Feeds:
Posts
Comments

A north star

North StarLast month, an Alfred State College student, who was working on a project concerning “spiritual life in the Alfred area,” contacted me to request an interview. Although I am hardly an authority on such matters, I agreed to speak with him. His questions, submitted in advance, struck me as serious and provocative. Foremost among them was the question, “Why do you think it is important for students to explore spirituality while in college?”

However well formulated, that question contains a debatable premise and an ambiguous abstraction. As it happens, I would concur with the underlying assumption: that exploring “spirituality” while in college is important. But I would note, first, that the abstract concept “spirituality” may or may not be linked to organized religion. Non-competitive swimming, for example, can be experienced as a meditative activity. Likewise cooking, writing, drawing, gardening, and other human pursuits. Second, I would suggest that “exploring spirituality” will be of limited value if it only involves adopting a set of beliefs but doesn’t integrate a regular practice into the practitioner’s daily round. With those qualifications in mind, I reinterpreted the question as, “What might be the benefits of exploring a spiritual practice during a student’s college years?” To that re-framed question, I offered three responses.

A Refuge

During my years of teaching at Alfred University, I was often aware of the pressures, emotional and intellectual, to which conscientious students were being regularly subjected. Most obvious were the academic pressures, especially on those whose scholarships were based on maintaining a high grade-point average. Many of those same students were working part-time jobs; most were juggling academic demands with social obligations and extra-curricular activities. Beyond that, all were navigating a path toward a promising but uncertain future. Along the way, they were responding to the multiple and sometimes conflicting expectations of their parents, their peers, their professors, and their fluid personal relationships. Little wonder that many suffered from chronic anxiety.

From all such pressures, a spiritual practice can provide a welcome refuge. In times of crisis, it can afford solace and support. And even on ordinary days, it can provide a young person with a “home from home,” as the Irish say, and a way of reconnecting with his or her inner life. Beyond personal restoration, a daily practice can also introduce the practitioner to the silence, the stillness, and the mystery at the heart of being. And over time, it can acquaint the dedicated practitioner with what the Zen priest Norman Fischer has called “that which is beyond [ourselves] and holds [us] in its embrace.”

A Path to Maturity

It is sometimes assumed that as we grow older, we become more mature. Comforting though it is, that assumption is not always borne out by experience. In most spiritual traditions, including Zen, it is understood that the qualities of a mature person do not magically manifest of their own accord. They must be cultivated. Among the most salient of those qualities are the strength to face difficult and sometimes painful realities; the courage to accept responsibility for one’s words, deeds, and even thoughts; the realism to acknowledge one’s personal, physical, and temperamental limitations; the empathy to temper egocentric desires with regard for other people’s feelings and needs; and the discipline to restrain hedonistic impulses in the service of the common good. These and other qualities of a mature person can be developed through regular, systematic spiritual practice. Attaining full maturity—becoming fully human—is a continuing challenge at any stage of life. To undertake a spiritual practice during one’s undergraduate years not only nourishes the practitioner’s evolving maturity. It can also provide a sound basis for future development.

A North Star

It is fair to say that American college students come from a wide variety of moral backgrounds. Their ethical training may have been narrow, strict, and rigid, on the one hand, or vague, lax, and virtually non-existent, on the other. A daily spiritual practice, if conducted in a spirit of openness and flexibility, can provide a moral compass somewhere between those extremes. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh placed great importance on the ethical framework of Zen practice, which he often likened to a North Star. Rather than view the “precepts,” as they are called in Zen, as an inflexible code of conduct or a set of moral absolutes, he saw them as an ethical destination. By keeping the precepts firmly in mind as we speak, act, and make crucial decisions, we can stay on course toward that distant destination.

All the great spiritual traditions rest on moral foundations. By studying, absorbing, and thoughtfully interpreting those foundations, students can learn to respond to each new situation in a manner consistent with both the particulars of that situation and their deepest moral intentions. That, alone, is reason enough to “explore spirituality” during one’s college years, when life-decisions are being made, and untried graduates are poised to enter the wider world.

_______

Norman Fischer, Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up (Harper/SanFrancisco, 2003), 121.

