sensual happiness," we could say, of distraction. "Then an underlying tendency to lust for pleasant feelings comes to underlie his mind." Basically, this is how we move into habitual addictive behaviors, whatever they may be.
"He does not know, according to facts, the arising and ending of these feelings nor the gratification, the danger, and the escape connected with these feelings. In him who lacks that knowledge, an underlying tendency to ignorance as to neutral feelings comes to underlie his mind. When he experiences a pleasant feeling, a painful feeling, or a neutral feeling, he feels it as one fettered by it, caught up in it. Such a one, oh monks, is called an untaught worldling who is fettered by birth, by old age, by death, by sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. He is fettered by suffering, this I declare."
Because I have so much material, I'm not going to go on and go through the Buddhist elucidation of the person who doesn't succumb to that second dart. I think it's pretty clear to us already.
I like the fact that when you watch it play out in your life without trying to squash it or turn away from it, without immediately trying to fix it, you just try to know it, that so much gets revealed.
There's a saying in Buddhism, "Liberation is being happy to see your karmic hindrances arise." One teacher said it's like a compassionate alarm clock reminding us "You're lost in the dream." Anytime we find ourselves squirming, turning away from what's in front of us because we don't like it, because we want to grasp more, we can let that wake us up. It's really our point of practice.
We end up discovering that negative feelings are useful. I want to read something from our friend Anthony de Mello. He says, "Pleasant experiences make life delightful. Painful experiences lead to growth. Suffering points up an area in you where you have not yet grown, or you need to grow and be transformed and change. If you knew how to use that suffering, oh, how you would grow.
"Let's limit ourselves for the time being to psychological suffering, to all those negative emotions we have. I've told you what you could do with those emotions. The disappointment you experience when things don't turn out as you wanted them to, watch that. Look at the disappointment, that depression you experience when you're criticized. Every negative feeling is useful for an awareness, for understanding. They give you the opportunity to feel it, to watch it from the outside."
I think what he means by watch it from the outside is not identify with it, to realize it's just a thought. It's just a feeling. It's not me.
He says, "In the beginning, depression will still be there, but you will have cut your connection with it. Gradually you will understand the depression. As you understand it, it will occur less frequently. It may disappear altogether, maybe, but by that time it won't matter too much. Before enlightenment, I used to get depressed. After enlightenment, I continue to be depressed."
I love that. We have this idea that we're going to do this practice and we're going to fix everything. We're going to fly off into the rainbow, sport with the dolphins, but life continues. How much better to know what's going on, to know when we feel bad, to be able to open up to it. It's not as bad as when you fight it. It's not as bad as you think.
He says, "Gradually or rapidly or suddenly." And that's a good point: the changes that happen in us, they can happen in a flash. You can have some sort of amazing experience and it can change things for you. But there's also gradual change. Walking through the mist, we gradually become wet. Slowly we change.
"It can be gradual, rapid, or sudden; you get to the state of wakefulness. This is a state where you drop desires. But remember what I mean by desire and cravings. I mean, 'Unless I get what I desire, I refuse to be happy.' I mean cases where happiness depends on the fulfillment of desire."
So a little point there that people hear talk of getting beyond desire, and they think they'll become a desireless automaton and won't care what's served for lunch. The problem is when you care so much what's served for lunch that you start complaining, either internally or or externally.
So how do we begin to make that change? Obviously, we have our practice. It's so incredibly efficient. We're on the mat. We have our method, whether it's a breath practice, or a koan, or awareness practice. And every time we wander, we bring ourselves back. That makes a change. It is possible to bring our negativity and our grasping into our practice, and sort of get stalled out. But if we keep at it, if we keep noticing, we're going to get through, if we keep walking in the same direction.
But there are some things you can do to sort of help yourself along. And I wanted to read a piece from Pema Chodron. The title is "How to Make the Most of Your Day and Your Life." And she says this. "One of my favorite subjects of contemplation is this question: Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing? You know you will die. But you really don't know how long you have to wake up from the cocoon of your habitual patterns. You don't know how much time you have left to fulfill the potential of your precious human birth. Given this, what is the most important thing?
"Every day of your life, every morning of your life, you could ask yourself, as I go into this day, What's the most important thing? What's the best use of this day? At my age," I think she's old like me. "At my age, it's kind of scary when I go to bed at night, and I look back at the day, and it seems like it passed in the snap of a finger. That was a whole day? What did I do with it? Did I move any closer to being more compassionate, loving and caring, to being fully awake? Is my mind more open? What did I actually do? I feel how little time there is and how important it is how we spend our time."
She's touching on a habit that some people take up and I think it's really a fruitful one, which is just to stop and review. At the end of the day, look back over it. What do we regret? What would we like to do differently? At the beginning of the day, it's more common, I think, for people to think, 'What do I want to get done?' But usually that getting done is a list of all the tasks they're overwhelmed with.
It's so important to make our agenda, our goal, to be something more than just getting tasks done. The rest and the openness and the enjoyment that we think will come at the end of all our tasks, that has to be baked in; that has to be part of it. You can do what needs to be done without continually perseverating, without continually thinking about it and worrying about it.
First, you have to notice that that's what you're doing. You have to be honest with yourself, to see that you do that. People don't like to see that. They think, 'I've been practicing for 20 years. I shouldn't be like that.' The reality is everybody should be exactly like what they are. I'm not saying you should stay like that. We work from this moment; we work from what we've got. Regretting the past doesn't help us a bit.
She says, "What is the best use of each day of our lives? In one very short day, each of us could become more sane, more compassionate, more tender, more in touch with the dreamlike quality of reality. Or we could bury all these qualities more deeply and get more in touch with solid mind, retreating more into our own cocoon. Every time a habitual pattern gets strong, every time we feel caught up or on automatic pilot, we could see it as an opportunity to burn up negative karma. Rather than as a problem, we could see it as our karmic ripening. But that's hard to do. When we realize that we are hooked, that we're on automatic pilot, what do we do next? That is a central question for the practitioner."
