Why so many great movies have a training montage
This week we're looking at case 28 in the Gateless Barrier, ‘Long Have I Heard’, and using it as a vehicle to take another look at Silent Illumination, spurred partly by a discussion at the end of last week's Wednesday class about the difference between Silent Illumination and concentration practices like jhana. So we'll start there, and use that as a jumping off point to dig into how Silent Illumination works, and what is (and is not) required of us in order to practise it, and as we go through we’ll link back to the central point of the koan - ‘even if you hit him with a stick, he won’t turn his head.’
Let’s get into it!
Silent Illumination versus body-based samadhi
If you've been to any of my Wednesday night classes in the last couple of years, you'll be familiar with Silent Illumination - it's the practice that opens each class, providing a bit of consistency week-to-week in a class which otherwise bounces around quite a bit from topic to topic. If you haven't come to one of those sessions (please do, you're most welcome and can attend for free via Zoom), you can get an idea of what we do from the Silent Illumination page on my website.
We start by setting up the posture, then take a couple of deep breaths, and relax the body on each exhalation. Then we scan slowly down through the body, from the top of the head to the soles of the feet, gradually feeling into each body part in turn and then allowing any unnecessary tension to relax and release. After that, we open up the awareness to take in the whole body, and drop the intention to relax. Then we simply sit, aware of the body as it sits and breathes. Sometimes, we'll go a step further and open up the awareness completely, becoming equally aware of our body, our surroundings, and our mental activity - but I get a lot of new people coming through the class, and that last step can be tricky, so we'll often simply stay with the body awareness for that first (relatively short) sit.
Last week I was talking about early Buddhist concentration practice, and at the end of the class we did a body-based samadhi practice, focusing on the sensations of the body with the intention of cultivating mental stability and (maybe, eventually) finding a way in to jhana through that portal. (If that means nothing to you, it wouldn't hurt to skim last week's article, because I'm about to contrast that practice with Silent Illumination.)
At the end, someone asked how that body-based samadhi practice was different to Silent Illumination. Both involve awareness of the total field of body sensations, after all - so what's the difference? I'd made a big deal about how early Buddhism separates out samadhi and insight practices whereas Zen cultivates both at once, and yet here's this iconic Zen practice that looks a lot like the samadhi one. What gives?
This is a great question (thanks, Alex!). To answer it, let's first unpack what we mean by 'meditation' a bit. In any meditation practice, we have two elements: an object, and an intention. The object is the 'focus' of the practice, or (somewhat crudely) 'what you're paying attention to'. The intention is how you relate to that object, or (very crudely) 'what you're doing with it'. Most of the time, any object can be used with any intention.
Some example objects (not an exhaustive list!):
Some example intentions:
The first of these intentions is the cultivation of samadhi, aka 'concentration practice'. The second of these intentions is one way of cultivating wisdom, aka 'insight practice'. Either of these intentions can be pursued with any of the example objects given above, or plenty more besides. So, for last week's practice, the object we were using was the body sensations, and the intention was the cultivation of samadhi. In Silent Illumination, the object is either the body sensations or the total field of awareness - but what's the intention?
'Just sitting' - the intention of doing nothing
Silent Illumination is also known as shikantaza, which literally means 'just sitting'. The 'just' is a very strong, emphatic JUST - in other words, 'sitting AND ONLY SITTING, not doing anything else!', as opposed to the kind of 'just sitting' that you might do on the sofa on a lazy Sunday afternoon when it's raining outside and you can't be bothered to get up.
Many meditation practices involve trying to cultivate something in an active way - developing attentional stability in samadhi practice, or nurturing a positive emotion in Brahmavihara practice, for example. Silent Illumination goes in the other direction, aiming at non-doing. Sometimes we describe it as 'being aware of the body', but awareness isn't something we actually do - awareness happens all by itself, spontaneously. Check it out! You don't require the slightest effort in order to hear sounds around you. All that is required for you to hear the sounds from your surroundings is that you are not so focused on something else that the sounds drop away.
When we focus on something in particular, we shine a spotlight on that particular object, and the act of shining that light casts a shadow on everything else in our experience. The more focused we are on one thing, the less consciously aware we are of everything else - and, in the extreme case of samadhi practice, we become totally focused on the object, to the exclusion of everything else. In contrast, in Silent Illumination, we aim to focus on nothing, to do nothing in particular, so that we can be effortlessly aware of everything that happens.
The problem is, doing nothing is really hard! As it turns out, our minds have many, many habits, and in particular will invent things to do when there's nothing going on. Neuroscientists study the brain's 'Default Mode Network', which is a circuit that lights up when we aren't engaged in a particular activity, and results in mind-wandering and self-referential thought. In Silent Illumination we effectively train ourselves to replace that 'default mind-wandering' with a kind of 'default present-moment awareness'.