Image: Polaris, by steviep87 CC

A quiet aliveness

Bonnard Tree Alley“We rarely contact this simple moment,” wrote the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer (1927-2013). “So used to constant input and excitement, we lack fine-tuning into all the subtleties of this instant, the ability to register a quiet aliveness without the stirring of expectation.”

In this otherwise straightforward reflection on the place of meditative practice—or “contemplative inquiry,” as Packer preferred to call it—in contemporary Western culture, the word aliveness may give us pause. What, exactly, is “aliveness,” and what has it to do with meditation, a practice conventionally associated with quietude and calm?

In his book The Path of Aliveness: A Contemporary Zen Approach to Awakening Body and Mind, the Zen teacher Christian Dillo employs two striking metaphors to characterize his primary subject. “Aliveness,” he asserts, “is the buzz that can be felt from head to toe,” the “buzz of basic aliveness.” It is “the feeling of the body being filled with a liquid continuously releasing champagne bubbles.” More prosaically, he defines aliveness as “the always-present background”—what elsewhere he calls the “field of mind”—to any and all sensations,” the “here now through which everything appears.” In Dillo’s view, to become consciously aware of the aliveness of one’s body and mind, and to cultivate that awareness, is a central objective of meditative practice.

In his book Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi offers a perspective congruent with Dillo’s, but he places emphasis less on cultivating the quality of aliveness than on appreciating its abiding presence in our bodies and minds. In his discussion of zazen, or seated meditation, Fischer notes that in Japan this practice “is called ‘just sitting’—in other words, simply being present with the fact of being alive, breathing, in the body. It is such a simple thing, yet so profound, to appreciate directly that we are living, breathing bodies. Mostly we take this for granted and occupy ourselves with what seem like more significant concerns. But, in fact, there is nothing more significant than being our bodies.” Through the daily practice of zazen, we can become more cognizant and far more appreciative of our breathing, physical presence. And as our practice matures, this fundamental recognition can lead to a deeper awakening, as we come to see that “we are not atomized individuals separate from and opposed to the world.” By becoming acutely aware of our living bodies, we also become aware of “that which is larger than [ourselves], which holds [us] in its embrace.”

Yet another view of aliveness animates the Zen teacher Susan Moon’s collection of essays Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch. In her essay “Knowing How to Be Satisfied,” Moon recounts the harrowing experience she had while riding on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) from Berkeley to the San Francisco airport. Upon reaching her destination, Moon discovered that her carry-on bag, which contained her IDs, credit cards, cash, address book, appointment calendar, and teaching notes, had been stolen. Shocked and disoriented, she felt “stripped of everything.” Barred from boarding her flight without an ID, but still in possession of her round-trip train ticket, Moon took the BART back to Berkeley. And on the way home, she had a startling revelation. Whatever else had been taken from her, she suddenly realized, she still had her life, her body, her family, and her friends. “I touched my own knees in amazement,” she recalls. “I wanted to jump up and down in the train, shouting, `I’m alive! I’m alive!’ The theft was a strange kind of gift. I lost some objects, yes, and I gained a sense of gratitude for my life that is still with me. I often forget how amazing it is to be alive, but if I concentrate, I can open a drawer in my mind and find the memory of that BART train ride: I’m alive! I’m alive!” By periodically reliving that pivotal experience, Moon can also rekindle her sense of aliveness, restoring it to its rightful place in her hierarchy of values.

It bears noting that in Toni Packer’s formulation, it is not only the “constant input and excitement” of contemporary life that prevent us from registering our “quiet aliveness.” It is also the “stirring of expectation,” with its attendant speculation, anxiety, and sometimes dire scenarios. But, as Fischer reminds us, the daily discipline of seated meditation, in which we contact “this simple moment” in all its plenitude, can prompt us to appreciate our living, breathing bodies and to recognize once again the precious gift that we’ve been given.  And over time, this renewed awareness can awaken our infinite gratitude.  

______

Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022), 54, 122, 218.

Norman Fischer, Taking Our Places  (Harper, 2003), 119.

Susan Moon, Alive Until You’re Dead (Shambhala, 2022), 122.

Image: Pierre Bonnard, L’allee d’arbres. (The Tree Alley)

           

 

 

DBZ_sesshin2

Twenty years ago, as an integral part of my Zen training, I attended a sesshin, or five-day meditative retreat, at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a Rinzai Zen monastery in the Catskills. In keeping with Rinzai custom, we sat in facing rows in the darkened zendo.  Across from me sat a line of longtime practitioners in their black robes, most of them gray-haired men in their fifties and sixties. The head monk struck a gong. And for the next forty minutes, these veteran practitioners sat perfectly still.     

