Understanding excitation and stimulation in practice
I'm writing this on the penultimate day of a jhana retreat that my teacher Leigh Brasington and I have been running through Gaia House. Over the course of the retreat I've been noticing patterns in the challenges that come up in regard to settling the mind sufficiently for the jhanas to become available, and so I'm going to share a model that I use to understand what's going on here.
(While the article will be focusing on concentration/samadhi practice, I think the model actually works for any form of practice, or even any activity in general - I first started to notice this phenomenon in another context entirely. So even if samadhi isn't your bag, it might still be worth a read.)
Excitation and stimulation
There are two key aspects which come together in any meditation practice. For want of a better term (if you can think of better words, please suggest them!) I'm going to call them 'excitation' and 'stimulation'.
Excitation is a measure of how 'activated' we're feeling at the time. If you're having a stressful time at work, your level of excitation is likely to be pretty high. If you're several days into a relaxing holiday, your level of excitation is going to be much lower. In a nutshell, excitation is a measure of how 'shaken up' we are inside (in the sense of shaking up a Coke bottle). In other words, excitation relates to you, the meditator, and the inner condition that you're bringing to the present moment. It runs on a continuum from 'peaceful' (low excitation) to 'excited' or 'stressed' (high excitation, depending on whether positive or negative in nature).
Stimulation is a measure of how 'interesting' the current external situation is - whether that's the meditation object you're working with, or anything else. Going to a rock concert is very stimulating, sitting silently in an empty room facing a blank wall is not at all stimulating. Stimulation thus also runs on a continuum from 'subtle' (low stimulation) to 'intense' (high stimulation).
So excitation represents your inner condition, while stimulation represents the outer condition. The coming together of the two is the present moment.
Why does this matter? Because it's much easier for the mind to engage with something that's stimulating enough but not too much. If you're in a highly excited state and you try to move straight into a very subtle practice, it'll feel 'boring', and the mind won't want to stay there. By comparison, if you're in a very quiet, peaceful state, you may find a rock concert to be overwhelming - just too much to handle right now.
Compensating for a mismatch of excitation and stimulation with effort
It's very common for people to come on a jhana retreat and have a hard time at first. They're arriving from jobs, families, travel, all sorts of highly stimulating things, and so they're showing up with a fairly high level of excitation. Then we tell them to pay attention to the sensations of the breath, and do nothing else until the mind stops wandering, at which point they might be able to start trying to get into the jhanas. So they're coming from a place of high excitation, being offered something that sounds very cool (these altered states of consciousness called jhanas) - and then being asked to do something which, relative to the moment, is extremely boring, yet somehow they have to find a way to get through it to get to the cool thing on the other side that they're here to learn.
Needless to say, this can be a recipe for frustration.
A very common response to that sense of frustration is to apply more effort. 'OK, my mind is wandering, but I can't get into the first jhana until it calms down, so I'm damn well going to make sure it stays put!' Sometimes this is even consciously expressed, more often it's an unconscious manifestation of the practitioner's sincere wish to enter the jhana.
(As an aside, this is why the jhanas get a bad rap sometimes, because detractors will say 'Oh, that's just craving, it's unhelpful, don't do it.' But the jhanas are a powerful asset on the spiritual path, and in my view there's nothing wrong with wanting to learn a skill which will help someone in their practice. Yes, any craving that's present will need to be addressed, but the 'nice' thing about the jhanas is that you can't get in if you're craving too much, so that has a way of working itself out through practice.)
So does it work? Can we 'nail our attention to the breath'?
The answer is... kinda, but you probably shouldn't, and if you overdo it, it won't work at all.
Using a totally unscientific numbering scheme for effort, where 5 is maximum effort and 0 means you didn't even sign up for the retreat, we see this sort of thing:
5: Tight mind, no possibility of progress
Just as the body has a stretch reflex that kicks in when it feels it's in danger of being over-stretched to the point of injury (which is why we generally have to stretch gently if we want the body to open up), it seems that there comes a point where the mind is being pushed too far and it refuses to cooperate any longer. The mind becomes very tight, useless for concentration or meditation of any kind, and it generally feels pretty crappy to boot. When the mind has reached this stage, the only thing to do is to step away from the practice for a while. Go for a walk, take a break, do something else for a bit until you can relax internally.