This is why many Zen teachers will use the body as a focus in Silent Illumination/shikantaza. At first, the habit-energy of mind wandering is incredibly strong, and having no specific object of focus at all is too ungrounded - 'just sitting' becomes 'just mind-wandering', and the practice loses its value. By inviting the mind to rest on a specific object, we engage a bit of the 'Task-Positive Network', which counteracts the Default Mode Network and allows the mind to settle more easily. At a certain point, the mind has settled enough that the focus on the body is no longer needed (and, indeed, starts to feel a bit onerous), and the mind naturally relaxes and opens up to the total experience. In effect, we use the body focus as a kind of 'training wheels' to get us to where we want to go a little more easily than trying to jump directly there without any support at all.
Even when we're using the body, however, the intention is still different to how we used the body in our samadhi practice. In samadhi, the focus is exclusively on the body - everything else is forgotten. In Silent Illumination, the body is in the 'foreground', but sights, sounds, thoughts etc. continue in the 'background' - we simply aren't giving them our conscious attention. And when the focus on the body is let go, all aspects of our experience have equal prominence - no foreground or background, just experience unfolding.
Why does doing nothing help?
But what's the big deal about doing nothing anyway? Why would we want to learn such a thing? Many people are attracted to meditation because of the advertised 'benefits' - you do this thing, and you get this reward in return. Particularly for results-oriented people (such as I was when I first took up Zen), Silent Illumination doesn't make a lot of sense - we find ourselves waiting for the next instruction, wondering when we're going to be told what to do.
Now, don't get me wrong. Results-oriented practice totally has its place, and 'active' meditation techniques (samadhi/jhana, Brahmavihara, early Buddhist insight practices, koans - basically anything apart from Silent Illumination!) are great. I've used them myself to great effect - part of the reason I teach is because, after a while, I'd benefitted so much from what I'd learnt that I started to feel selfish not sharing it with others. Finding cool stuff and showing it to other people is pretty much how I make my way through the world, so teaching meditation became a natural extension of that.
At the same time, though, the 'active' approach has its limitations. In particular, it can potentially reinforce the idea of a discrete 'me' living in my head somewhere, totally disconnected from the rest of the universe, which is doing all this stuff by itself. While there's some truth to this way of looking at things, we also discover as we get deeper into the practice is that there are important ways in which we're not separate from the universe at all. It can be difficult to accept that way of looking at things if we're too wedded to the idea of 'self-power'.
Too much emphasis on 'me doing stuff' can also turn meditation into a self-improvement project, and even give us the idea that we can meditate our way out of every problem, every difficult situation in our lives that we don't want to face. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work like that - we still have to pay the bills, take showers and poop from time to time. People we love will die, and things that we love dearly will change and vanish. Life is unsatisfactory at times. And in the worst case, a meditation practice can turn into an avoidance strategy, a way of running away from the things we really don't want to face.
This is where it can be incredibly powerful to learn to do nothing - to relax that constant subliminal urge to be in motion, and simply sit, at rest. Simultaneously, we must allow whatever arises to come into our awareness and be accepted, open-handedly and compassionately; at the same time, we must allow whatever reactivity may arise to pass away again without acting on it. In short, even if someone hits us with a stick while we’re meditating, we must not turn our heads.
In order to learn to do nothing, we must figure out two 'tricks':
Language is tricky here. It's very easy for this to sound like 'here's what you have to do' - but, actually, both of these are types of stopping doing something which is already taking place. You can use active language to talk about 'relaxing a muscle', but really what's required is to stop tensing the muscle. In the same way, the first point above is about stopping feeding whatever mental process you've noticed - letting go of that train of thought, disengaging from the desire to think more about the person who wronged you, etc. - and the second, subtler, point is about letting go of a whole layer of mental processing which shapes the way we see the world.
The first one is closely related to the core skill of any meditation technique - noticing when the mind has wandered, and coming back. But the key here is that we're not coming back to doing something actively (e.g. actively focusing on the cultivation of loving kindness) - we're simply dropping the mental activity, and that's it. (This is not to be confused with actively suppressing mental activity, which is just another form of doing.)
This first skill can be a real game-changer. Learning to see what's coming up in your mind and simply not engage with it - without 'distracting yourself' or 'substituting a positive thought' or anything else at all - is an incredibly valuable skill, and can get you through some incredibly hard times. (Again, this is not to be confused with 'spiritual bypassing' or deliberately avoiding engagement with things that do need our attention. It's about refusing to get angry as that painful, humiliating memory comes up for the hundredth time, refusing to play the mind's games as it tries to draw you into distraction. ‘Not turning your head’ is only one side of the story - the other side is taking appropriate action in the world, as we’ve seen in other koans like case 11. But in order to have the freedom to act in that way, we need to cultivate this bedrock of acceptance and non-reactivity.)