During the long hours of sitting, one forty-minute period following another, I kept my eyes half-open, as Zen teachings prescribe. This way of practicing afforded me ample opportunity to observe the erect figures in my wider field of vision. Over time, these august presences came to resemble a human mountain range, austere and imperturbable. And their utter stillness became more than the absence of movement. It was itself a powerful presence, embodying what the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck has called the “dignity of stillness.”

That quality of body, heart, and mind is hardly unique to Zen practice. It can be experienced in other settings, such as a Quaker meeting or a public memorial service. But in Zen, the maintaining of absolute stillness, together with absolute silence, is at once a condition and a fruit of long-term practice. For newcomers, sitting still for more than five minutes can pose a daunting challenge. But for those who persist in the practice, this mode of being can come to feel as natural as it is rewarding. And in due time, its true nature can come more clearly into focus.

To begin with, the stillness of the mature Zen practitioner should not be confused with stoicism or emotional repression. Viewed from the outside, the stillness of the realized Zen master might be interpreted as purely an act of will. He or she has learned to hold still. Forming a conscious intention not to move is indeed a part of the practice, at least initially. But as one eventually discovers, the stillness of zazen is achieved not by holding still but by settling into stillness. It represents a release rather than an act of conscious volition. Thich Nhat Hanh once likened settling into stillness to the dropping of a pebble into a river. As the pebble comes to rest on the riverbed, so does the body-mind of the practitioner come to rest on what in Zen is called the “still point”. When that settling occurs, the feeling of repose within currents of activity, of stillness within movement, pervades both the body and the mind.

The stillness of Zen is the natural result of sustained attention. It is the external manifestation of an inner concentration. Yet here again, the concentration of the Zen practitioner is not to be equated with that of a seamstress threading a needle or an artisan carving a scrimshaw medallion. It might more aptly be likened to a red fox sitting on his haunches, ready for whatever might arise. In contrast to the laser-like focus of foveal vision, which concentrates intently on the object at hand, the stillness of Zen reflects a cultivated capacity, common to equestrians, hunters, and Zen practitioners alike, to “spread” one’s vision into the periphery, encompassing both the object of attention and the wider environment. Sometimes called “soft eyes,” this way of seeing is at once invigorating and relaxing.  Shifting our orientation from close inspection to the field of awareness itself, it eases the tension created by one-pointed concentration.

Beyond this enactment of awareness, openness, and easeful circumspection, the stillness of the Zen practitioner also expresses an attitude of respect, both for oneself and whatever persons or inanimate objects may be present at the time. “Being still ourselves,” writes Robert Rosenbaum, a neuropsychologist and longtime Zen practitioner, “allows everything to be itself, still.” To put that assertion in different terms, the stillness cultivated in Zen meditation allows the people and objects in our environs to be exactly what they are, unhindered by any effort to change them or tailor them to our agendas. As I observed more than once at Thich Nhat Hanh’s weeklong retreats, where the gentle but forceful presence of our teacher quietened us all, the dignified stillness of the accomplished Zen practitioner can engender that same quality in others, creating an atmosphere of communal dignity and mutual respect.

 To be sure, the daily cultivation of stillness, as practiced in Zen, is not without its liabilities. We can become addicted to it. As Joko Beck has cautioned, we can focus so intently and so exclusively on stillness as not to notice anything else. But practiced skillfully, the discipline of stillness can be more than a beneficial pursuit. With diligence and commitment, it can transform our once-frenetic moods into tranquil lakes, our anxious minds into oases of stability, and our agitated bodies into human mountains, impervious to our changing inner weather.

__________

Charlotte Joko Beck, Ordinary Wonder (Shambhala, 2021), 119.

Robert Rosenbaum, That is Not Your Mind (Shambhala, 2022), 190.

Grandmother mind

grandmother-1_custom-9fc121820404197bbae50a16e9363940e4a7e6a3-s800-c85

One night at the dinner table I posed three questions to our granddaughter, who has now entered fourth grade.