4: Unpleasant glass ceiling
A lot of effort actually can take you some of the way - but usually it only goes so far. A lot of people find that they can get 'kinda concentrated', but not enough so to get into the jhanas. They'll arrive at a place of indistractibility, maybe even feel a sense of the body's energy (piti, see this page for more details) starting to gather, but it never really takes off. This is a really frustrating place to be, and it's very natural to feel that just a little more effort will surely tip it over the edge - but just a little more effort is going in exactly the wrong direction.
3: Workable concentration with unpleasant side effects
At the next stage, the mind is loose and mobile enough that it's possible to get concentrated and even enter the jhanas. However, it's unlikely to be the uncomplicated experience of bodily bliss and emotional joy that's described in the suttas. Instead, people will report strange muscle tensions, headaches and other unpleasant side effects.
I can relate to this very much. Historically, I've never been much of a 'middle ground' kind of person. Fortunately I wasn't at effort level 5 when I went on my first jhana retreat (that would come later, but that's a story for another day!), but I started out squarely at level 4. Fortunately I was able to chill out enough to get down to level 3, at which point jhanas started to happen - and so I stayed at that level for many years, basically doing my best to ignore the unpleasant side effects for as long as I could. These days the overall tone of my practice is much gentler, but because of the way I learnt the jhanas, I still find that doing a lot of jhana practice can trigger that more effortful mode of practising quite easily, so I have to keep an eye out for that.
2: Balance. Concentration develops in its own time, without being forced
This is where we want to be - just enough effort to keep the practice moving forward, not enough to cause ourselves problems. My sense is that 'level 2' is actually a pretty broad category, with some people more at the 'just let it happen' end of the scale while others are more 'on it'. Essentially what we're looking for here is the balance that Leigh calls 'relaxed diligence'.
1: Wandering, drifting, practice not firmly established
I'm mainly focusing on too much effort in this article, but of course the equal and opposite error is not to bring enough effort to the practice. You've got to do the work - it isn't enough to come on retreat and then spend the time 'goofing off', as Leigh would put it. If the retreat is turning into more of a holiday, the 'diligence' part might be lacking. It's always a shame when this happens, because clearly the person was interested enough to sign up for the retreat in the first place (and take a space away from someone else!).
(In case anyone from the present retreat is reading this, I'm not talking about anyone in particular here! I don't think anyone on this retreat has been goofing off - on the contrary, you've all done really well in the circumstances you've been working with, and it's been a pleasure to practise with you all.)
So if more effort isn't the answer, what is?
Coming back to the 'excitation' and 'stimulation' model, we still have this problem that you may be coming into your practice in a highly 'excited' state, relative to which a meditation practice like noticing the breath is much too subtle to hold your interest - as a result, the practice is boring, your mind wanders, and nothing much happens. What can we do about this?
In a retreat context, the problem will actually often 'solve itself' after a few days. When you're on retreat (particularly a residential retreat), you've removed yourself from most of the sources of stimulation that are present in your daily life. Just like a snow-globe is busy right after you've shaken it up but gradually settles down if you just leave it alone, your mind and body will gradually settle (i.e. your excitation level will decrease), and eventually you'll arrive at a place where the breath is a more accessible object. The breath hasn't become any more stimulating than it was, but because you're now less excited, the breath appears more interesting than it did.
This solution has some appealing qualities, particularly if you're prone to over-efforting. Going on a retreat knowing that your first few days will be spent settling down, and all you have to do is to allow that process to happen, can really help to create an attitude of openness rather than one of forcing. The drawback is that you're still working with a 'too boring' object for those first few days, which can potentially trigger frustration and restlessness, slowing down that process of settling.
An alternative is to vary the meditation practice over time. Leigh and I will offer a variety of 'aids' to settling the mind for people who have chosen to work with the breath as a means of settling the mind - for example, counting the breaths, visualising an ocean wave coming in and out with the breath, using a mantra in time with the breath, noticing the parts of the breath (beginning, middle, end, gap) or noticing the lengths of each breath (shorter than average, longer than average? shorter than the last, longer than the last?). Other teachers have suggested a wide range of similar approaches - imagining that you're breathing in a pleasant scent, feeling the movement of breath as a pleasurable sensation, relating to the breath as the breath of Buddha, all sorts of different ideas.
