What is this 'now'?
The present moment is a big deal in spiritual circles. Maybe you've read Eckhart Tolle's book 'The Power of Now', or encountered a definition of mindfulness which is something like 'non-judgemental present-moment attention'. You might even have seen one of those clocks where, instead of having numbers for each hour, it simply says 'Now' all the way around the clock face.
There are plenty of good reasons for training yourself to focus on the present moment. We tend to spend a lot of time worrying about things that haven't happened yet, or replaying things that have already happened over and over. Most of this is wasted energy, quite apart from being an unpleasant way to spend your time. While there's certainly value in planning for the future and learning from past mistakes, it's important to understand that the only moment in time where we can ever actually make a difference is this moment - right now. The future you're imagining might never come to pass, or at least not in the way that you're imagining it, and the past has been and gone already - what's done is done. But what's right in front of us, here and now: this, and only this, is where we're actually alive.
Hence all the books, videos and teachings encouraging you to 'be in the now'. But what actually is this now? And how could we ever be anywhere else anyway?
The strange nature of the present moment
We tend to imagine time as a kind of line that we're travelling along. Maybe the line runs from left to right, with the past on the left and the future on the right, and 'now' in the middle. Or maybe you see the line as moving forward, with the future ahead of you and the past behind you. (Apparently in some Asian countries it's the other way round; they see the past as in front of them, because you can 'look upon' the past and see what happened, whereas the future is behind you, sneaking up on you unawares.)
Let's go with the line for now. What, then, is 'now' in this way of looking at things? Is it a little piece of the line? If so, how long is it? If you say that 'now' has some duration - say, five seconds - then there's a part of 'now' which is 'earlier' and a part which is 'later'. That doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense - the whole point of now is that it's, well, NOW. And, if it has some fixed duration, then maybe there's a smaller 'now' inside the bigger one; which one is 'more now'?
OK, so viewing 'now' as having some fixed duration seems to have some problems. Maybe, instead of being a piece of the line, it's actually a point on the line instead. Then we don't have an 'earlier part of now' and a 'later part of now'. But, on the other hand, a point has no length at all, which means that a point-like 'now' has no duration. Can something with no duration whatsoever really be said to be part of 'time'? And how do we move through time, if 'now' never has any duration? No matter how many 0s you add together, you never reach 1. Then again, there must be some kind of continuity from moment to moment - if each moment was totally disconnected from every other, it would be impossible for you to read a sentence containing more than one word and have it make any kind of sense.
Whichever way you look at it, it's very hard to pin down exactly what this present moment is. (Readers familiar with the practice of investigating the sense of self may recognise the slippery, ungraspable quality of the territory we're getting into. That's a big clue for where this inquiry will ultimately take us.)
What does Zen have to say about time?
The great Zen master Dogen, who lived in Japan in the 13th century, wrote a famous text called Genjokoan, which is sufficiently cryptic that scholars today can't even agree on what the title means, let alone the contents. There's a section in there about time:
"Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again. However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off. Ash stays in the position of ash, with its own before and after. As firewood never becomes firewood again after it has burned to ash, there is no return to living after a person dies. However, in Buddha Dharma it is an unchanged tradition not to say that life becomes death. Therefore we call it no-arising. It is the established way of buddhas' turning the Dharma wheel not to say that death becomes life. Therefore, we call it no-perishing. Life is a position in time; death is also a position in time. This is like winter and spring. We don't think that winter becomes spring, and we don't say that spring becomes summer." -Genjokoan, translated by Shohaku Okumura.
(Dogen actually has another piece, Uji ('being-time'), which goes into much more detail about his view of time, but it's even more difficult than Genjokoan. Feel free to look it up and tell me what you make of it, though!)
So what is Dogen actually saying here? Well, bearing in mind that professional Dogen scholars have written entire books about Genjokoan, what I'm about to say is just one way of looking at it, and probably misses out a lot of subtle details. (If you're interested in going deeper into Genjokoan, I recommend Shohaku Okumura's excellent book 'Realizing Genjokoan'.)
Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, here's my take on it.
'Firewood becomes ash. Ash cannot become firewood again.'
This is the conventional view of time. We have cause and effect. When you burn firewood, it turns into ash, and there's no undo button. So far, so straightforward. Dogen is always keen to emphasise that the conventional way of seeing things is not 'false', and it isn't that if you become enlightened enough cause and effect stops working. (The second koan in the famous collection called 'The Gateless Barrier' describes the story of a monk who claimed that enlightened beings were no longer subject to cause and effect, and was reborn as a fox for five hundred lifetimes. Yikes!)
'However, we should not view ash as after and firewood as before. We should know that firewood dwells in the dharma position of firewood and has its own before and after. Although before and after exist, past and future are cut off.'
So this is where things get weird, or at least where Dogen's words no longer make sense in terms of our model of moving along the line of time in a nice orderly fashion.
As always with Zen study, there comes a point where we have to let go of our ideas about how we think things are, and look at our direct experience. This is very difficult to do, because our experience is inevitably coloured by our view, and we tend to see what we expect to see based on our view. Seeing beyond our existing view requires subtlety and patience, and generally a lot of meditation practice - but that's OK, that's why we're here, right?
So here's another way to look at time, which is grounded more in direct experience and less in an abstract idea about how we think time works.