“What is something,” I asked, “that children are interested in but grown-ups are not?”

“Pokemon,” she replied, not skipping a beat.

“What is something that grown-ups are interested in but children are not?”

“Economics,” she replied, a knowing look in her eyes.

“And what is something that both children and grown-ups are interested in?

“Food!” she answered.

Perhaps it was time to eat.

The subject of food—and of late, food insecurity—is indeed of universal interest. Its importance transcends nations and cultures as well as generations. In Zen teachings, food is regarded as one of the four essential gifts for which we should be grateful, the other three being clothing, medicine, and shelter. Yet, though food is fundamental to our existence, regardless of who we are or where we live, it’s fair to say that there are as many customs, strictures, and prohibitions regarding the preparation and consumption of food as there are societies, ethnicities, and varieties of religious experience.

Zen is no exception, though in Western Zen, especially among lay practitioners, there are few hard and fast rules. According to the “Five Contemplations” chanted before meals in Zen monasteries, we are to consume “only those foods which nourish us and prevent illness.” (Fritos are out of the question). Moreover, we are to “eat mindfully, so as to be worthy” to receive our food. By so doing, we will “realize the path of understanding and love.” If you spend time in a Western Zen center, as in its Asian counterpart, you are more than likely to be served—and often to assist in the preparation—of vegetarian meals. But what, exactly, you will eat is on the whole of less consequence than the attitude to be cultivated in preparing and consuming it.

If you would like a taste, as it were, of that attitude, I would recommend exploring the many Zen-inflected cookbooks currently available to the Western reader. A good place to start would be Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book (1974), the bread-making bible of the “whole-earth” movement, and his memoir No Recipe: Cooking as Spiritual Practice (Sounds True, 2018). In the latter book, Brown, a celebrated chef as well as a Zen priest, embraces an intuitive, improvisatory approach to the art of cooking. Also of interest is 3 Bowls: Recipes from an American Zen Buddhist Monastery (Harvest, 2000), by Seppo Edward Farrey and Nancy O’Hara, which offers innovative, hybrid recipes not found elsewhere. My own well-thumbed favorite is A Taste of Heaven and Earth (Morrow, 1993) by Bettina Vitell. Like Farrey, Vitell is a former tenzo (head cook) at Dai Bosatsu Zendo. Emphasizing the sensory dimension of cooking and eating, her wide-ranging book integrates perspectives from the Zen tradition with simple but delicious vegetarian recipes.

Underlying all of these modern examples, however, is Eihei Dogen’s thirteenth-century classic Instructions for the Zen Cook (1237), in which the founder of the Soto Zen tradition articulates the basic principles of Zen cooking. Foremost among them is an attitude of wholeheartedness—or, in today’s parlance, of being “all in,” however menial the task at hand. Concomitant to this is the principle of equality: we are to treat the lowliest turnip with the same respect as we would the most exotic rice. Most striking, at least to the modern Western reader accustomed to hastily prepared food, is Dogen’s explanation of robai-shin, commonly translated as “parental mind.” Cultivating robai-shin, we train ourselves to treat both the food we are preparing and the utensils we are using as if they were our children, affording them infinite care.

Robai-shin is sometimes translated as “grandmother mind.” And in her book Alive Until You’re Dead (Shambhala, 2022), the Zen teacher Susan Moon, herself a devoted grandmother, opts for this alternative translation. “Grandmother mind” deepens the concept of parental mind to include the qualities of warmth, empathy, wisdom, and compassionate understanding, tempered by grandmotherly sternness when required.

This attitude need not be limited to cooking. Nor is it the exclusive province of literal grandmothers. In the true spirt of Zen, Moon widens the concept to encompass anyone engaged in the interactions of everyday life. “If a young male monk can develop grandmother mind,” she writes, “then a person of any age, gender, and social status can develop it. You don’t have to be a grandmother to give your coat to someone shivering in the cold. A particular nod of recognition is due to all the grandfathers who are devoted to their grandchildren. Grandmother mind is simply a figure of speech. Even grandfathers can have grandmother mind.” Moreover, she notes in her conclusion, “Since we will become ancestors after we die, whether we like it or not, we might as well practice now by loving the beings we meet with grandmother mind, even if we aren’t grandmothers and even if they aren’t children.”

