Such is my experience every morning, when I drink green tea from a small porcelain cup. Looking down, I see the cup’s white rim, which forms a perfect circle. Looking up, I see that same circle, now in black, projected against the bamboo rug. In its main features the image resembles the enso, or Zen circle–a symbol of enlightenment and absolute reality.
Not all images are so benign, nor is their duration so brief. The poet Ezra Pound famously defined the image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” And if that image is laden with emotional content, it may be virtually ineradicable. In her poem “Quai d’ Orleans,” Elizabeth Bishop observes barges on the river Seine, comparing their wakes to giant oak leaves, which extinguish themselves on the sides of the quay. Deepening her analogy, Bishop contrasts the disappearance of the wakes with the endurance of human memories, especially memories of loss. “If what we see could forget us half as easily,” she reflects, “as it does itself—but for life we’ll not be rid / of the leaves’ fossils.”*
Zen meditation is essentially a process of stopping and looking. Amidst the multiple distractions of everyday life, the images in our psyches may well escape notice, but when we sit still, follow our breathing, and have a look at our interior lives, those images often return with a vengeance, bearing their cargo of memories and associations. How, if at all, should we respond to them? What, if anything, should we do?
Perhaps the most reflexive response is to pursue the image: to dwell in the past. Encountering the image of a barge, for example, I might recall the scenes of my childhood, when I sat for hours on the banks of the Mississippi River, watching the barges pass. Pushed by powerful “towboats,” those massive platforms transported steel, coal, and other freight north toward Lock and Dam 13. Viewed from a distance, the barges appeared to be moving slowly, as they rounded the bend and gradually disappeared. But in fact they were moving at a rapid, dangerous clip, and boaters were well advised to stay out of their way. Remembering their bulk and speed, I recall that one of my schoolmates, a third grader named Michael Stone, drowned one night beneath a barge. A few days earlier, I had wrestled with him on the playground.
Such memories haunt us, and it is tempting to pursue them. But to do so is not the way of Zen meditation, whose aim is situate our minds and hearts, vividly and continuously, in the reality of the present moment. The Bhaddekaratta Sutta (Sutra on the Better Way of Living Alone), a guiding text for Zen practitioners, states this aim directly:
Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
in the very here and now,
the practitioner dwells
in stability and freedom.
The sutra goes on to explain what is meant by “pursuing the past”:
When someone thinks about the way his body was in the past, the way his feelings were in the past, the way his perceptions were in the past, the way his mental factors were in the past, the way his consciousness was in the past; when he thinks about these things and his mind is burdened by and attached to these things which belong to the past, then that person is pursuing the past.
By contrast, when a person thinks about those same things but his mind is neither “enslaved by nor attached” to them, then that person is not “pursuing the past.”**
To think about the past without being enslaved by it is a formidable challenge, but there are ways of meeting that challenge. Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist and renowned Vipassana teacher, advises us to heal the wounds in our psyches by bringing meditative awareness—“that which knows”—to our painful memories. Similarly, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to review the past and “observe it deeply” while “standing firmly in the present.” In that way our destructive memories can be transformed into something constructive. In either case, the method is first to ground ourselves in the present, and second, to cultivate a generous, clear awareness, in which images from the past, however troubling or enticing, arrive and last for a while but do not become objects of obsessive thought. Like barges observed from a river bank, they interest but do not overwhelm us.
* Elizabeth Bishop, “Quai d’ Orleans,” The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux,1984), 28.
**Thich Nhat Hanh, Our Appointment with Life: Discourse on Living Happily in the Present Moment (Parallax, 1990), 6.
Enso (Zen circle) by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi.