The Strategy of Illusory Control.

November 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Impasto Spring 1933

The Buddhist teaching of Dependent Origination states that no being or phenomena exist independently of other beings and phenomena. You would not be where you are today if it were not for the society that supports you with food, transportation, jobs and goods. The oxygen you breath is made by plants. The sun warms the oceans that give rise to clouds that provide drinking water. Change one part of your society or environment and all of it will eventually be affected; sometimes subtly, sometimes greatly.

You may easily accept the idea of dependent origination but have you inquired into what it means to you emotionally? If dependent origination has your life depending on outer conditions, does this not mean you are not in control of your life? A piece of contaminated lettuce may put you in the hospital. So can a driver distracted by a cell. Your work place can be downsized leaving you without a job. Your partner may leave. The list of things that can change your life is endless because life’s possibilities are endless. And isn’t that just a bit scary?

Most people deal with this fundamental fear by acknowledging only what they can control and ignoring or pushing away what they can’t. In simple Buddhist terms, they attach to the desirable and feel aversion to the undesirable. This provides a sense of control over life but that control is only an illusion.

The strategy of illusory control, if I may call it that, can be seen on both an individual and global level. While I write this, the world is reacting with fear to the recent attack in Paris by calling for an end to refugees entering their countries. They believe that by controlling the flow of people, they will regain control of their lives and once again be safe. Yet authorities tell us that none of the Paris attackers were refugees, so the idea of being safe by stemming the flow of refugees is nothing more than illusion.

The trouble with illusion is that it easily crumbles when given a jolt from reality. Such a jolt, however, provides us with an opportunity to discover the strategies we use to avoid facing our fears. In Zen koan study those strategies are described as barriers. In simple terms a barrier is a conditioned response that deflects attention away from fear.

There are many strategies to avoid fear. Attempting to control your surroundings is one; as is chasing after success, popularity or love. Seeking pleasure or making oneself a victim so others will take care of you are others. No matter what strategy you use to feel safe, it will eventually fail because it is based upon the illusion that you can isolate yourself in a universe that operates on a principle of dependent origination.

We may ask ourselves what we can do in a world where there is only the illusion of control and safety. After all, can’t we all be happy? Can’t our children be safe?

If the only answer that we will accept demands that all danger be eliminated, then we will be sadly disappointed with the answer to these questions. But Buddhism asks we accept that answer and take up life’s problems as part of our path. When something bad happens, use it to examine the strategies that give you the illusion of safety. When fear arises, stay with the fear and teach yourself not to be overwhelmed by it or to suppress it.

You do not have to wait for a major crisis to do this. You need only examine your mind right now to find the barriers you’ve constructed that limit awareness. Examine your moods, what irritates you, what you push away and gravitate toward. Whenever you are uncomfortable or fearful use this as a sign that one of your strategies isn’t working and look within to see what it is. By learning to be with small fears, you prepare yourself for life’s major catastrophes.

Even when meeting darkness and fear, by just learning to stay with it we engender a feeling of lightness and an open heart to all that comes across our path and to whom all we meet. Fears that made us lash out, run or freeze will become workable. And we will no longer cut ourselves off from life or from others that seek to enter our lives.


Thought People

November 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

Thought People

When examining ordinary consciousness we might see thoughts arising that evoke an emotional response, or feelings arising that evoke thinking. We see a resolute belief in the reality of thought and feeling, as well as a general tendency for the self to identify with these. This belief and identification is a barrier to knowing our true nature and improving the human condition.

The ordinary mind also constantly judges and appraises what is happening around it, especially when what is happening creates feelings of pleasure or pain. At the same time it is constantly looking for explanations and problems to solve. The ordinary mind, in other words, is quite a busy place.

Because it is so busy the mind has developed ways to simplify what it has to deal with on a daily basis. One way it does this is by grouping related items together so they appear as distinct entities, if you will, in consciousness where we tend to forget that these are, in fact, our own thoughts. Psychology has provided these thought people with different names, such as the id/superego, inner child/inner parent, underdog/topdog and, of course, the archetypes of Carl Jung. They, and other characters, are stored in the mind where they arise from time to time to tell us what we want, what we must do and what we should think.

When thought people are mistakenly believed to exist in the outer world as real forces, we come into conflict with them over what we want and what they say we should do. This conflict can magnify to incredible proportions when there is a trauma that results in such conditions as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Depression. This can make it impossible for the traumatized person to function without encountering inner conflict on a daily basis.