In this present moment, we have the situation at hand. Perhaps you're looking at some firewood; so, in this moment, there is firewood. This moment has a sense of past and future to it: we can perhaps imagine the tree that the firewood came from; and we can perhaps imagine the ash that will be left after we burn the firewood. So, in this present moment, the firewood has its own 'before' and 'after'. Notice, however, that these are only ideas, and they might even be wrong. The past of this firewood might not be exactly how we imagine it, and the future might not come to pass the way we expect. So, although in conventional terms there's a 'before' and 'after' for this firewood, the 'past' and 'future' that are present in this moment are not the same as its actual past and future. In the future, there may indeed be ash, and perhaps in that future 'present moment' you will have an idea of the 'past' of that ash as firewood, but the 'past' of that present moment in the future will not be the same as your present moment experience right now. (For one thing, in this present moment, you can make choices and affect how things turn out, whereas when the future 'present moment' finally arrives, you will not be able to affect what will, by then, have become a 'past moment'.)
Our idea of time is back to front
To put it another way: we tend to think that 'now' arises within 'time', but actually 'time' arises within 'now'. All we ever experience is 'now'; but, in order to explain our experience, we come up with a concept of time, and apply it to what arises within the 'now'. We create seemingly real, solid objects out of what appears to us in the present moment, and we give those solid objects identities with histories and futures and all the rest of it. Ultimately, however, all of this is simply an elaborate story that we tell ourselves, and one which crumbles upon close examination.
As we explore our present-moment experience, we come to a view of time which is vastly more interconnected than simply a point travelling along a timeline. The total experience in this present moment arises in dependence on every single aspect of this moment - every part of the experience contributes to the whole. Part of that experience is our sense of the past - the history of everything present in this moment, both ourselves and the perceived objects around us. (Notice how your experience of sitting in meditation changes before and after the bell that ends the session. Both before and after the bell you're sitting quietly, potentially in exactly the same position, but your experience after the bell has a totally different quality because the sound of the bell has indicated 'the meditation is over'.) And another part of the experience in the present moment is our sense of the future - what we're going to be doing next, what our future plans are, what we're going to have to deal with later on today or tomorrow.
Furthermore, past, present and future are deeply intertwined in terms of cause and effect. Some examples:
Actually, though, even this is just part of the story. So far we've looked at how each moment has, in effect, its own past, present and future, as opposed to time being a single line that we move along. But Dogen wants us to go further even than that. The clue is in his term 'being-time', which takes the previous idea of the vastly interconnected nature of time and doubles down on it to include everything else as well.
Let's go back to the firewood. In the moment of encountering the firewood, you have a sense of the existence (the 'being') of the firewood in front of you, and the associated sense of past, present and future (the 'time') of the firewood. These two are not really separable - while it might make sense in the abstract to think intellectually about the timeline of the firewood as distinct from the experience of its physical presence, when you actually encounter the firewood in the moment, both being and time are intimately intertwined. In his essay 'Being-Time', Dogen goes as far as to say that being is time, because we cannot ultimately separate them.
And even this being-time of the firewood is not all that's going on in the moment of the encounter. There's also you present, with your own associated sense of past, present and future. There's also the environment - are you outside or inside, warm or cold? There are sights, sounds, feelings, each with their own being-time. The present moment experience you're having is not simply 'firewood', or even 'past, present and future of firewood', but it's also the total being-time of all these other things. Every aspect of this experience is an inseparable part of the greater whole, as it is experienced right now. The whole universe comes together in every moment to create this total experience.
As I've mentioned in a previous article, it isn't enough just to think about this stuff, as interesting as that might be. The important thing in Zen practice is to get an experiential sense of what's being discussed. Ultimately, the point is to change your underlying view of reality, and simply thinking about it won't go deep enough to do that.
Last time we looked at Silent Illumination, one of the two most well-known forms of Zen practice. Silent Illumination is essentially about relaxing into the present moment so thoroughly and completely that the nature of reality reveals itself to us - the basic premise is that what gets in the way of seeing the empty nature of all phenomena is 'mental obscurations', which turn out to be a kind of mental activity; if we can relax enough, without falling asleep or losing our clarity, that mental activity eventually comes to a halt, and we can see what's normally obscured.
However, there's another approach to Zen practice, based around active investigation of a question, or koan. This is a more vigorous approach than Silent Illumination - rather than 'just sitting', waiting for reality to show itself to us as we settle down into it, we instead poke and probe our experience until we're catapulted into direct contact with what's going on beneath the obscurations.
If you'd like to explore the nature of time, I suggest using either 'What is this present moment?' or 'What is this "now"?' as your question. (Readers familiar with koan study will notice the similarity to 'What is this?', a classic koan used very widely in Korean Zen.)
If you've never done koan practice before, there's a guided audio using the question 'Who am I?' on the Audio page. In brief, though, the practice is to ask the question to yourself, silently, and then see what comes back in response. Then, no matter what happened (or didn't happen), ask the question again, and see what comes back in response. Simply keep going like that.
Koan practice often brings up a lot of thoughts at first, and some of those thoughts might seem really clever, insightful or interesting. No matter what, though, just notice them, put them down, and then ask the question again. The answer that we're looking for in this practice does not take the form of a thought, no matter how awesome a thought it is. Just keep going.
'Nothing happens when I ask the question!'
One of the most common complaints I get from students who have been working with a koan for a while is that 'nothing happens' - they ask the question but don't get any kind of answer, let alone the earth-shaking insight they're probably expecting.
The short answer is 'That's fine, keep going,' but people get grumpy enough about this that it might be helpful to say a bit more about 'nothing'.
There are two kinds of 'nothing' that can come up in practice. One is relatively rare, and is usually called 'cessation'. In cessation, your entire conscious experience stops. It isn't that everything goes black or that the world appears frozen; there's simply no experience at all, so you can only even tell that it happened if you have some way to notice a discontinuity. Maybe you literally just looked at your clock and it said 10.40, but now it's 11.30. Or maybe you had your eyes open and you notice a kind of visual 'stutter', like a few frames were deleted out of the movie of your life. (Cessations can be really short or quite long.)