What all of these have in common is that the breath goes from the very subtle, very unstimulating 'in, out, in, out' to an experience which is richer and more engaging. As a result, people generally find it easier to rest the mind on this more highly stimulating object. The drawback is that, because the object is now more stimulating, it may limit how calm the mind can become. What was initially perceived as interesting can start to become irritating, noisy, 'too busy'. At this point, if the meditator moves to a less stimulating version of the object - for example, if they've been counting each in-breath and out-breath, shifting to just counting out-breaths, or even dropping the count entirely - then the mind can settle even more deeply. There's sometimes a moment of instability and disorientation, because some of the landmarks of the previous stage of practice have now gone away, but the mind typically settles down again and now goes deeper.
Developing sensitivity to excitation and stimulation
Perhaps the trickiest aspect of all this is that our excitation levels can be unpredictable, even on a retreat. While the overall trend on a retreat for most people is towards gradually decreasing excitation of mind and thus gradually deepening subtlety of object, it can vary day by day, or according to time of day (my mind is busier in the mornings and quieter in the afternoons), or even from one sit to the next (a 'good' sit will often lead to a more distracted next sit because the excitation level has risen).
While I have a deep appreciation for the simplicity and profundity of the 'just let it happen' approach to practice, I do think that there's great benefit to be had from developing an awareness of our internal condition and a sensitivity to how that condition is interfacing with the stimulation offered by the practice we're working with, and learning how to tweak the practice to meet ourselves where we are rather than where we'd like to be. Over time this will start to happen intuitively, and will need less and less conscious attention and intervention - you'll just start to feel 'Oh, needs a few more details right now to stay with it' or 'Ahh, mind getting settled - relax, simplify'.
I hope these reflections prove helpful in your meditation practice.
The Eightfold Path, part 4
This article is the fourth in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're going to take a look at the fourth aspect of the path: right action. Like the third aspect of the path, right speech, right action is part of the section on sila, or ethics - essentially, practices relating to how to live in the world in a way which minimises the harm we do to ourselves and others. I've already talked about the value of Buddhism's ethical teachings in the article on right speech, so I won't repeat that here - check that article out if you're curious.
So what is right action?
I've taken the quotation at the top of this article, which defines right action in terms of three factors (refraining from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct), from Samyutta Nikaya 45.8 for consistency with the other articles in this series. However, it's more common to find right action equated with the Buddhist precepts, of which there are five for householders and many more for monks and nuns - this includes the three listed above, plus precepts concerning lying and (ab)using intoxicants.
The version of the precepts that I use when teaching retreats runs as follows:
These are pretty simple, pithy and easy to remember. That said, I'm also a fan of the version of the precepts given in the Brahmajala Sutra from the Mahayana tradition, precisely because what's given there is not short, pithy and straightforward - it's actually pretty complex.
I like more complex takes on the precepts because the key word in the definitions I gave above is training. The precepts are not 'Buddhist commandments' phrased as 'thou shalt not' - like every other aspect of the Eightfold Path, they're intended as practices, something that we actually explore for ourselves rather than simply memorise and then repeat on command. Indeed, one of the signs of the first stage of awakening in the traditional model is that we are no longer bound by the fetter of 'rites, rituals and righteousness' - which means that it's clear that merely behaving a certain way because someone else told us to is not the way to awakening. Rather, our relationship with the precepts becomes a living exploration, more of a dance than a rigid, legalistic submission to an arbitrary set of rules.
With that in mind, I'm not going to write a huge article telling you what I think about each of the precepts. Rather, I'm going to present a contemplation practice which invites you to explore each precept for yourself.
Contemplation versus meditation
Contemplation is similar to meditation, but with a slightly different orientation. Contemplation can feel a bit weird the first time you try it because it seems to be 'breaking the rules' of meditation.
Typically speaking, in a meditation practice we're not really that interested in the content of our thoughts - we might be focused on the physical sensations of our breath, or the visual appearance of a candle flame; if we're doing something like Zen koan practice or the Brahmaviharas, we may be using words as part of the practice, but the idea is that the words support a focus on something else (a feeling of questioning in koan practice, an emotion in Brahmavihara practice).
By comparison, in contemplation, anything goes. In a contemplation practice we'll have some kind of theme that we're investigating - but how we investigate it is completely up to us. You're welcome to think about the theme as much as you like - but you're equally welcome to work with it like a koan (bringing up the theme from time to time to see what it stirs up), or simply to set the intention to explore the theme and then just sit and see what happens.
I typically suggest taking some time to settle your mind through meditation, perhaps by paying attention to your breath or doing a bit of loving kindness practice. Then, when the usual whirl of everyday thoughts has settled down a little, shift over to the contemplation.