I refer the reader here back to the previous post “A Buffalo Passes Through the Enclosure” to make it clear that these inner characters contain values that are important to the self and must be considered when seeking to resolve any conflict. For instance, in PTSD the value is survival. No amount of counseling a person that what they fear doesn’t exist will be effective without taking this value into account.

When properly undertaken, meditation creates an awareness of the distinction between the self and its entourage of thoughts and feelings. It also leads to a growing understanding that these characters do not exist anywhere but in the mind, or brain, of the individual.

The awareness that thought has no self-existence, and therefore no power over the self, arises slowly. Theoretically, it could happen right away but most of us are extremely reluctant to let go of our thought people. Besides the values they represent, they also provide a sense of security and safety that is hard to relinquish. Even when our thought people are frightening us or blocking and limiting us in other ways from being ourselves, we will still cling to them. We’d rather bad company than no company at all!

On a personal note, the other day I had a clear realization that one of my limiting thoughts was nothing more than a thought. For a brief instant the thought was stripped of its authority and I felt what could almost be called a physical jolt from this recognition. The intensity of that realization faded; mostly, I believe, because my mind was not used to this new way of seeing. My mind reverted to its habitual ways but not before I had the sense of what life is like when one’s inner barriers fall away.

The work that lies before me now is to widen this realization to other thought people and deepen it so they fade into the background of my awareness. When they disappear altogether, will this not be an experience of Buddhist emptiness?

The Stories We Tell.

October 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

The stories we tell

You may have noticed that the thinking mind likes to solve problems while you’re trying to meditate. There’s a thump and the mind immediately goes out to identify it. A slight pain starts in the leg and you wonder how to move without disturbing your concentration. Then you question if you’re meditating properly. On and on the mind goes trying to solve problems, even at times when none exist. There is nothing unusual about this. The thinking mind is designed to solve problems. That’s its primary function and it will continue to do this throughout your life.

One of the minds favorite ways of problem solving is through the telling of a story. After an argument, for example, your mind will rewrite the scene, typically in ways that show you winning. This is not just ego. By reworking the story to your favor, the thinking mind attempts to dispel the bad feelings the argument created. Dreams perform a similar function when they seek to discharge feelings created by negative or traumatic events of the previous day. Journal writing and artistic expression are other ways of releasing pent up emotions but sometimes these negative feelings just don’t go away. When that happens, you may end up telling yourself the same story over and over again for some time.

Typically, the stories that are continually retold and tie up energy revolve around sensitive or important issues related to your identity. They are core stories that maintain your self-image by affirming your worth, justifying your fears, making you the hero or the victim, etc.

Retelling these stories keeps your image intact by stopping you from looking in some inner direction that will release the tied up energy. As such, they act as barriers to knowing and expressing your true nature. The same barriers that meditation and Zen koans are designed to resolve.

When meditation deepens, your core stories start to come to the fore. At first you may only notice them as persistent images and feelings that seem to encompass the full story in an instant. Prior to meditation you probably didn’t even notice them, as the image or feeling came and went so quickly. But meditation allows you to slow them down so you may see how they block you from expressing yourself.

These barriers are maintained by intense emotions, the arousal of which signals that you are in danger. Overcoming these emotions is one of the most difficult things you might ever have to do because the threat they signal feels very real and very imminent. Because of their intensity they should not be taken lightly. Approach them as you would any thing else that arises in your meditation. That is, by neither suppressing nor being overwhelmed by them.

In meditation you learn to stabilize your mind through fixed attention. As you learn to fix your attention on one object you can then turn this ability on the sensitive areas of your mind and the stories you’ve built around them. As you become comfortable with their intense emotions and uncertainty you can then investigate your stories to see if they are real or true. Then you may see what they are blocking you from feeling and expressing in the name of self-protection.

Dropping your core stories is necessary if you wish to know your true nature. But dropping them, you will find, is what you’ve been afraid of all along as your true nature, as seen from the perspective of the ordinary mind, is no nature at all. So letting go of your story is equivalent to stepping into nothingness that is often described as the great or mystical death.

The mystical death happens in the instant you let go of your story. But getting to that instant may take a lifetime because the desire to cling to your story is so strong. But ultimately that story is not you and will be released anyway at the time of physical death. But if you can release it before your body dies you will enter a free state that is infinitely richer than any story you tell yourself.

Proceed from the Top of the Pole.

September 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

Racoon 2229

An ancient Zen Master said, “One who sits on top of the 100 foot pole has attained a certain height but is still not handling Zen freely. That person should proceed on and appear in all directions.”