_______

Susan Moon, Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch (Shambhala, 2022), 57, 62.

Illustration by Nicole Xu.

 \

Guido of Arezzo

If you have studied music, you are familiar with the five-line staff, the most fundamental component of Western musical notation. You may also remember the standard mnemonic for learning the notes on the lines of the treble clef: Every Good Boy Does Fine. I learned this mnemonic as a child, and even then it didn’t sit well with me. For one thing, it expressed a half-truth, at best, if not an outright falsehood. And later, when I’d studied English grammar and usage, I realized that fine, an adjective, was being misused as an adverb. Yet, if I questioned the quality of the mnemonic, I never thought to question the provenance of the musical staff itself. For all I knew, it had existed since time immemorial.

Not so. This basic element of Western notation was in fact the invention of one man: a shy, frail Italian monk named Guido of Arezzo (990-1050). As Stuart Isacoff explains in his book Musical Revolutions, Guido lived in a time when the Latin chants and hymns of the Church were sung in widely disparate ways by the various communities scattered throughout the Papal domain. Partly in an effort to standardize the diverse styles in which church music was being sung, and partly to afford the singers a more efficient means of learning it, Guido devised a method for connecting graphic notation to the physical act of singing.

Graphic representations of music had existed as early as 1400 BCE. But, as Isacoff notes, these were usually no more than markings: “abstract hints” as to how the music should actually be performed. To remedy this situation, Guido created a four-line staff on which note symbols were placed. Analogous to a geographical grid, with its intersecting arcs of longitude and latitude, Guido’s staff became a “map on which any pitch could be measured in relation to another. The higher the placement, the higher the pitch.” What was new about Guido’s system was the “idea of regarding pitches as occupying positions in vertical space.” This allowed the singer to “grasp at a glance the exact melodic distances in a hymn to be sung.” Although singers and musicians now take the staff for granted, as though it were a common piece of furniture, at the time of its creation it was truly revolutionary. However humble and unprepossessing Guido may have been in his private life, he made an enduring contribution to the development of Western music.

Something similar might be said of such major figures as Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), Linji (Jap. Rinzai, d. 895), Shido Bunan (1603-1676),and Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769), all of whom made profound contributions to the Zen tradition. In Zen temples and centers around the world, the names of these and scores of other ancestral masters are regularly chanted, slowly and rhythmically, each name followed by an honorific title:

            KAYASHATA SONJA

            KUMORATA SONJA

                        —

            SHIDO BUNAN ZENJI

            DO KYO ETAN ZENJI

            HAKU IN EKAKU ZENJI

In printed form, this litany resembles the list of credits at the end of a movie. As an aural experience, however, the lineage chants can be hypnotic and strangely moving. Echoing in the spacious environs of a darkened Dharma Hall, they create an atmosphere of reverence, gratitude, and mystery.

Zen lineages also figure prominently in the jukai, or “lay ordination” ceremony, in which committed practitioners “receive the precepts.” Newly confirmed practitioners are presented with a “lineage chart” depicting the lineage of a particular sect. Starting with Shakyamuni Buddha and traversing the centuries, these charts graphically dramatize the antiquity and the continuity of a given lineage. The author and Zen teacher Susan Moon, in her book Alive Until You’re Dead, irreverently likens her “lineage paper,” which delineates “ninety-two generations of ancestors who passed the dharma along, from the Buddha down to me,” to an American Kennel Club pedigree. Among other things, the chart certifies the authenticity of the confirmed practitioner, who has taken vows to keep the moral precepts of the Zen tradition.

Looking, this morning, at my own lineage chart, where my name is emblazoned in bright red letters beneath the Ten Precepts and the Rinzai Zen lineage, I am reminded of those family trees that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. presents to his guests on Finding Your Roots. More seriously, I am reminded of Susan Moon’s observation that “we will become ancestors, too.” For good or ill, we will take our places in the lineages of our blood and spiritual descendants. Although our roles will almost certainly not be as pivotal as that of Guido of Arezzo in Western music, neither will they be inconsequential. Passing down our frailties and foibles, our mistakes and misdeeds, as well as whatever kindness and wisdom we have to offer, we will influence the lives of our descendants, who, as Moon prophetically notes, will one day become ancestors themselves. If that thought will not suffice to give us pause—and prompt a little humility—I really don’t know what will.