If you have a cessation, this is a fabulous opportunity. Your entire conscious mind just switched off, and it'll take a little while to put itself back together again. So if you pay really close attention to what's going on, you can actually see your experience reassembling itself, bit by bit, and thus gain tremendous insight into the nature of how your mind works. So if you get this kind of nothing, pay attention!
More likely, though, is that the kind of 'nothing' that's being reported is more like a kind of 'absence' - like the 'nothing' that happens when you open the fridge to get some milk, but there's no milk there. There's a moment where your expectations are confounded - you wanted something but you found nothing.
In koan practice, this frustrating experience of 'nothing happening' comes about because we're asking a question, and when we ask questions we normally expect to get an answer - to be able to 'solve the problem' and arrive at some thing nice and concrete. To make matters worse, maybe the teacher told you that looking at this koan will reveal some kind of awesome truth about your true nature, and give you that kensho experience you've heard so much about. But all that happens is... well, nothing.
Actually, in this case too, my advice is to pay attention! Investigate the 'nothing'. Try to see it as clearly as you can.
Wait, wait, wait. How can you investigate nothing? You can only investigate something, surely!
Well, actually, 'nothing' is a kind of experience too - just a different kind of experience to the experience of 'something'. (If you get into deep concentration practice, the seventh jhana is a state of deep, unwavering focus on the experience of nothing. It's possible to stay there for hours if you get good at it.)
So what is this 'nothing' like? Maybe a sense of 'absence'? A sense of frustration, at not getting what you want? A kind of weird, slippery sensation, like you're trying to pin something down but it moves every time you think you've got it cornered? Maybe your mind slides right off the nothing and comes back to your breath, body sensations, the sounds of the room around you?
If you find yourself consistently getting 'nothing' when asking the question, then this has become your practice - investigating the 'nothing'. It's surprising how much you can find in nothing if you look closely enough.
So don't worry if nothing is happening in your koan practice - if anything, it's likely to be a sign that you're moving in the right direction. You just have to stay the course. Good luck!
Taking a closer look at one of Zen's most distinctive practices: 'just sitting'
It's often said that all spiritual traditions ultimately lead to the same place. While this may be true if they're taken far enough, it's certainly also true that they take radically different routes to get there, and travel through different territory along the way.
In my previous article, I offered an approach to practice which is grounded in the tradition of early Buddhism and the subsequent Theravada school, and commonly referred to as 'vipassana'. The basic premise of vipassana is that we experience suffering because we don't see the world as it really is, and so by training ourselves to improve our sensory clarity we can gradually become free from suffering. Vipassana thus tends to take a deconstructive approach: we take our subjective experience to pieces, then take the pieces to pieces, and so on, until we come to realise the lack of any inherent essence to any part of reality, and the confused view of reality we've held up to that point crumbles away.
Zen, however, takes a different approach. Zen belongs to the later Buddhist tradition - the Mahayana - where the emphasis is instead on non-duality: coming to experience the fundamental non-separateness of all things in our experience, and ultimately revealing the illusory nature of all dualities. Non-duality is typically much more difficult to grasp at first; whereas the vipassana approach uses our already well-honed analytical minds to divide and compare different aspects of reality, which is something that we're already very familiar with, it's tricky even to talk about non-duality, because our language is set up to describe things in dualistic terms, and so we may not even be able to conceive things in non-dual terms in the beginning.
Effing the ineffable
So how can we get our foot in the door of non-duality, if it's so hard to talk about?
One approach (common in Tibetan traditions, for example) is to start with the theoretical study of non-dual philosophy. Over time, students gradually begin to get their heads around a different way of conceiving what's going on, at the level of intellectual understanding. Then, when the groundwork has been laid, the teacher will introduce a series of practices designed to bring about a more direct experiential 'taste' of non-duality.
Zen takes the opposite approach. We start with practice, and dive deep into the direct experience of non-duality, trusting that the intellectual understanding will follow. Later on, students will study the classic texts and come to a fuller theoretical appreciation of non-dual philosophy, but that understanding will be fully grounded in direct experience at all times.
(Which approach is better? The one that works for you! Personally, I'm a big fan of the Zen approach, because it means I can share meditation practices with people from the very beginning rather than having to spend years teaching philosophy, but given that I run a meditation class, I'm not exactly unbiased.)
But how do we get that direct experience of non-duality, especially when we're starting from a place where we don't even understand what it is? Zen has two powerful styles of practice which are designed to give rise to non-dual insights: koan study (which we'll talk more about another time), and 'just sitting', which is the focus of today's article.
What is 'just sitting'?
Known by many names - Silent Illumination (commonly found in the Chan tradition), shikantaza (found in Soto Zen), resting in the Unborn (which comes from Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yotaku), open awareness, Do Nothing (Shinzen Young's term), Dropping the Ball (Michael Taft's name for the same approach), and doubtless many others - just sitting is a deceptively simple practice. It's sometimes called the 'method of no method', but that probably doesn't help much!
Let's take a look at the instructions given by the great 13th century Soto Zen master Dogen:
"Once you have [set up] your posture, take a breath and exhale fully, rock your body right and left, and settle into steady, immovable sitting. Think of not thinking. Not thinking — what kind of thinking is that? Non-thinking. This is the essential art of zazen."
We can find slightly more detailed instructions in the records of the late Chan master Sheng-Yen, who broke up the practice into stages as a way of helping new students to find their footing.
(Sometimes he would suggest that students could begin with a period of following the breath if that way of practice was familiar to them, to allow the mind to settle before turning toward the main practice. Even the preliminary stage of Silent Illumination can feel vague or ungrounded for people totally new to this approach, and if you're more familiar with working with the breath, it certainly won't hurt to start a practice session in this way. After all, we're aiming at Silent Illumination, not Silent Mind-Wandering...)