And then she gives us a little something to do. She says, "One of the most effective means for working with that moment, when we see the gathering storm of our habitual tendencies, is the practice of pausing or creating a gap. We can stop and take three conscious breaths. And the world has a chance to open up to us in that gap. We can allow space into our state of mind, basically break the stream."
It's important to sit every day, so important. And it's good to work up to sitting half an hour, 45 minutes, whatever. It's wonderful to come in the evening to the Center and sit for two hours, sit three rounds. It has an amazing effect. But I think maybe equally as important is how many times during the day we break the spell, we come back to this moment. Don't neglect that. It's so easy to do.
Once you get the knack of just dropping it, just dropping, it can take three conscious breaths as she suggests, or just open, hear the tone of the room. Feel your breath and your body. So many things we can attend to: the rain, the quiet of a snowstorm, birdsong, sunshine on my shoulders. This creates that gap. Go into a silence, even if it's just for a moment.
And she says something similar to what I just said. She says, "Before I talk about consciously pausing or creating a gap, it might be helpful to appreciate the gap that already exists in our environment. Awakened mind exists in our surroundings, in the air and the wind, in the sea and the land and the animals. But how often are we actually touching in with it? Are we poking our heads out of our cocoons long enough to actually taste it, experience it, and let it shift something in us, let it penetrate our conventional way of looking at things?"
That shifting something, I notice (and I remember talking with Roshi and he has the same experience) when you go and talk to a group of students or some group that wants to hear about Zen meditation, and you sort of take them through the routine. The same thing happens, I guess, with doing a workshop. At some point, you describe the process of meditating on the breath. And when you're doing it, you say, "When you begin, breathe in. Then as you breathe out, count 'one.' Breathe in, and as you breathe out, count 'two,' and so on."
Whenever I do that, whenever I breathe out and just barely voice "one," everything settles. It's like this gift. And it's so ironic that it's available all the time. And most of us dip into that so much less frequently than we could; we'll put it that way.
So Pema goes on. "For all of us, the experience of our entanglement differs from day to day. The magic and the power, maybe that feeling can stay with you and you can go into your day with it. Whatever it is you're doing, the magic, the sacredness, the expansiveness, the stillness stays with you. When you are in touch with that larger environment, it can cut through your cocoon mentality.
"Pause practice can transform each day of your life. It creates an open doorway to the sacredness of the place in which you find yourself. The vastness, stillness, and magic of the place will dawn upon you if you let your mind relax and drop, for just a few breaths, the storyline you're working so hard to maintain. If you pause long enough, just long enough, you can reconnect with exactly where you are with the immediacy of your experience."
Further on she says, "Let it be like popping a bubble. Let it be just a moment in time and then go on. In any moment, you could just listen. In any moment, you could put your full attention on the immediacy of your experience. The more we do this, the more we realize that life is a banquet. There's just so much; it's so rich. It's only our habit energy that cuts us off from that."
So much that I had hoped to cover that I'm not going to get to, but I did want to finish by talking for a while about the methods of Alcoholics Anonymous. It's really significant for me because it was a big turning point in my practice when I was fortunate enough to come into AA. I was fortunate to have screwed up enough that that's where I ended up. There's a saying there in AA that you hear a lot, "Slow growth is good growth." It really could be the theme of this talk.
There's a book that's used in AA. It's called "The Big Book," a big blue book full of basically people's stories about their alcoholism and their recovery and stuff about the various principles of AA. The book ends with this phrase, "We will meet many of you as we trudge the road of happy destiny." It's such a great phrase because of that word "trudge." It isn't always fun and games; we have to work. We have to put in the effort. We have to do what we value, even when we don't feel like it. But there is that happy destiny. We're going where we need to go.
AA, of course, as most people know, is a 12-step program. It's the original 12 steps. And I want to talk really briefly, just a brief summary of the first three, and relate them to what we're doing because they're very similar.
So step one is "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable." Step two is "We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." And step three is "We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him." And we'll finesse that in a moment.
So step one: the genius of step one is that it humbles us, that we admit that if we do things a certain way, we are defeated. For an alcoholic, as long as we try to manage our drinking, we're going to screw up, things are going to go south. For us, for most of whom drinking is not the major problem (for some of us it is, I think), we're still stuck in this cycle of self-sabotage. We're addicted to our thoughts, to our negative thoughts, our evaluative thoughts. We're addicted to comparing ourselves to other people. The flavor is different with every person, but we all have the habits that we cannot control. We cannot just will them out of existence.But we realize that we have a method. We have a path that can help change that.
Step two: "We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." We realize that awareness can change everything. A little bit can change a little; a lot can change a lot.
Then step three: "We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over." Of course, in Buddhism, we don't have a God concept. But basically the way I came to understand it in AA is my understanding of God was "not me." Put my faith in something that's not little me. It's not John. The world is so much wider, so much more. Mind is so vast. My personality and my habits and my idiosyncrasies are limited. What do I want to cultivate?
In Buddhism, there is the concept of bodhicitta, the aspiration to enlightenment, the aspiration to come to full awakening for the sake of all beings, when we commit, not that we think we're going to accomplish something in any frame of time, but that we're going to go in that direction. We're going to work our lives, to change our lives gradually, so we can live what we believe. And there's a power that helps us along. If there was a way to sum up step three, it would be "trust the process."
Connect with the people we're practicing with. Join them, trudging the road to happy destiny. Well, now I truly have used up my time. We'll stop now and recite the Four Vows.