How to work with 'non-literal' practice instructions
I received a question recently about an instruction I'd given in that evening's koan practice - to 'put the question into your belly'. (I'd actually just finished a Korean Zen retreat with Martine Batchelor, who gave that same instruction, so it was fresh in my mind when we looked at the question 'What do I know for certain?' in last week's class.)
The questioner expressed a sentiment that I've shared many times in my own practice: how is one supposed to work with seemingly non-literal instructions? How can one, for example, 'breathe into the feet', when the lungs are in the chest? How is one supposed to 'be like a mountain' if we aren't rocky and over a thousand feet tall? And how is one supposed to 'put a question into one's belly'? Surely thoughts live in the head - we can't move our brains!
Different ways of using language
Over the last two and a half thousand years of contemplative practice, different cultures and different traditions have found wildly different ways to describe the territory we explore in meditation. The earlier tradition of Indian Buddhism - as represented in the Pali canon, for example, but especially in the commentarial tradition that came from it, including the Abhidhamma and texts like the Visuddhimagga - tends to be logical, descriptive, list-based, at pains to be precise and technical. On the other hand, the later tradition, particularly as exemplified by Chinese Buddhism, is frequently poetic, flowery, full of paradox and imagery.
Indian Buddhism might say something like 'In this practice, pay attention to the arising and ceasing of mental factors; here is a complete list of the 52 mental factors which can arise and cease.' Nice and neat, if perhaps a little pedantic at times. On the other hand, Chinese Buddhism features koans such as 'A monk asked Joshu, "What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming to China?" Joshu said, "The oak tree in the garden."' Riiiight.
Since my own background is in both early Buddhism and Zen, I've seen the benefits of both approaches, and also have some sense of where I've personally found each approach a little frustrating at different times. I've seen people fall in love with the clarity and precision of early Buddhism after spending many frustrating years banging their head against Zen practice; I've also seen people literally 'wake up' and come more fully alive when exposed to a tradition like Zen which incorporate art, metaphor, imagery and poetry after years of clinging to a narrow interpretation of a limited set of instructions. I've also found that, as a teacher, one of the greatest challenges is to find a way of expressing the Dharma which connects with each listener, with their unique background, conditioning and preferences. What works for one person might not land so well with another, and it's often hard to tell when everyone is sitting quietly, sometimes even with their eyes closed.
As a result, I tend to use a range of different approaches. (If you've been reading these articles for a while, you've probably noticed this already!) Even when teaching the same practice I'll sometimes word the instructions differently, in case a different phrasing makes it 'click' for someone when it had previously left them cold. Another benefit of this approach - at least as I see it - is that we can start to build up a kind of 'translation guide' for crossing the boundaries of different traditions, teachers and ways of expressing the core ideas of contemplative practice. If we can learn to recognise the same ideas expressed in different ways, a much greater body of spiritual and contemplative literature becomes accessible to us, and we can gain greater confidence that what we're doing is part of a vast human tradition of awakening which is available to everyone, not some narrowly defined 'secret truth' which is available only to the initiated in one specific sect.
Non-literal practice instructions
When it comes to non-literal practice instructions ('breathe into your heels', 'sit like a mountain'), these can serve several purposes, depending on who's listening to them.
Poetic language may strike a chord with someone who finds technical language too dry; and poetic language is also a subtle reminder that no instruction, no matter how precise, is ever it - the best we can ever do is point to it. The shifts and insights of Zen are not purely conceptual and cannot be expressed purely in conceptual terms, and whenever you find yourself caught in a theoretical, intellectual debate which is not grounded in practical experience, it can be helpful to remind yourself of this. (One interpretation of the famous koan about Nansen's cat is that Nansen is showing how too much intellectual engagement 'kills' the Dharma.)
However, we can also find ways through practice of relating to statements which initially seemed to be only poetic. For example, the great Soto Zen master Dogen talks about how 'grasses and trees, fences and walls demonstrate the Dharma for the sake of living beings'. On one level, this can be taken as a poetic metaphor that 'the truth is all around you', close at hand rather than far away on some mountaintop. You can also see it as a coded description of the fabricated nature of experience - pointing out that it isn't just 'my thoughts' or even 'my sense of self' which are mind-originated, but also everything that we typically perceive as 'outside us'.
Actually, though, even with something that looks at first glance like metaphor or poetry, we can find a concrete, practical way to work with it - to turn it into a specific practice instruction.
Let's say we're doing koan practice, working with the question 'What is this?' (The word 'this' in the question is usually taken to mean something like 'this present moment experience', so the koan is a way of exploring our immediate subjective experience, right here and now, as opposed to speculating intellectually about metaphysics or whatnot.)
Normally, the practice loop goes like this:
But instead, if we understand (and ideally have some direct experience of) the view of emptiness/the mind-originated nature of things, we can remind ourselves just before we begin the practice that everything we ever experience (including grass and trees, fences and walls) has the same ultimate nature, and so it's just as valid to ask 'What is this?' of a tree as it is of a body sensation, an abstract idea about what 'this present experience' actually is, or anything else. So then the practice loop becomes:
(For the avoidance of doubt, the idea of step 4 is not that we start trying to understand what a tree is made of, how big its root system is or where it gets its nourishment, etc. - the point is the instantaneous recognition that 'the-appearance-which-we-label-tree' is just as much an expression of mind-nature as anything else, and so there are no 'right' or 'wrong' referents for 'this' in the question.)