Once you're ready to begin Silent Illumination, Sheng-Yen offers these instructions as a way in:
"To enter the practice you need to do just two things: relax your body and relax your mind. First, make sure that all parts of your body are completely relaxed and at ease. Next, relax your attitude and your mood; make sure that your mental attitude, the tone of your approach, and your mood are also at ease. This relaxation is the foundation for success in practicing Silent Illumination."
He then goes on to describe a progressive relaxation of the body - starting at the head, working slowly down the body relaxing each bit as you go.
Finally, he offers an entry into the main practice:
"Once you have relaxed your body, notice that your bodily weight has settled downward. Proceed to simply being aware of yourself sitting there and put your total awareness on your body sitting there. If you are relaxed and you have focused your awareness on yourself just sitting there, you have already entered the practice of Silent Illumination!"
The 'stages' of Silent Illumination
So we begin by relaxing, then bring our attention to the sensations of the body sitting. Even this, however, is still considered preliminary to the 'main' practice, which is the 'methodless method' of just sitting.
Sheng-Yen frequently emphasised that true Silent Illumination has, in a sense, no technique and no stages. Nevertheless, he found it helpful to lead people into the practice through the preliminary steps mentioned above, and he also described three subsequent 'stages', which are particular types of experience that may arise in the course of Silent Illumination.
0. The preliminary stage: mind and body are relaxed, aware of the body sitting.
As mentioned above, this is the entry into the practice. At this point the attention is still focused relatively narrowly, on the sensations of the body in its sitting posture.
1. Body and mind unified in sitting.
Over time, there's a sense of convergence and unification. Rather than the body being experienced as a collection of separate parts, you become aware of the total body. As Sheng-Yen puts it, 'The body is no longer a burden, and its sensation fades away, leaving a crisp, clear, and open mind.'
2. Self and environment unified in sitting.
At this point, the body, mind and environment around you become one - internal and external are united, or, to put it another way, lose their sense of 'differentness'. You may come to perceive your environment as 'your body'.
3. Silent Illumination.
The silence is experienced as a kind of vast stillness; you are undisturbed and motionless. The illumination is the clear awareness of things as they are. This is not a dark or stagnant stillness, oblivious to the environment; the mind is still yet open, aware of multitudes of forms.
(And if that still sounds pretty cryptic... Yeah. Sorry. You'll have to do the practice to find out for yourself!)
That's pretty much it in terms of the instructions. In particular, there's nothing that you do in order to move from one stage to the next; you simply continue 'just sitting', and gradually, over time, insight dawns.
At least, hopefully it does. The great Rinzai Zen master Hakuin was highly critical of this approach, which he characterised as 'do-nothing Zen' - Hakuin tells us that, in his time, it was commonplace to find temples full of self-satisfied monks convinced of their own 'inherent enlightenment' who simply sat around doing nothing (in the negative sense). Hakuin compared these practitioners to 'a cold pot of water on an unlit stove' - just sitting there, no transformation taking place.
But Hakuin is (characteristically) being a tad harsh here. Silent Illumination is a powerful, profound practice, and it can work - provided our stoves are lit.
The danger of giving too many instructions, and why I'm doing it anyway
The title of this article is a reference to Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yotaku. Bankei was not a big fan of lengthy, elaborate teachings and scholarly study, feeling that the 'unnecessary words' merely served to clutter up the mind. Bankei would instead simply point out the nature of the mind to his students (which he called the Unborn), and then tell them to learn to rest in the Unborn all day, every day. Which is a lovely approach if it works, but unfortunately Bankei has been dead for a few hundred years now and isn't around to do the pointing-out for us.
However, there are legitimate arguments for not talking too much about insights and experiences which unfold through practice. As my teacher put it, 'If you give students a map of the insight territory, sooner or later they'll find a way to hallucinate what they think is the insight.' Taking preconceptions into meditation practice is a great way to set yourself up for confusion and frustration.
That being said, I do think there's a place for speaking more openly about this stuff. Personally, I would never have persisted with meditation if I'd been given Dogen's instructions and nothing else. I found the practice difficult and confusing at first. Fortunately, I'd already encountered teachers who were willing to speak about awakening, so I had some confidence that the practice was ultimately going somewhere, even if I couldn't see it at the time. In the modern world, it seems to me that there are many teachers who downplay, conceal or even reject the idea that transformative insight is the outcome of dedicated practice, and I think this is really sad - at best, it's a missed opportunity, and at worst, it's actively misleading.
With this in mind, I think it's worth taking a closer look at what we're actually trying to achieve in Silent Illumination practice - hopefully we can help to keep our flame alight without falling into the other extreme of hallucinating our imagined results.
Developing awareness of awareness
Fundamentally, the path of non-duality is about exploring and clarifying our relationship with awareness. Our entire subjective experience, moment to moment, is nothing but awareness; we have no direct access to the external world 'out there'.
Ordinarily, we are oblivious to most of our awareness, because we use our attention (the mind's 'spotlight') to focus on particular aspects of what's going on around us. Indeed, in Sheng-Yen's preliminary stage of Silent Illumination, we're still using the attention to focus specifically on body sensations, as a way of stabilising the mind's tendency to wander - so at this point we haven't yet begun to explore the totality of awareness itself.
Over time, practitioners will tend to find that their attention naturally relaxes and opens up, and we perceive more and more of our awareness. Whereas attention is selective, intentional and effort-based, awareness is panoramic, all-inclusive, automatic and effortless. We can learn to rest in this awareness, to experience awareness-as-a-whole as opposed to picking out specific bits with our attention.
Once we have established a clear sense of this panoramic awareness, we can start to notice that we've had things back to front our whole lives. We typically think that 'awareness' belongs to 'me' - that it's a property of the brain, for example. But, actually, if we look more closely, we see that, in our direct experience, awareness comes first - you arise within awareness, rather than awareness arising within you.