_______

Stuart Isacoff, Musical Revolutions (Knopf, 2022), Kindle Edition, Lot 190.

Susan Moon, Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretch (Shambhala, 2022), 37,53-63.

Engraving: Guido of Arezzo (Guido d’Arezzo)

Morse code psDuring her recent visit, our nine-year-old granddaughter learned to send Morse code. Having found the code in her activity book, she printed it out in her own, precise hand on a 4 x 6” notecard. As it happens, I learned Morse code myself when I was not much older than Allegra is now. Tapping a pencil on our dining-room table, I taught her how to translate the printed dots and dashes of the code into rhythmic patterns of sound. By the end of her stay, she was able to send “I love you, Dad” to her father. And to her grandfather (who was still in his pajamas), “Have a nice shower, Grandpa.”

The ability to transmit Morse code was not the only skill Allegra acquired during her visit. With a little guidance on my part, she also learned to play a C-major scale on her child’s-size classical guitar; to write her full name in longhand with a fountain pen; to deploy multiple metaphors in a lyric poem; to earn a little money by sorting, counting, and wrapping Grandpa’s coins; to feed the wild birds; and even to sit, silent and still, for three minutes (maximum). But, in contrast to these potentially useful skills, the sending of Morse code stood apart, in the respect that it has little or no utilitarian value. For all its importance in world history, as a practical matter Morse code is now next to useless. Her newly acquired skill will not help her compete in high-school sports or gain admission to an elite university or bolster a future resumé. Continue Reading »

Pen 2 ps

To mark my most recent birthday my wife gave me a Conway Stewart fountain pen. Conway Stewart & Co., Limited, the most venerable name in British fountain pens, was founded in London in 1905. During the First World War, their handcrafted pens were used extensively by soldiers writing home from the front. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill enlisted a Conway Stewart pen to sign important wartime documents. More recently, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh were presented with Conway Stewart pens to commemorate their golden wedding anniversary. Known as the Wordsworth Shingle, my particular pen is a delight to hold and behold. And to a degree exceptional in this day and age, it affords what I would call the pleasures of inscription.

Foremost among those pleasures is the sensuousness of the experience: the sensation of the pen’s nib pressing against the page. Whether light or heavy, that pressure and its attendant sensations can be felt when using any writing instrument, but with a fountain pen they are far more varied, nuanced, and subtle. I would liken them to what I feel in my left-hand fingers when pressing the nylon strings of the classical guitar, sensations that vary according to the placement of the finger-tips and the string I’m pressing down. Placing (or, rather, misplacing) the finger-tip between the frets requires more effort and creates more tension than placing it next to the fret. The bass strings, being metal-wound, also require greater effort. Continue Reading »

261. Two hands

TNH bell

Years ago at a literary conference, I lent a book to a Japanese friend. A few days later, as the conference was ending, she returned the book, holding it with both hands and presenting it to me as if it were an offering. Silent, direct, and present-minded, her gesture filled the space between us. And though she was not a Zen practitioner, so far as I know, her action epitomized the practice of Zen.

In the early years of my formal Zen training, I learned to do everything—or almost everything—with two hands. No one taught me to do this. Rather I learned it through observing longtime Zen practitioners. Observation, of course, is one thing and performance another. And for a Westerner like me, the practice of using both hands to return a book or to hold and strike a bell, however conventional in East Asian cultures, felt foreign and unnatural.

Continue Reading »

 

Hermit Thrush JulioM

When thoughts form an endless procession

            I vow with all beings

to notice the spaces between them

and give the thrushes a chance.

Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life

The lines above describe a familiar experience. “Non-stop thinking,” Thich Nhat Hanh called it. Given the pace and volume of our thoughts, how are we to “notice the spaces between them”? How are we to stop—or at least put on pause—our non-stop thinking?

In his book The Path of Aliveness, the Zen teacher Christian Dillo identifies two dimensions of the human mind. The first he calls “content of mind,” by which he means the perceptions, memories, images, and other mental phenomena that traverse our consciousness. The other is the “field of mind,” by which he means our awareness of those mental phenomena. The mind’s contents, he notes, are by nature reactive. Entertaining a memory, a thought, a future scenario, we tend to react to it, whether with desire, aversion, or indifference. By contrast, the “field of mind” is non-reactive. Ever-present and immovable, even when we are agitated, it merely observes what is occurring. When we are having a thought, it knows we are having a thought. And when our thought reflects our uncertainty or fear, our joy or sorrow or elation, it knows that as well.