I'll now suggest a contemplation on the precepts. For each of the five, I'll give the headline statement, then suggest a few 'probes' - particular lines of inquiry that you can introduce to explore different aspects of the precepts. You're entirely welcome to use these just as much or as little as you'd like. These are some 'ways in' that I've found helpful for myself, but each of us must ultimately find our own relationship to the precepts.
Trigger warning, and how to approach this practice
This is not lightweight stuff - exploring the precepts seriously can take you to some dark places. Please be kind to yourself. Please note also that some of the 'probes' below are deliberately provocative. I am not advocating any kind of unethical action, even as an 'experiment'.
Furthermore, please don't use this as an exercise in self-judgement or criticism. The point here is not to beat yourself up for what you perceive as your ethical failings. The point is to explore the precepts to get a feel for what they mean to us on a visceral level, to encourage us to engage with the material rather than simply treating it as yet another set of 'laws' handed down through the generations.
OK, without further ado, let's get into it.
A contemplation on the precepts
Take at least a few minutes just to sit quietly, perhaps focusing on the breath or doing metta, in order to settle your mind before proceeding. Then, when you're ready, start moving through the contemplations below.
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Taking life could potentially include everything from killing another human, to stepping on an insect, to taking antibiotics, to cutting down a tree. What does 'taking life' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about life being taken?
Does it make a difference what kind of life is being taken, by whom, or for what reason?
When is the taking of life justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from taking life?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Taking what is not given could potentially include everything from armed robbery, to insider trading, to shoplifting, to taking more than your fair share, to watching copyrighted videos on YouTube, to taking up too much of someone else's time and energy. What does 'taking what is not given' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone taking what is not given?
Does it make a difference what is being taken, by whom, or for what reason?
When is taking what is not given justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from taking what is not given?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Sexual misconduct could potentially include everything from rape, to inappropriate physical contact, to adultery, to using sexuality to get what you want. What does 'sexual misconduct' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone committing sexual misconduct?
Does it make a difference what kind of sexual misconduct is being committed, by whom, or for what reason?
When is sexual misconduct justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from sexual misconduct?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. False speech could potentially include everything from lying under oath, to committing fraud, to spreading lies about someone to damage their reputation, to misleading someone in order to manipulate them, to exaggerating your achievements to make yourself sound more impressive, to telling a little white lie for social convenience. What does 'false speech' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone speaking falsely?
Does it make a difference what kind of false speech it is, by whom, or for what reason?
When is false speech justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from false speech?
Take some time to explore this precept in the broadest sense. Intoxicants could potentially include everything from alcohol, to recreational drugs, to risk-taking behaviour, to anything else we can get addicted to - gambling, the Internet, even our work. Heedlessness could potentially include anything from total loss of control, to a significant impairment of judgement, to a subtle lowering of inhibitions. What does 'intoxicants causing heedlessness' mean to you?
How do you feel when you see or hear about someone using intoxicants leading to heedlessness?
Does it make a difference what kind of intoxicant it is, or what degree of heedlessness? Does it make a difference by whom, or for what reason?
When is the use of intoxicants leading to heedlessness justified?
What might it mean for you to undertake the training to refrain from intoxicants causing heedlessness?
It's likely that the contemplations above have brought up quite a bit of material. I suggest closing the practice by taking a few minutes for meditation to let things settle down again - perhaps returning to the breath, or metta, or just sitting.
May you be well.
How to get free of the tangle
This week we're looking at case 39 in the Gateless Barrier. This is a rich koan offering many possible avenues of exploration; I won't have time to explore them all in today's article, even assuming I've noticed all the possibilities, which I probably haven't! But we'll dig into a few and see where they take us - and if you find another thread to pull on, please go right ahead (and let me know what you've found in the comments!).
The central question here is that of Zen master Sixin (pronounced something like see-shin) - where did the monk get trapped in words? Here are three possibilities, representing progressively deepening levels of realisation.
The monk became trapped in words when he read Zhang Zhuo's poem
Sometimes, we come across a passage in a Zen text or poem (or some other spiritual, philosophical, literary or scientific work) that stops us in our tracks. Perhaps it conjures up a picture of something that feels both deeply familiar and utterly mysterious at the same time - or perhaps it just makes no sense at all, and yet somehow we have an intuition that it isn't mere nonsense. Naturally, we want to know what it means - but we can't relate to it directly and immediately, so all we have is this mysterious set of words.