At this point, it's common to come to see awareness as being like a mirror reflecting all things, or to see awareness as like an ocean, with the individual phenomena within awareness as being like waves in the ocean - each having their own distinctiveness, but all part of a larger field of awareness. At this point, talk of 'non-duality' starts to make a lot more sense - we can see that everything in our experience has the 'nature of awareness', so there's a quality of 'sameness' (or perhaps 'connectedness') to everything we see, hear, feel and think.
As the practice deepens, we see that even this is an illusion - there is no 'awareness' separate from that which arises within it, but rather the awareness of an arising is inherently part of the arising itself. Ultimately, we come to see the world as a magical, dreamlike, vibrantly alive experience of empty appearance. (There's a famous Zen story which describes this shift - the poetry contest between Huineng and Shenxiu. Look it up!)
Approaches to Silent Illumination
So, armed with this extra information, how can we approach our Silent Illumination practice?
One way is simply to follow Sheng-Yen's instructions. Begin by relaxing the body and mind, then focus on your body sensations. Trust that, over time, your experience will open up, and these insights will reveal themselves to you. In many ways this is the easiest way to practice, because there's nothing to remember.
Another approach, however, is to bring this idea of 'awareness of awareness' into the practice more directly. Perhaps you might start your practice by focusing on the breath with your attention, then gradually allow the scope of your attention to expand - first to include the whole body, then opening further outward to include your surroundings, and opening inward to include your thoughts and feelings. Open until you can't open any more - open until your attention and your awareness are the same size, taking in absolutely everything in your experience. Then rest here, and see what happens. (The 'Open Awareness' and 'Unborn' practices on my Audio page essentially take you directly into the openness and rest there, so you can give those a try if you want to experiment with this approach.)
A third approach actually introduces a bit of a distortion to the method compared to Sheng-Yen's instructions, but may help to clarify 'awareness of awareness' more quickly. This is the approach used by Michael Taft in his 'Dropping the Ball' practice, which you can find on YouTube. However, in brief, the idea is to notice whenever your attention has latched on to anything in particular (a thought, a sight, a sound) and drop it immediately, like a dog dropping a ball. This will tend to lead you into a state where you remain clearly aware, but not focused on anything in particular. Finding yourself 'aware' but not 'aware of...' can really help to clarify the felt sense of 'being aware', making it much easier to rest there.
Then, once you can rest in 'awareness of awareness' like this, you can allow yourself to start to notice sounds, body sensations and so on - but now with a different perspective. You can notice that awareness is 'already aware' of these sensations - there's no need to 'go out and get them', no need to 'do' anything in order to be aware. The sensations simply arise effortlessly as a seamless part of the field of awareness. Over time, practising in this way, you will gradually start to notice the 'taste' of non-duality, this quality of awareness and arisings as like an ocean and its waves. This will take you towards Sheng-Yen's second and, eventually, third stages of Silent Illumination, and the full experience of emptiness.
Why an intellectual understanding of Zen isn't enough
There's a saying in Zen that 'a painting of a rice cake cannot satisfy hunger'.
If you're anything like me, you might think of those puffed rice cake things whose only real value is as a flat surface for chocolate spread or peanut butter, but the saying comes from Tang dynasty China, so they probably had something else in mind. Modern-day Asian rice cakes actually look pretty appetising to me.
These are Japanese rather than Chinese, but they still look pretty nice.
However, no matter how appealing the image above is, I find that I can't derive any actual nourishment from staring at the pixels on my screen. Seeing the image of the rice cake is not the same experience as eating the rice cake.
Another way of saying this is that, when you go to a restaurant, it's not enough to look at the menu. No matter how closely you read and re-read the menu, taking extensive notes, perhaps even calling the waiter over to ask many detailed questions about exactly how the various ingredients are combined in the dishes you're interested in, none of this will fill your belly. Reading the menu gives you some idea of what the meal may involve, but you still have to eat the actual food.
(Bear with me, this is going somewhere. I promise.)
The importance of view
We tend to think that we see the world as it is - that our eyes are like little windows looking out onto an objectively real, measurable, dependable universe. In fact, this seems so obvious that it's actually very hard to challenge, because the evidence is right there in front of your eyes.
Or is it?
The world I see is not necessarily the same as the world you see. For example, I'm a little bit blue-green colour-blind; assuming you aren't colour-blind in the same way, there are colours that look different to you but the same as each other to me. So we literally see different worlds. OK, you might say, but that's just because my eyes are defective whereas yours work properly, so you see things 'as they are' whereas I'm mistaken.
So here's another example - maybe you like aniseed (my partner does), but I really can't stand it. To her, aniseed tastes pleasant, but to me it tastes unpleasant. Where is the objective reality here? The standard way of explaining this one away is to say 'oh well, that's just a matter of taste', but that's really just sweeping the problem under the carpet - there's still an underlying view that aniseed has an objectively existing flavour, but somehow it's OK for two people to perceive that objectively real reality differently in this instance. Of course, often it really isn't OK to perceive objective reality differently from the social norm - for example, if I tried to tell you that the sky is green for me and the grass is blue, you'd think I had a problem with my eyes, or that I was 'losing touch with reality'.
Underlying all of this is a view - a basic underlying assumption about 'what's going on', or 'how reality is'. Our view gives us a kind of framework into which we can fit our many and varied perceptions of the world, and put together narratives to explain what's going on in terms that help us to understand the world around us and make effective choices. In order to live in a society with other people, it's helpful to have narratives that line up at least reasonably well with each other - allowing some wiggle room for 'matters of taste', so that the contradictions between those narratives aren't too unbearable or obvious. Where those narratives clash strongly, we see protests, wars, irreconcilable rifts in families.