To “notice the spaces between” our thoughts is to take a break from conceptual thinking and open a portal to the field of mind. Unfortunately, that portal can close, and usually does, almost as soon as it opens. Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2012) was an American Zen master, with decades of meditative experience. That he would frame the noticing of spaces between thoughts as an aspiration rather than a fruit of the practice is very telling. The endless procession of thoughts of which he speaks is the means by which we discriminate between self and other, fact and fantasy, truth and propaganda. It is the faculty with which we analyze and navigate the world. However much we may wish to disengage from “ordinary mind,” as it is called in Zen, and to rest in open awareness, we are unlikely to do so without making a conscious effort.

One way to do that is to stop whatever we are doing and take three conscious breaths. Almost any available sight or sound can serve as a prompt: a red light at an intersection, the call of a mourning dove, the wail of the village siren. Having stopped in our tracks, we can then give full attention to our breathing, noticing such subtleties as the difference in length between breaths, the coolness of the inhalation and the warmth of the exhalation, the tactile experience of tension and release. Thich Nhat Hanh, who taught this technique at his retreats, recommended it as both as a stratagem for reducing stress and a practice for fostering peace within and around us. Based on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, a foundational Zen text, this classic method can also provide us access, however brief, to the “field of mind.”

For those who might wish to prolong that access, other, more advanced methods are available. In his book The World Could Be Otherwise, the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi offers these instructions:

Sit down and pay attention to body and breath. Become aware of thoughts, images, memories, whatever arises in your mind. Now become aware of the awareness itself that is the container or background for the content of your mind. Little by little (using your exhale to ease your way into it), shift your attention from the foreground (thoughts, etc.) to the background (awareness itself). Feel the awareness itself as boundless. Feel its infinite generosity.

As both Dillo and Fischer acknowledge, the shift of attention to which these instructions refer requires practice. It will not be accomplished in a single sitting. But in my experience, such a shift is not only possible but practicable in a variety of settings, including walking meditation. And in two important ways, its benefits can reward the commitment involved.

First, by shifting our attention from the “foreground” to the “background” of our minds, we allow ourselves the space and time to reflect on whatever is arising. We train ourselves to respond, appropriately and wisely, rather than impulsively react. And second, by releasing us from the grip of our thoughts, we open ourselves to those sensorial impressions that “non-stop thinking” impedes. Paradoxically, by learning to migrate from the foreground to the background of our minds, we engender greater intimacy between ourselves and our environs. We give the thrushes a chance to be heard and ourselves the freedom to listen.

___

Robert Aitken, Zen Vows for Daily Life (Wisdom, 2018).

Christian Dillo, The Path of Aliveness (Shambhala, 2022).

Norman Fischer, The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019), 50.

Photo: Hermit Thrush, by JulioM

259. Already broken

TomisenSensujiKyusu_A01

One morning a few weeks ago, my new kyusu arrived at my door. A kyusu is a Japanese teapot with a hollow side handle and an interior mesh filter. Handcrafted in the Tokoname tradition, this particular kyusu is dark brown and evokes a quiet, earthy atmosphere. Concentric circles in the lid and body impart a simple, classical feeling. To prepare this new tool for use, I filled it with boiling water, emptied it, and left it in the dish drainer to dry. By nightfall, it had taken its place on the counter among my small collection of kyusus, looking pristine and ready for service.

That look was not to last. The following afternoon, as I was reading in my study and my wife was working in the kitchen, I heard a crash, followed by a few words of Yiddish and the improbable prediction, “He’s going to kill me!” As it happened, as Robin was innocently opening the cupboard above the counter to fetch a box of McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, a jar of cream of tartar came tumbling out. As if guided by radar, this little missile landed squarely on my new kyusu, breaking its hollow handle into several pieces. With a seasoned ceramist’s expertise, Robin repaired the handle, leaving barely visible lines where the fractures had occurred. No matter: having traveled safely all the way from Japan and spending less than forty-eight hours in our home, this exquisite object was already broken. Continue Reading »