Be like water, my friend
On Sunday January 22nd, I'll be running a Silent Illumination practice day. (We still have some spaces left, so sign up if you're local!)
Silent Illumination - variously known as shikantaza (just sitting), resting in the Unborn, or simply zazen (sitting meditation) - is perhaps Zen's most iconic practice. It's deceptively simple: you just sit there, right? But that simplicity belies an incredible depth and power.
How does Silent Illumination work?
In a nutshell, the practice involves sitting (or standing, or walking, or lying down) and simply paying attention to the experience of sitting. What does that mean, the 'experience of sitting'? Well, that's what you find out when you do Silent Illumination!
Many styles of meditation use a particular 'object' - something specific to focus on during your meditation. You might be invited to count your breaths, or observe a candle flame, or feel the physical sensations throughout your whole body, or focus on reciting a mantra. This way of practising uses our faculty of attention - our ability to pay attention to this as opposed to that - as a kind of spotlight. We place a bright light on whatever object we're using, and that bright light casts correspondingly deep shadows on whatever else is in our experience. Over time, our object becomes more and more prominent - eventually, the object is all that we're aware of, and everything else falls away.
That's a good way to practise. It's very helpful for training the mind, for developing focus and mindfulness, for learning to discern exactly what's going on in your mind moment to moment, noticing when you're paying attention to your object and when the mind has wandered. The core skills developed through this kind of practice are very important, and are absolutely necessary for most people before true Silent Illumination is really accessible.
Because Silent Illumination is different. In Silent Illumination practice, we don't focus on anything in particular - and, as a result, we can be aware of the totality of our experience. Zen master Takuan Soho put it this way:
"When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there."
In Silent Illumination, the idea is to face the tree without allowing any particular leaf to catch our attention.
But why would you want to do that?
The mind can be likened to a hand, picking things up and putting them down. When the spotlight of attention falls on an object, we pick it up. Then, in order to pick up the next thing, we have to put down what we're currently holding.
Except, as we all know, sometimes it isn't as easy as that. Maybe you've experienced intrusive thoughts - repetitive patterns of thinking that just won't go away no matter how much you try to focus on something else. I remember lying awake the night before one of my GCSE exams, listening to a short snippet of incredibly loud music looping over and over in my head. I'd been writing a song on my guitar earlier in the day, as a way of blowing off a bit of steam before the exam, and that riff lodged hard in my head. That was not a fun night!
Actually, long before I was wrestling with catchy guitar music, the historical Buddha was studying the problem of human suffering, trying to understand how it is that we come to struggle against what's going on in our lives with such disappointing frequency. In what's traditionally considered to be his first teaching, he said this:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha [suffering/unsatisfactoriness]: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates [i.e. everything we experience] subject to clinging are dukkha.
In short: whenever we cling to something, we're setting ourselves up for pain when that thing doesn't go exactly the way we want it to. The only solution is to learn to let go, to allow our experience to be just the way it is.
And that's what Silent Illumination is - a training in letting go.
Because what you'll find when you start doing it is that the mind is fundamentally not used to resting openly in this way. Instead, it jumps onto every little thing that comes along - particularly thoughts, which are especially 'sticky' for most of us. You've probably heard the term 'the monkey mind', so called because, when monkeys swing through the trees, they grab one branch, then another, then another, then another... See if your mind is like this too!
Well, if that's what my mind wants to do, why fight it?
It's a fair question. Our minds do seem to want to be constantly grabbing everything that comes along - so why try to go against that 'natural' tendency?
Well, it turns out that there's a big difference between 'natural' and 'habitual'. We have learnt certain mental habits, which keep us jumping from one thing to the next, filling our heads with a seemingly never-ending stream of thoughts and emotions which our monkey minds eagerly grab. But it doesn't have to be that way. Through a practice like Silent Illumination, we can allow our minds to relax.
It might sound like that would result in a kind of passive oblivion, in which we're unresponsive to what's going on around us. But, actually, it's quite the opposite. Returning to Zen master Takuan Soho, here's how he describes it:
"The basic mind is the mind that does not stay in a particular place but pervades the whole body and whole being. The errant mind is the mind that congeals in one place brooding about something; so when the basic mind congeals, focused on one point, it becomes the so-called errant mind.
"When your mind congeals in one place, resting on one thing, it is like ice that cannot be used freely because it is solid — you can't wash your hands and feet with ice. Melting the mind to use it throughout the body like water, you can apply it wherever you wish. This is called the basic mind."
The monkey mind is at the mercy of whatever happens to come along. The 'basic mind' that Takuan describes is free to flow with conditions, picking up whatever it wishes at any time, responding immediately and effortlessly to whatever comes along, rather than simply reacting in a knee-jerk manner.
When we touch into this for the first time, we discover that the 'basic mind' that Takuan is describing feels much more 'natural' - and much more enjoyable! - than the frenetic energy of the monkey mind.
OK, so how do we do it?
It's simple, really.
How do you know when you're ready for step 6? You might set a timer, or you might stay with the body sensations until you notice that your mind has settled and isn't wandering nearly as much as when you started. Or you might find that it happens automatically - when the mind gets really settled, the effort required to maintain the focus on the body starts to feel a bit onerous, and the mind may spontaneously let go. It's a tricky one, though - it takes some practice to learn to distinguish between a genuine letting-go of this sort, versus the mind simply getting bored and wanting to wander.
It's very important not to kid ourselves in this practice - Silent Illumination is not the same as Silent Mind-Wandering or Silent Zoning Out! In an ideal world, you'll have a balance of calmness (the Silent part) and clarity (the Illumination part). Things won't always be that way, of course - another part of Silent Illumination is seeing your mind lurching around from bright clarity to foggy dullness and back again and learning not to take it personally when the practice isn't going the way we want it to.
In the long run, Silent Illumination isn't any particular 'state' or 'experience' - it's a way of relating to all of our experiences, a kind of subtle intimacy with the present moment which allows it to be completely as it is, without any part of ourselves held back from what's going on. In Silent Illumination, we allow the ice at the heart of our being to melt into life's river, and see where the flow takes us next.
May your practice take you where you need to go!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!