The role of Zen practice is to challenge our underlying view, by asking us to look deeply into our experience and see the places where the view we developed through our childhood and adolescence isn't quite as accurate as we tend to assume. Seeing those holes in our picture of the world opens the door to new ways of seeing what's going on - ways which can transform our lives.
Understanding on the intellectual level versus the emotional level
Coming back to our painted rice cake, it's important to understand that I'm not talking about 'mere philosophy' here. Zen is not a collection of interesting ideas to add to your library and admire from afar. Zen practice only really works if it touches us deeply.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you behaved very differently from the way you thought you would behave in that situation? For example, maybe you decided to eat more healthily, and then found yourself in a shop buying chocolate. (This happens to me from time to time.) You'd certainly had the thought 'I'm going to eat more healthily', but somehow that thought hadn't penetrated down deep enough to change your behaviour.
A more poignant example comes from a philosopher who once described the moment at which he realised the superficiality of his lifelong philosophical endeavours. His particular area of expertise was in free will - the philosophical question of whether we choose our actions, or whether everything is merely some combination of determinism and randomness, which is strongly implied by the way we tend to understand physics. He subscribed to the latter view - that everything happens either because of inevitable cause-and-effect, or because it's simply random, with no 'choice' or 'intention' behind it - and had spent his life looking at the consequences of this, particularly in the moral domain. He pointed out that, if you really believe that free will is an illusion, then the concept of 'blame' doesn't make any sense: you can only hold someone 'responsible' for their actions (and thus blame them if they do bad things) if there was the possibly of their having done differently - if they'd had any choice in the matter.
He had thought quite deeply about this, and believed himself to be fully convinced that free will was an illusion, and that he had entirely let go of blaming others for their actions. He even said that he found this quite liberating. And then, one day, one of his children was attacked and badly beaten. In that moment of profound human suffering, he discovered that the urge to blame others for doing terrible things was still alive and well within him, and it had simply been buried under layers of intellectual sophistry.
Many of us come to Zen practice because we're looking to be changed by the process. But if the insights we discover remain merely at the intellectual level, we don't really change deep down. We admire the painting of the rice cake, but the deep nourishment of the meal never comes.
Insight: the 'understood experience'
My teacher's teacher on the Theravada side, Ayya Khema, liked to define spiritual insight as 'understood experience'. There are two aspects to this, and in the absence of either one, the insight doesn't fully materialise.
On one hand, there's the understanding. Without understanding, mere experience isn't really all that interesting. Sometimes we might have wild, crazy spiritual experiences from meditation practice - bliss, joy, seeing bright lights, becoming one with everything - but if we don't understand those experiences for what they are, then at best they'll have no impact on our underlying view, and at worst they might even confuse us more.
On the other hand, we do need the experience. It isn't enough to read the menu. If all we do is think about our experience, we don't get down to the juicy stuff. Thinking about something removes us from that something, putting us at a distance from which we can survey it. Fortunately, thinking is not the only way to know our experience - we can also experience it directly. When you pick up a cup of tea, you don't need to think about it to know whether the cup is hot or cold; you know immediately, from the direct experience. It's a more immediate, intuitive kind of knowing than the intellectual kind - and for many of us it can take a while to get in touch with it, because we're so used to seeing the world through the filter of our thinking minds. But it's a necessary step on the road to insight.
Levels of understanding: from the superficial to the visceral
We can look at the development of understanding in Zen practice as a kind of progression. At first, even the ideas don't make any sense, because they're too far outside our current view. When asked to explain something about Zen, we might be able to parrot the words we read in a book, but there's no real understanding. Sometimes people seem content to remain at this level - perhaps because what they were really looking for was a community to hang out with, and they've learnt enough of the lingo to enjoy spending time with the other people in the group.
But many people are not content with simply being 'in the scene', and want to go deeper. So we start to think more carefully about the meaning behind the words in the books, trying to get a sense of what's being talked about. After a while, those ideas will start to make some intellectual sense, and we might now feel that we 'get it' - that we 'understand Zen', because we can articulate the concepts in our own words. But, on a deeper level, we don't really feel any different, and don't really see the big deal about all this Zen stuff. We might even become rather sceptical about Zen, because the teachers say it's this amazingly transformative thing, but we can't see the big deal about it. Why do they keep banging on about meditation? What can sitting there doing nothing give you that you can't get from reading books?
Still, if we persist with practice, and continue coming back to our immediate direct experience, as opposed to simply piling thoughts on top of more thoughts, we begin to see more clearly. We move beyond the intellectual sense of 'yeah, that makes sense' to a more immediate, visceral knowledge - in other words, we taste the food. When we come into contact with the 'taste' of direct experience, we open the door to insights that can begin to change our view, little by little.
Over time, those insights accumulate, until one day we reach a watershed moment when our view shifts substantially enough that we abruptly see reality in a whole new way. In Zen, this moment is called kensho (literally, 'seeing true nature'), because it's the moment when we realise the limitations of our old way of seeing things, and a world of possibility opens up for us. In early Buddhism, the moment is called stream entry, because we enter the stream that will lead us inevitably to full awakening - the total transformation of our view.
OK, so how do we do this?
All insight meditation practices are intended to bring about this kind of understood experience, in a variety of different ways. You can find a range of good insight practices on my Audio page. But, since I've been talking about thoughts and feelings in this article, here's another simple but profound practice which you can use to explore some of these ideas directly.
To begin, set yourself up in a comfortable meditation posture. You might like to take a few minutes simply following the breath, to allow the mind to settle so that you can see what's going on more clearly.
Then, take a look at your hand. (Either hand will do.) Think clearly to yourself: 'this is my hand, these are the fingers, I can bend and straighten them'. Then, bend and straighten your fingers, and pay attention to the physical sensations of moving your fingers, without thinking about it. Try this with eyes open (looking at the hand) and closed.