From a Zen perspective, this is actually a good place to be. What we have in moments like these is a kernel of what's usually known as 'Great Doubt' in the Zen tradition, although teachers like Martine Batchelor have argued that 'Great Questioning' might be a better translation due to the negative connotations of 'Doubt' in the English language. Essentially, what we've found is something we don't understand and would like to. That is the essence of all meditative inquiry, and is the necessary condition for insight to arise. If we 'do insight practice' but have no interest in what we might find, if we already feel that we've got it all worked out and this meditation stuff can't possibly show us anything new, then it's dramatically less likely that we'll make any meaningful progress along the wisdom dimension - and if we do somehow get a breakthrough nonetheless, it's likely to be jarring, upsetting, even distressing, as the comfortable world we were clinging to is turned upside down. By comparison, if we actively choose to undertake the quest for greater wisdom, we're more likely to hang in there when the going gets tough, because on the other side of that bumpy terrain is a place we're trying to get to. Seen from this perspective, we could make the case that the entire purpose of koans is for us to get caught in words - to find one of these strange stories that intrigues us enough that we're willing to spend hours on the cushion studying them in meditation, often getting absolutely nowhere for hours, days, weeks or months on end, until one day - boom, there it is.
So it could well be that this nameless monk has simply read a piece of poetry, been struck by the beautiful images it conjures up, and wants to ask his teacher something like 'What's it like to experience this for yourself? How do I get there?' In this reading, Yunmen's response is sharp but compassionate, directing the monk to put the books down and get back to practising - in essence, saying 'Don't ask me, ask yourself!' The word 'Zen' literally means 'meditation', and the essential principle behind the Zen school of Buddhism is to use meditation to find the answers we're looking for in our direct experience, rather than debating theories and philosophies in an intellectual way. It's possible to spend many years - even a lifetime - arguing about the fine scholarly points of non-duality and emptiness without ever having a personal experience of it, and so Yunmen is deeply concerned that the monk should not make this mistake. Words like these - the kind that describe the experience of someone who has broken through to the awakened perspective - are actually often more helpful after one's awakening than before; before awakening, they're at best a cryptic riddle that can inspire us to practise, but after we've had a glimpse of awakening, we can use them to confirm what we've experienced - or, more usually, to recognise that what we saw was only partial, and that there's further to go.
The monk became trapped in words when asking Yunmen his question
A second possible scenario is that the monk had indeed had some kind of awakening, or perhaps was right on the threshold of it, but couldn't put it into his own words. In the words of Zen master Wumen, the compiler of the Gateless Barrier, 'In a natural manner, inside and outside become one; like someone without the power of speech who has had a dream, you can know it only for yourself.'
Having this kind of 'private' experience can be beautiful and thrilling, but it's also limited. One of the strengths of the Breakthrough to Zen retreats run by Zenways, the Zen sangha I belong to, is that most of the practice happens out loud, with a partner in front of you. Whatever's going on, you must try, over and over, to put it into words. In the process of doing so, it both comes out into the world and becomes more fully your own. At the very beginning of this process, it's often clumsy, and you may find yourself resorting to lines from the old masters which you feel capture the spirit of what's going on. But in the long run, the language must become your own, the awakening fully integrated into your being, not someone else's.
And so perhaps that's what's happening here. The monk has had some kind of experience, but has no words for it. The best he can do is to say 'It's like radiant light was silently illuminating the whole world...' - and his teacher is challenging him to put down the books and find his own words for it. In part, this might be a test - anyone can quote one of the old masters, but it's usually very revealing to hear someone's first person experience in their own words rather than those of another. From the teacher's standpoint, this is a key 'diagnostic' technique - all sorts of interesting and wonderful things can happen in meditation, not all of which are due to insight or awakening, and so it's usually necessary to spend a bit of time talking back and forth to figure out what's going on.
The monk became trapped in words when Yunmen interrupted him
A third possibility is that the monk has indeed had some experience of awakening, and is now some way along the road to stabilising and integrating it.
Sometimes it's thought that enlightenment happens all at once, in a flash - bam, that's it, you're enlightened now. The stories of the historical Buddha usually imply that that's how it was for him. For most of us, however, it isn't quite so simple - and even the historical Buddha went on to teach a model with four 'stages' or 'paths' of awakening, gradually deepening over time. Likewise, one of the most important Zen masters in my lineage, Hakuin, taught at great length about the importance of 'post-satori training' - that practice does not end with a meditative breakthrough, but actually that that breakthrough is simply a transition from one phase of practice to another.
