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In her book Ordinary Wonder, the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011) recounts the experience of one of her students, a heart surgeon on the verge of burnout. A nervous wreck at work, he came home exhausted in the evenings. To relieve his stress, he adopted a simple but effective practice. Whenever he was walking down the halls of the hospital, he focused on his feet. Rather than think about the operation just performed or the one in prospect, he shifted his attention to the feeling of his soles pressing against the floor. To his amazement, he found himself less anxious at work and less tired at the end of the day.

 As food for thought, the sensation of one’s feet doing their customary work may seem like meager fare indeed. How much better to be musing about enlightenment—or dreaming of the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. But underlying the surgeon’s humble intervention was an essential principle of Zen practice. Ubiquitous in Zen teachings, that principle has three distinct but interrelated aspects.

To begin with, as Beck explains, the practice of focusing on the body—in this instance, one’s feet—rather than on thoughts or mental images prioritizes sensory experience over conceptual thought. It returns the practitioner to his or her immediate experience. This shift of orientation is analogous to extending rather than flexing a muscle. Just as many of us, particularly those of us whose vocations are sedentary, spend far more time contracting than extending our muscle groups, we may also expend far more energy thinking and talking about our lives than we do in actually experiencing our experience, openly and concretely. The former activity is easy, habitual, and often enjoyable. The latter is unfamiliar, difficult, and sometimes unpleasant. As Beck observes, most people new to the practice can tolerate consciously experiencing their experience for around three seconds, after which they grow uncomfortable or bored. But once the practice becomes familiar and even second nature, a transformation, such as the surgeon experienced, can begin to occur.

The second aspect of this teaching concerns the dynamic relationship of imagination and what the poet Wallace Stevens called the “pressure of reality.” As the Zen teacher Norman Fischer demonstrates in his book The World Could Be Otherwise, imagination can play a major, constructive role in meditative practice. By imagining a state of optimal health, for example, we can help to foster than condition. But imagination can also play a destructive role, insofar as it is undisciplined and ungrounded. In the eighteenth century the sagacious Samuel Johnson warned against the “dangerous prevalence of imagination,” by which he meant untrammeled imagination, oblivious of reason or reality. To the extent that our imaginations betray us into catastrophic thinking and disproportionate responses to adversity, that faculty can be our enemy rather than our friend. Superseding reason or realism, it can cause us to interpret a harmless discomfort as a symptom of a major disorder, a correctable misalignment as an irreversible condition.

This all-too-common reaction is addressed in the third aspect of this teaching, which Beck frames as a distinction between “sensation” and “anguish.” In one of his most celebrated analogies, the Buddha likened the pain that we incur to a wound inflicted by an arrow. When, in response to that pain, we begin thinking about its possible causes and imagining its consequences, it is as if we are shooting a second arrow directly into the wound. From the sensation we have just experienced, we are creating anguish.  And unless we are longtime meditative practitioners or have learned to know our minds by other means, we may be entirely unaware of what we are doing to ourselves.  

To develop such awareness is an important aim of Zen practice. Learning to distinguish between the sensations we experience and the anguish we generate from those sensations is a difficult endeavor, requiring diligence and no little skill. After thirty some years of practice, I am only beginning to get the hang of it. One precondition, I have found, is the stillness and equanimity engendered by shamata, or concentrative meditation. Without that secure foundation, it is nearly impossible to practice vipassana, or “insight” meditation, in which we investigate the activities and changing atmospheres of our minds. No less important is the willingness to be with, and indeed to go into, whatever the sensation might be, noting the changes that occur when the feeling is given sustained attention. Sometimes it will increase, but more often it will diminish or disappear altogether. In either case, we can become more acutely aware of the difference between the bare sensation and the thought, imagery, and anxiety we are adding to it. All of this takes time and energy, guided if possible by a good teacher. But as the overworked surgeon’s experience demonstrates, it can begin with something as basic as paying attention to one’s feet.

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Charlotte Joko Beck, Ordinary Wonder, ed. Brenda Beck Hess (Shambhala, 2021), 161, 105-7. .

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“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot, but here in Western New York, the month of February seems more deserving of that honor. And for the meditative practitioner, no month presents a sterner challenge. Be here now? You must be joking. I’d rather be in Sarasota. Or better yet, St. Lucia.

In the “Faith-Mind Sutra,” Seng-ts’an, the Third Ancestor of the Zen tradition, offers this advice:

The Great Way is not difficult
for those not attached to preferences.
When neither love nor hate arises,
all is clear and undisguised.
Separate by the smallest amount, however,
and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.*

To follow the Great Way—the path of liberation from conditioned suffering—is to set aside our habitual preferences. Summer over winter, for instance. Or, in winter, St. Lucia over Western New York.

That may sound like being numb or in denial, but in its context Seng-ts’an’s meaning is quite the opposite. What he is urging is an openness to whatever we encounter, be it sun-drenched beaches or sub-zero temperatures, cloudless tropical skies or a Buffalo winter. Putting our preferences in abeyance, we fully experience our environs.

Beyond that, Seng-ts’an is enjoining us to recognize that by preferring one thing over another, we separate ourselves from the world we live in. We identify with our preferences, fashioning an “I” that dislikes cold weather, that prefers sand and sun over ice and snow. If what we prefer is presently available, we like it and want more of it—and want it to last forever. But if it’s not, we stand apart, resisting what is present and complaining of our lot. On a really frigid day, we blame the cold for being cold, the winter for being winter.

Such responses are not to be suppressed. Their roots lie in generations of conditioning and in social forces well beyond our control. At the same time, what has been learned can be unlearned, and what is causing us suffering can be diminished, not by willful self-denial or efforts at self-improvement but by patient meditative inquiry. In her essay “Consciousness, Attention, and Awareness,” the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer puts it this way:

Sometimes people say, “I ought to drop this habit, but I can’t.” No one is asking us to drop anything. How can we drop things when we are in our customary thinking and suffering mode? We can drop a bowl of cereal, but our habitual reactions need to be seen thoroughly as they are taking place. When there is awareness, a reaction that is seen and understood to be a hindrance diminishes on its own. It may take a lot of repeated suffering, but a moment comes when the energy of seeing takes the place of the habit. That is all. Seeing is empty of self. The root of habit too is empty.*

Rather than struggle to drop our habitual reactions, we cultivate awareness of those reactions and allow them to change in their own time.

If you would like to explore this practice, you might wish to take a meditative walk on a cold winter day. As you set out, bring your awareness to your body—to your feet as they slog through the snow, your arms as they rhythmically swing, your face as it meets the cold. Open your eyes to the landscape, your ears to the sounds of winter. Then bring your awareness to your resistance: to the concepts and judgments that cross your mind. Pay particular attention to your likes and dislikes, your comforts and discomforts. Continue this practice through the month of February, and see what becomes of your aversions.

_______________________

**Seng-ts’an, Faith-Mind Sutra, tr. Richard B. Clarke, http://www.mendosa.com/way.html.

*Toni Packer, The Wonder of Presence (Shambhala, 2002), 134.

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