Go back and forth between thinking about your hand and feeling the sensations in your hand, many times. As you examine more closely you'll notice more subtle mental activity - not just the deliberate thinking that's part of the practice, but also other layers of thinking. You will likely also find that the sensations of the hand are more complex than they initially appeared - rather than simply a sensation of 'hand', there's 'hand' and 'fingers'; the 'fingers' have 'joints', and there are other physical sensations too, like a sense of the shape of the hand and its position in space relative to the rest of your body.
As the practice deepens, you may find that you reach a point where the difference between thoughts and physical sensations is crystal clear, beyond any doubt. However, don't be fooled - many times the thought will occur 'oh yeah, I get it now' and there will still be more to discover - so take your time over this. If you feel like you've figured the whole thing out after ten minutes, there's probably more to go!
Nonetheless, if you know with complete clarity which aspects of your experience of your hand are mental and which are physical, you can start to look at how the two aspects interoperate. What happens when you bend your finger? Is it purely a physical phenomenon, or is there an associated mental phenomenon? Does one precede the other, or do they arise together? And how can mental phenomena influence physical phenomena - where is the connection between them? Which of the phenomena is 'you' - the one who is choosing to bend and straighten the fingers, the one who is thinking the thoughts?
Enjoy your meal!
Embracing your life, even the tricky bits
This is the third of three articles heavily indebted to meditation teacher Shinzen Young, whose work you can find at https://www.shinzen.org/.
The problem of language
This is my second attempt to write this article. The first time around I decided to go with the more traditional term 'equanimity', which is the one that Shinzen uses to describe this particular skill. However, it wasn't working for me - the term has too much baggage, and when I found myself two paragraphs into the article still part-way through a definition, I threw in the towel.
So instead we're going to talk about 'acceptance' - which is also a term freighted with a variety of meanings, but I think it's easier to get where I want to go with 'acceptance' than 'equanimity'. Let's see how we get on.
Two ways we create problems for ourselves
Let's say I'm at the office, and a co-worker does something that irritates me a little bit. But I don't want to create a fuss and I don't like acknowledging my own anger, so instead I tell myself it's fine - I'm not really irritated, there's no anger present, it's fine. Then the next day it happens again, and again I squash the impulse. And the next day, and the next. Each time, I simply refuse to allow myself to experience what's going on in my body and mind; I close myself up, turn away from my own experience, and wait for it to go away.
While this might seem effective in the short term, after a while it's pretty likely that my irritation will start to grow. Maybe I start making passive-aggressive remarks, or whinging about my co-worker behind their back. They'll seem seem more and more irritating, and I'll have to squash that impulse more and more often, until one day all the pent-up anger finally explodes volcanically. I don't need to paint you a picture - we know that isn't going to be a pretty sight.
So maybe I decide that suppression isn't the right way to manage my anger. The next time my co-worker irritates me, I take that flicker of anger and run with it - I snarl at them, I demonstrate to everyone around me that I am a scary piece of work and you do not mess with me ever. This maybe even feels pretty good - acting out anger tends to give us a sense of personal power, and my co-worker will get the message pretty quickly that I'm not a fan of their behaviour.
On the other hand, after a while I notice people aren't coming by my desk quite so often, and I'm starting to get a reputation. I'm left off the invitation list for meetings where tact and diplomacy are required, because people know that I can't control my anger. Worse, if I really pay attention to what's going on, I might start to notice the harm that my expressions of anger are causing, but I'm powerless to do anything about it - after all, suppression didn't work, and the anger has to go somewhere, right? I'm an angry person, so what else can I do?
We can talk about these two strategies as 'suppression' - denying our experience, tightening up around it and ignoring what's going on - and 'reactivity' - allowing our experience to push us around, triggering behavioural patterns that play out automatically whenever the corresponding stimulus shows up in our lives.
Neither of these is particularly great. Suppression requires us to deny the truth of our own experience, and in the long term tends to lead to dramatic blow-ups when we get tired of pretending to be something we're not. On the other hand, reactivity leaves us at the mercy of our surroundings - something happens and BOOM, we're straight into playing out that behaviour, regardless of whether that's the most appropriate and useful thing to do in this situation. Every time we become reactive we actually lose control of our lives, at least for the moment.
So what do we do? Is there another approach? (Spoiler alert: yes.)
The third option: embodied acceptance, the attitude of non-resistance
In both of the strategies above, we started by treating the experience of negative emotion as a problem needing to be solved somehow. In the first case, we squashed it down so that we didn't have to feel it. In the second case, we acted it out, so that the emotion could be purged through our reactivity, in a kind of catharsis.
But what if we instead approached this emotion with acceptance? What if we recognised that this emotion is something that we've felt on and off since we were born, and will probably continue to feel on and off for the rest of our lives? What if, instead of treating the emotion as a problem to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible, we instead welcomed it into our bodies and allowed it to be there?
At this point, you might be thinking I'm crazy. Who wants to welcome anger into their body?
But, actually, making this deeply counterintuitive move has a surprising effect. When we turn fully towards the truth of our experience in this moment, allowing it to be exactly as it is, we find that it isn't actually so bad. Yes, it's probably quite unpleasant to feel a negative emotion like anger. But the unpleasant sensations of that anger aren't going to kill us. And, actually, if we allow them to be there, the additional unpleasantness of feeling like we have a problem that needs to be solved urgently simply vanishes. We no longer need to fix ourselves. We can simply be with the emotion, feeling it deeply without suppressing it and without acting it out.