Notice that the loop is a little tighter, the return to the practice a little more efficient, and also it helps to dissolve the apparent duality between 'asking the question correctly' and 'being distracted by something irrelevant' - instead, we can integrate the question into every experience. This not only helps the on-cushion practice but also helps us to bring the sense of questioning associated with the koan into our everyday activities, which makes the inquiry vastly more powerful - the more we can hold the question in mind, even in the background, the deeper the investigation will go. In the long run we want our awakening to touch every aspect of our lives, not just the time we spend sitting quietly on a cushion.
So how do I put a question into my belly?
Now, specifically in relation to the weird business about putting the question into the belly, again we can look at this on several levels. For some people, particularly the more intuitive types, this may be all the permission you need to throw off the shackles of intellectual thinking right away, perhaps bringing to mind the association of 'gut feeling' with intuitive wisdom and so forth. But we can also work with this instruction on a more technical level - actually, in a few different ways.
The simplest way to 'put the question in the belly' is to combine asking the question (50% of your attention is on 'What is this?') with paying attention to the physical sensations in your lower abdomen (50% of your attention is on the space of the tanden, a point about two inches below the navel in the centre of the body).
Why would you want to do that? A straightforward answer is that keeping some focus on the body sensations helps to keep the practice grounded, reduce the risk of headaches from exerting yourself too much, and reduce the risk of mind-wandering (strange as it sounds, this does work for most people!).
A deeper - and somewhat more esoteric-sounding - answer is that 'energy flows where attention goes', and by paying attention to the tanden you encourage the body's vital energy to gather there; that's a good idea, because the tanden is a 'safe' place to collect energy, whereas if it roams free around the body you can get strange physical side effects such as spontaneous movements, and if it goes up to the head you can get really bad headaches.
(What's this energy stuff? That's a huge topic in its own right that I've written about previously, so check out that article if you're curious. Again, it's something that sounds very mysterious when you first encounter it, but is something that we can learn to experience in a very concrete, tangible way in time.)
Perhaps the deepest interpretation of the instruction to put the question into your belly, however, is to take it completely literally. What could I possibly mean by that? Well, this is a tricky thing, and probably requires a certain amount of direct experience of the fabricated nature of perception before it'll really make much sense, but bear with me for a minute.
Where do you think your thoughts?
(Take a moment to test it out - think some thoughts, and see where they are.)
Most people have a general sense that thoughts happen in their head, because we think with our brains, right? On the other hand, thoughts are not physical objects like tennis balls or pizzas - they don't weigh anything, and they don't have a size or shape. (In a minute I'll describe a way of exploring this in meditation.) So does it really make sense to say that thoughts have a location? We can perhaps talk about the physical location of the electrical activity in the brain that science tells us correlates with our subjective experience of thoughts, but in meditation we care primarily about what we can experience directly, not what fMRIs tell us.
(Another clue that our sense of thoughts being located in the head is only a fabrication, not 'how things are', is that the impression that thinking lives in the head is not a universal human experience. Many cultures have instead associated thoughts with the heart - my teacher Leigh Brasington has commented that at the time of the Buddha, the brain was thought to be simply the 'marrow' of the head, while everything interesting happened in the heart centre, and although I can't track down the reference now I'm pretty sure I remember reading about the first Tibetan monks to be studied scientifically, who laughed uproariously when the scientists started attaching electrodes to their heads rather than their chests.)
Something that sounds totally impossible at first, but which can become clear through practice, is that our sense of the spatial location of our thoughts - or even the spatial location of the sense of 'me' - is just another fabrication, like everything else, and with sufficient training we can actually learn to move it around. In a previous article I've mentioned a very common experience that comes up as people move more deeply into non-dual perception, where the sense that awareness has a 'centre' falls away entirely, and awareness is experienced as non-local rather than emanating from a particular point in space. But we can also learn to move that sense of locality around - so 'I' can experience 'myself' as being centred in my head, my heart, my belly, or even somewhere else entirely. (Some teachers recommend trying to put your sense of self outside the boundaries of your body - like on the far wall - as a fun exercise.)
In any case, it's certainly true that we can learn to shift our sense of where our thoughts are taking place, and if we consciously shift the koan to the belly, this has two advantages: we get the energetic benefits of focusing in the belly that I mentioned above, but also we don't have to deal with the 'splitting' of attention that's required if you normally feel the questioning happening in your head. (Shifting your sense of centre from the head to the belly also has a number of other benefits - in a future week I'll be writing an article on hara cultivation which will address some of that, so stay tuned!) In the long run the question can come to permeate the whole body and even the whole environment ('grass and trees, fences and walls') - and again, I now mean this 100% literally in terms of one's felt sense of experience, as opposed to some poetic metaphor about how 'the truth is all around us'.
If you'd like to explore this for yourself - which I would highly recommend - we can do this very directly in a kind of analytical meditation, of the sort commonly found in traditions like Mahamudra.
I'd suggest taking a chunk of time to settle the mind before starting to look at thoughts, using whatever samadhi or just-sitting practice works well for you. Thoughts are slippery beasts, and it's a very fine line to tread between 'looking at thoughts' and 'engaging in thinking' - it's often easier to quieten down the mind first, then deliberately introduce specific some thoughts to work with.
When you're ready to investigate thoughts, here are some questions you can investigate. Any one of these can be explored for many meditation sessions, or you can play with a mixture of them to see what catches your interest most keenly.
It's likely that sooner or later you'll reach the point of recognition that thoughts - and mind itself - are totally unfindable, without any kind of substance at all, and yet they're not non-existent either - when you're having a thought, you know you're having a thought. Analysis can take you no further into this apparent paradox - so at this point, simply rest in the paradox itself, the sense of the simultaneous presence and unfindability of thought and mind. Rest there and allow yourself to marinate in this sense of ungraspable presence. There's nothing more 'you' can do at this point - just keep out of the way and let the practice work on you.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!