Posts Tagged ‘The World Could Be Otherwise’

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.


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

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