Why we have it all back-to-front
This week we're looking at case 38 in the Gateless Barrier, 'The ox passing through the window screen'. It's typically regarded as one of the more difficult koans in the collection, although as we'll see, there are more accessible layers to it as well. Even if you're totally new to the practice, there's something to take away here - so keep reading!
That one disobedient duck
On one level, this koan speaks to a frustrating experience that we've all had at one time or another. We've been working away at something, trying to get it all straightened out, doing our very best to get our proverbial ducks in a row... but there's one little detail that isn't quite right, a small crease in an otherwise immaculate tablecloth, one chair leg that's just a little shorter than the others, one disobedient duck that's out of line with the others. It may even be a detail that nobody else notices, but we can see it, plain as day.
More generally, it's fairly common to have a sense that life would be going OK if it weren't for that one thing. If we could only get past that... Oh, but then something else comes up. There's always something, isn't there? Sometimes it's something big, but often it's a relatively minor irritation in the grand scheme of things, and yet it spoils what would surely otherwise be total perfection and lasting happiness - right?
The fact is that we're good at spotting flaws, and often not so good at appreciating things as they are, warts and all. We are, in general, biased towards the negative - it takes roughly five positive experiences to make up for one negative one. This makes sense as a survival mechanism - if you miss out on a pleasant experience, it isn't the end of the world, but if you don't notice a hungry sabre-toothed cat waiting in the long grass, you aren't going to be passing on your genes to your descendants. But what's optimal for survival doesn't necessarily make for a happy life, or a fulfilled one - it's more a case of 'survival at all costs'. The good news is that we don't have to worry so much about sabre-toothed cats any more; the bad news is that that negativity bias is still hard-wired into our systems, and is free to latch on to the toxic boss, the irritating colleague, the noisy neighbour and so on.
The really good news is that there's something we can do about this. We can't always force our ducks to stand to attention like a well-trained avian platoon - but we can train ourselves to look at the world differently.
Harvard happiness researchers ran an experiment where they installed an app on the phones of their study participants; the app would periodically ping and ask a series of questions, including 'What are you doing?', 'How focused are you on what you're doing?', and 'How do you feel right now?' What they discovered is fascinating.
First, people reported higher scores of subjective wellbeing (i.e. they felt better) when they were more focused on whatever they were doing. That's great news for meditators, because a key part of meditation is training the mind to go where we want it to go, and to notice when it's wandering so we can come back again. This 'mind training' is a core part of all meditation techniques, so it doesn't even really matter what technique we're practising; whatever we do, we're building the skills we need to lead a happier life, simply by paying more attention to what we're doing.
Second, the degree of focus on the task at hand had significantly more impact on how people were feeling than the nature of the task itself. I find that pretty remarkable - it means that if you're doing something fairly unpleasant, but you're totally focused and absorbed into the activity, you're more likely to feel good than if you're relaxing at home with a cup of tea and something on the TV - conditions we would typically regard as pleasant - but your mind is going six different directions at once, worrying about this and that.
The takeaway here is that we don't have to get every last duck to line up in order to be happy. There will always be something going on - and if there isn't, you'll find a way to notice some small, previously covered-over source of irritation to get worked up about, because that's just what our brains do when they're left to their own devices. But if, instead, we can turn our full attention to whatever is right in front of us, we can find a form of happiness which is not dependent on having external circumstances arranged in a particular way.
How would it be to bring your full attention to what's right in front of you, not looking for flaws or potential improvements, but simply allowing it to be as it is?
Turning the koan on its head
Coming back to the koan, there's an odd little detail. The ox is passing through a window, and it's gotten stuck - but how did it manage to get its tail stuck? You'd have thought that if it were going to have trouble getting through the window, it might be because its head is too big, or its horns would get caught on the frame. Instead, though, it's managed to get almost all the way through - head, horns and even all four hooves. So how come its tail, the smallest and most flexible part, is the bit that got stuck?
There's an 'upside-down' or 'back-to-front' quality here (which might remind regular readers of case 14; we explored one kind of back-to-front situation in that article, so we're going in a different direction today). The same kind of language actually also shows up in early Buddhism, where discourses will often end with someone praising the Buddha by saying 'Excellent, sir, excellent! You have made the Dhamma clear in many ways, as though turning upright what had been turned upside down, revealing what had been concealed, showing the way to one who was lost, or holding up a lamp in the dark.' (Emphasis mine.)
One way to understand this upside-down quality is to look at what's sometimes called the 'ground of being' - the fundamental nature of our experience - and contrasting it with the perspective of the so-called 'small self', i.e. 'me, in here'.
Typically speaking, we experience a world centred on ourselves. I occupy a certain point in a space which is much larger than myself, and a certain moment in a time which goes back billions of years of history and extends forwards into the unknown future. I am the 'primary' thing in my experience, the bit that's always here no matter what else is going on, and the world consists of my relationships with the people and things around me.
As we meditate, however, we may come to see the world differently. As the mind settles, our experience can begin to simplify. Our wandering thoughts settle down. The sense of a hard, solid boundary between 'me in here' and 'everything else out there' softens, and may even fall away entirely. We begin to see that the sharp divisions between 'this' and 'that' are not fundamentally 'true', in the sense of being an unavoidable part of reality - they're just something that our minds are doing, a way of labelling parts of our experience to help us think about it. Over time, it may come to seem like it isn't 'me' that's primary after all, but rather something like 'awareness'.
As we shift into the perspective of awareness, we may experience various 'figure-ground reversals' - in other words, we may find that many of our previous ideas now seem back to front, or upside down.
There are many ways to explore the ground of being in practice. One approach is to investigate - to test what I've said above, not by thinking and reasoning about it, but by examining your own direct experience in meditation. Take some time to settle the mind first, then explore, and see what you might find. Another approach is simply to bear the above in mind and trust that it will reveal itself to you in the course of your practice, and then just sit and see what happens.
The last little bit
Making the shift from the perspective of 'me' to the perspective of the ground of being - touching into it for the first time, and then subsequently stabilising our recognition of it - is a key part of the path, but it isn't the end of the story. There's actually a subtle trap which can ensnare the unwary - which, fortunately, won't be you by the time you finish this article!
The possible pitfall of the 'ground of being' approach is that we come to think of 'awareness' as being a kind of 'thing' in its own right, a transcendent, pure entity which is perfect and lovely in every way, and thus separate from whatever is arising within it, i.e. the messy, unpleasant phenomena of the material world. Practice can then become skewed, all about leaving the nasty relative world behind and hanging out in pure awareness all the time, and as a result one's life and relationships can become neglected. We may think that we understand non-duality very well, having found a perspective ('awareness') from which we can see the entire relative world as non-separate ('the contents of awareness'), but we're still creating a duality between awareness and its contents.
So a crucial step in the practice is to dissolve that last little split, that final sense of separation, until ultimately all that's left is the unfolding moment - nothing transcendent, nothing separate, just this.
Again, as with the previous step, you might choose to investigate, searching for any remaining sense of separation in your experience, really examining in closely in your direct experience until it melts away. Or you can simply trust that it, too, will melt away in time, provided only that you don't continue to reinforce it by clinging to a separate, transcendent awareness as being the ultimate goal of your practice.
Meanwhile, if you see an ox caught in a window, help it to get free. It probably had no business climbing through the window in the first place, but now it's in trouble and needs your help.
May all beings (humans, oxen and all the rest) be well.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!