Now, this is a somewhat controversial subject, and there have been debates throughout the history of Zen. From a certain point of view - what we might call the standpoint of 'inherent awakening' or 'Buddha Nature' - what we wake up to is immediate, timeless, and has always been true. Nothing needs to be 'cultivated', nothing needs to be 'purified', it only needs to be recognised for what it is, in all its immediate, pristine, indestructible purity. This is the so-called 'sudden' school of awakening. From another point of view, however, practice is clearly necessary - although we may well possess the seed of awakening within ourselves, for most of us it isn't yet fully flourishing - if it were, there would be no need for Zen at all. And so we undertake this practice, meditating, cultivating mindfulness in our daily lives, exploring both inwardly and outwardly, and over time we come to see the truth of our Buddha Nature more and more clearly, in a wider and wider range of circumstances.
That last part is important. It's very common for people to reach a point where they can have a nice experience in meditation, reach a place of great stillness and oneness and so forth, but then it disintegrates the moment the meditation ends and they have to deal with other people again. (People, ugh.) And so the next challenge is to learn not just to visit that place but to live from that place.
And so maybe that's what's going on here. The monk has established himself to some degree in his awakening, he's doing his best to speak from that place, along the way he mentions a line from a poem because it's an authentic description of his experience - but then Yunmen abruptly interrupts, jarring the monk out of his place of awakening, throwing him straight back into the whirring machinations of his discriminating mind by asking him a challenging question. And so Yunmen's reply is not in fact a criticism of the monk's use of Zhang Zhou's words, but really more of a way of saying 'Gotcha! You fell right out of it again, didn't you?' One might imagine the poor monk sighing, rolling his eyes, muttering something like 'Ugh, not again...' and then going back to his practice.
I read a book recently where the author was describing his experience of Zen archery. He'd spent several years working to reach a point where he could shoot an arrow in perfect mental stillness and clarity, and he had come before his master to demonstrate his attainment. Halfway through, the teacher suddenly barked at him to stop, which he found rather irritating since he'd been in mid-flow at that moment. Then the teacher asked him to re-tie his bow string in a certain way that made it immensely harder to draw the bow. He felt tremendous sadness at this turn of events - this was supposed to be a crowning moment of his practice, but instead his teacher had pulled the rug out from under him and made things more difficult again. Evidently seeing his distress, his teacher gently explained that there had been no need for the demonstration - it was evident to the teacher from the moment the man picked up his bow that his training on that level was complete, and that he was ready for a fresh challenge, to take his art deeper still.
Very often, our teachers will say and do things we don't like. This can seem strange and hurtful - perhaps we've come to this practice to feel better, and mostly it does make us feel better, so how come our teachers are being mean to us? But - at least if you have a good teacher, rather than one who is genuinely abusive - your teacher is most likely pointing out a place where you're still stuck, where there's still work to do. This hurts, because nobody likes to have their flaws pointed out, but what's the alternative - that our teachers smile and nod and say 'Yup, you're super-enlightened, well done you' when it isn't true?
Don't be afraid of getting trapped in words
In this article I've outlined three ways in which we might get trapped in words. Note, however, that none of them are actually bad. It's easy to read this koan in a superficial way and say 'Oh, master Yunmen says we shouldn't get trapped in words - right, I'll throw away all my books and avoid learning anything at all, that'll fix it!' But I would argue that that's a mistake. For me, at least, most of the mysteries that have really fuelled my own practice came first from reading them in books, getting 'trapped in words' in the first sense above, and then pursuing my practice like a rabid dog, sometimes for years on end, until I found some measure of what I was looking for. Even at the second stage, when we're trying to find our own words for what's going on, I'd argue that it isn't actually a bad thing to try out the phrases of the old masters. It gives you a place to start, and as you start to feel into which phrases work for you better than others, you'll start to find your own language. And as for the third kind of trap, I'd argue that that's absolutely essential on the spiritual path - other people can see our blind spots far more easily than we can, pretty much by definition - if we could see them, they wouldn't be blind spots!
So, by all means, read, study, get confused, get in a mess, get so thoroughly trapped in words that you can't bear it any longer and have no choice but to meditate your way out of your entanglement. You'll be glad you did.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!