As we start to investigate this pattern more widely, we see something else remarkable. Both suppression and reactivity are based on a kind of resistance - a deep-down sense that 'this shouldn't be happening'. But - to quote spiritual teacher Adyashanti - what you resist persists. In other words, the more we make our emotions (and other difficult experiences) into problems by denying and rejecting them, the worse they appear, and the larger they loom in our lives. Conversely, if we create an attitude of non-resistance, we actually don't experience so many things as problems in the first place.
So you're saying I should just accept everything, including injustice?
No. That would be silly.
'Acceptance' can sound passive, negative, defeatist or fatalist, like we simply lie down in the middle of the road and let life roll over us. To be clear, this is not what I am recommending.
The kind of acceptance I'm describing is present-moment acceptance. If I stub my toe, my foot hurts - that's how it works to have a foot and smash it into a solid object at high speed. Sometimes when I stub my toe, my first thought will be something like 'I wish I hadn't done that!' But that's a silly thought, because I have done it, and no amount of wishing that I hadn't will change that. Actually, wishing I hadn't stubbed my toe makes the whole thing worse, because now I'm putting energy into imagining a parallel reality where I was more careful, and compared to that, the present reality sucks. On the other hand, if I simply acknowledge the consequences of my clumsiness as the facts of the present situation, I don't have to deal with any of that unpleasant mental activity - there's just the physical sensation in my foot to deal with, and that will go away all by itself over time.
However, accepting the reality of the present moment doesn't mean that we can't make choices. Perhaps I notice that, in the present moment, my team's regular social events systematically exclude one member of the team with childcare responsibilities. Having noticed this, I'm perfectly at liberty to suggest that we vary our social calendar so that our colleague can be included in the future.
Creating an attitude of non-resistance
When we meditate, we can practise in a way which helps to set up this stance of non-resistance, and to reinforce it over time, so that we gradually move towards acceptance as our new default.
On the physical level, it helps to have good posture - a stable base, an upright spine - so that we can relax the body as much as possible. Emotional resistance and physical tension are closely linked - to the point that psychological wounds can show up in the body as patterns of 'stuck' tension - so encouraging ourselves to relax can help to move us toward a more open, accepting position.
On the mental level, the practice is primarily one of maintaining this attitude of welcoming our experience, no matter what it is. No matter what comes up in the practice, no matter how big a 'distraction' it might seem to be, it isn't 'wrong' and doesn't need to be pushed away or 'solved' somehow. We can allow whatever comes up to be there, and to be felt fully. This is especially true for difficult feelings - anger, fear, guilt, shame. These are probably never going to be pleasant parts of your experience, but they're valid parts of your experience, and have just as much right to be there as joy, love, peace and so on. So, rather than turning away from them, see if you can adopt an attitude of wanting to get to know them - to experience them fully.
To explore this in meditation, pick any mindfulness practice from the Audio page and just start going. Then, notice what comes up as you attempt to follow the instructions - and notice if you resent and resist the distractions that come up, or if you can allow them to be there, and even welcome them into your experience.
One final point is to notice spontaneous moments of acceptance, throughout the course of your daily life. Whenever you find yourself wrestling with some problem and then finally letting it go, notice the sense of freedom, openness and release that happens at that moment - the relief of no longer having to struggle with it. This moment of relief is present in every moment of true acceptance, and it feels great - so be sure to notice it! This engages what's called 'reward-based learning', which is how the brain creates habits - if you notice that, when you do something, it feels good, you're much more likely to do it again in the future (and conversely, if it feels bad, you're much less likely to do it again).
The path toward total freedom
We're now at a point where we can combine the three key meditative skills that we've discussed over these last few articles, and see how they can dramatically reduce the suffering in our lives. This example is a little tongue-in-cheek, and I wouldn't take the numbers too literally, but it does illustrate the way we can bring our meditative skills to bear on something which would previously have been totally overwhelming and make it much more manageable without going into denial or acting out.
Let's return to the example of dealing with an overwhelming unpleasant experience that we discussed in the article on sensory clarity. Suppose we have an experience which is unpleasant in every possible way (I'll leave it to you to come up with a suitably horrifying example):
Without sensory clarity, we experience this as one giant hairball of nastiness, so the unpleasantnesses multiply together: 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 1,000,000 units of unpleasantness. Argh!
Now we bring sensory clarity to bear on the situation. We disentangle the hairball of horror into six strands of experience, each of which is individually unpleasant. We still have a lot of unpleasantness, but once the hairball is pulled apart into its separate strands, it doesn't look nearly so bad. Now the unpleasantnesses add together instead: 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 + 10 = 60 units of unpleasantness.
OK, getting there, but 60 units of badness is still more badness than I'd prefer to deal with. Fortunately, we can bring another skill to bear on the problem: concentration power. We can choose one of the six strands to focus on - let's say physical sensations. Now, instead of dealing with 60 units of unpleasantness, we only have to deal with 10, because our laser-like focus means that we can zoom in on the specific aspect of our experience that we want to work with, and let everything else fade into the background.
(It's important to note here that we're not using concentration to ignore this unpleasant experience. We're still turning toward the experience - we're simply using concentration to focus on part of the experience, to help reduce the risk of being overwhelmed.)
OK, so now we're down from a million units of unpleasantness to 10. Pretty good, right? But maybe we can still do better, using our newest meditative skill - acceptance.
As we've discussed, typically we tend to resist unpleasant experiences, and try to make them go away through suppression or reactivity. That resistance is itself unpleasant, and so makes a bad situation worse. Shinzen Young likes to say that 'suffering = pain x resistance', i.e. how bad we feel about a situation is not just a measure of how objectively bad it is, but also how much we're struggling against it.
So if you can bring deep acceptance to the unpleasant situation at hand, the pain might not decrease, but the resistance drops significantly, or can even vanish entirely.
And if there's no resistance, there's no suffering.