The second one relates to our salience landscape - the way we see the world in terms of what's relevant to us and our interests. We commonly look at the world through the lens of our preferences - I like this and want more of it, I don't like that and want it to go away, I don't care about that so I'll ignore it. The desire to move towards the positive and away from the negative creates a subtle sense of unease, a constant undercurrent pushing and pulling us around.
It turns out that we're able to let that activity go, and let things be as they are. In Zen circles, this is sometimes called seeing the world 'objectively' rather than 'subjectively'. It isn't that you suddenly get a third-person view of the world, like your point of view floats up to the ceiling to look down on the room. Rather, you simply see the world without that extra layer of '...and this is how it relates to me'. It has to be experienced to make sense, really, but take it from me that it's pretty great to experience the world without self-concern.
The need for a montage
The final thing (for now!) that's so great about learning to do nothing at all is that it's a great way to build up kshanti, one of the six paramitas - virtues or qualities which are regarded as especially helpful when following the Zen path. Kshanti is usually translated as patience, tolerance or forebearance, although personally I tend to think of it as something like 'endurance'. The unfortunate truth - particularly for those of us who are used to 'efforting' our way through life - is that some things just take time. The pizza that's in my fridge is going to take 12 minutes to cook. If I turn up the heat to try to cook it faster, I'll end up with a burnt pizza, not quicker food. In the same way, while it may seem like meditation is something we 'do', it's perhaps better to think of it as setting up the conditions for changes to take place, and then waiting for those changes to happen.
Training montages are less fashionable in movies than they used to be (a lot of modern Hollywood writing seems to push the idea that people should be instantly amazing at everything, which I regard as a pretty poisonous idea), but they were there for a reason. Learning a skill takes time - it isn't enough to get the information, it has to be ingrained in the body through repetition. It's easy for me to say 'oh, just notice when your mind is doing something and drop it', but it will probably take a lot of time for you to figure out how to do that, and even saying it that way is misleading - it isn't that one day you're going to wake up with the answer in your head like you've solved a mathematical equation and now know the value of x, and boom, that's your Zen practice sorted. Instead, as you sit in Silent Illumination day after day, week after week, year after year, your mind will figure out how to conform to the intention that you bring to your practice... eventually. You can't force it, and while practising more will help a bit, it's going to be a marathon rather than a sprint.
It turns out that developing this 'endurance' mentality has side benefits as well. As your practice deepens, sooner or later you'll pass through periods of purification - times when buried psychological material will surface and demand to be dealt with. Sometimes this material is traumatic enough that the assistance of a therapist can be necessary (if in doubt, please play it safe), but in many cases all that's really required is to allow whatever is buried there to come up into the light of awareness and be fully felt and experienced. A thousand and one small hurts from years ago that we pushed down at the time each need to have their moment in the sun before we can really let them go.
If we're not careful, we can easily prolong our misery here by pushing that stuff back down again, or by trying to 'meditate it away' with the secret intention of not having to deal with it. Ultimately, we need to arrive at a genuine place of acceptance before it will really lose its emotional charge, and it can really help us to get there if we've already developed a strong practice of sitting with whatever's going on without interfering with it - not letting ourselves get sucked into seductive trains of thought, but not pushing them away either. If we're able to do that, then we may be able to sit with whatever painful material is arising long enough to feel it fully and finally let it go. Sometimes having a specific technique ('pay attention to how it feels in the body', 'bring compassion to the memory', etc.) can provide just a bit of support to enable us to stay with the really difficult stuff, provided we're able to wield that technique without it turning into another avoidance strategy. At the end of the day, though, that pizza still needs 12 minutes to cook, whether or not I do a fancy dance in front of the oven while it's in there.
Take the 100-day challenge!
By nature, I tend toward restlessness and doubt in my own practice. I've lost count of how many times I've picked up a new meditation technique or qigong form, done it two or three times, and then announced 'nothing's happening, maybe I'm doing it wrong, maybe it just doesn't work'. Like sticking a pizza in the oven for five seconds and then complaining that the cheese hasn't melted yet and chucking the whole thing in the bin, this is not a recipe for success. So I've found it helpful from time to time to make a strong commitment to a particular period of practice (usually a little longer than feels entirely comfortable for me, but not ridiculously long) and really do my best to stick to it. In Zen, 100 days is a traditional length of time, as well as being comfortably above the various thresholds for habit formation and behaviour change reported by scientists.
So why not take a 100-day Silent Illumination challenge? If you start on the day I post this article (Thursday 17th November), your last day will be Friday February 24th. It sounds like a long time away, but it'll come sooner than you think! And in the meantime, you'll have had 100 days to create the conditions for your mind and body to learn to 'just sit', not doing anything in particular. If you're totally new to the practice, start with the body focus; if you're more experienced, just follow your intuition. The attitude to have here is using this period of time to let your mind and body figure it out for themselves, rather than you making something happen through sheer force of will.
Let the pizza cook, and enjoy your meal when it's ready!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!