Master Sekiso said, “You are at the top of the 100 foot high pole. How can you proceed on?”

Mumon’s Comment:

One can continue or turn freely on top of the pole. Either should be respected. I want to ask you, how will you proceed from the top of that pole? Look out!

One who lacks the third eye of insight

Will cling to the measure of the hundred feet

Such a one will jump from there and kill himself

Like the blind leading the blind.


The Gateless Barrier, is a collection of 49 Zen koans of which the above koan is number 46. The title of the work is apt because koans represent inner blocks or obstacles to obtaining Zen insight into your true nature. They are experienced as points where thinking and action can go no further or, as the title suggests, an encounter with a gateless barrier through which no one can pass.

According to Zen masters, the way to approach the koan Proceed From the Top of the Pole” is the same as with every koan. You must throw yourself into it with every fiber of your being and think of it day and night. In the words of the Zen masters, you should feel as if a hot iron ball is in your throat that can neither be swallowed nor spit out.

Putting the imagery of the hot iron ball aside for the moment, begin by imagining what it would actually feel like to be at the top of a hundred foot pole. Are you balancing on a ball or a small platform? Are you wondering how you got there? Are there people walking below that are ignoring you or watching you? Do you feel any anxiety in the pit of your stomach brought on by the fear of falling or wide-open spaces?

Over the days the top of the pole will start to represent the times you pulled back from offering your opinion at work or to your partner at home. It’ll be that nagging feeling that you haven’t locked the door. In a dozen different ways you’ll see how your own fear acts as a barrier to your stepping into new or uncomfortable situations. You’ll start to see how the fear of mistakes has you feeling open, exposed and vulnerable. And how you seek safety and security through a strategy of hiding and remaining closed.

As the hundred-foot pole becomes the symbol of your life you’ll wonder how you ever became the one who lacks the third eye of insight  who clings to the measure of the hundred feet. The desire to overcome this situation will start to feel like a hot iron ball in your throat that you can neither spit out nor swallow.

Eventually a great wall of doubt will arise, as the Zen masters say, and you will start to question everything. Why, you ask, do you believe that it is unsafe to offer your opinion? Why are you obsessing on whether the door is locked when you know you locked it. What is the nature of these fears that have been holding you back?

As the hot iron ball of doubt begins to consume you a change will commence. The reality of your self-imposed limits and fears will start to dissolve. You’ll find yourself better able to take that next step in situations you formerly found uncomfortable. You’ll start to feel free.

It may take months or years to reach this lofty state where you “turn freely at the top of the pole.” If you go no further you still deserve respect for going so far. But if the hot iron ball continues to burn in your throat, there will come a time when you question whether your fear of “dropping body and mind” hasn’t also been holding you back. Then, without knowing how, body and mind will drop away. The ego-shell is broken. The earth moves, heaven shakes and you appear in all directions.

How Sweet!

September 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

Tiger, Tiger

A familiar tale originally told by the Buddha concerns a man confronted by a tiger in the forest. In flight from the beast he falls over a cliff but manages to grab a short tree root to stop his fall. There he hangs suspended, with the hungry tiger above and jagged rocks below. As he dangles, two mice – one white and one black – begin to gnaw on the root. The stage is set for his demise. Just then, he notices a wild strawberry growing along the flat cliff’s edge. Tasting it he says, “How sweet.

With only 3,200 tigers left in the world today, it is safe to say that most of us will never encounter a tiger. Here in the wilds of British Columbia a fall from a cliff is more likely but this story is not about actual tigers or cliffs. It’s about the tigers and cliffs of mind.

Everyone encounters the tiger of fear in his or her lifetime. At some point everyone feels the jagged rocks of dejection. And everyone knows the gnawing feeling that life is short and time is running out. But aside from this symbolism there are aspects of the Buddha’s story that we should not overlook. Such as how the ordinary mind fixates on what is not real, rather than what is.

The ordinary mind has become so accustomed to thinking that it seldom takes time to touch base with the present moment. Much of this thinking is habitual and repetitive. A lot is based upon fear and desire. It is typically only when this thinking becomes painful that any notice is taken of it. Then the mind looks for a solution within its own thoughts that, long before this point has been reached, have been falsely identified as the self. The ordinary mind then asks, “What is wrong with me? Why do I feel bad? Why am I afraid?”

From my experience, the two most significant factors that block the ordinary mind from finding a way out of thinking and back to the present moment, are the false identification of self with thought and the false belief that thought is real.

One need only look within to see that the mind believes most of what it thinks to be real and true. What is not so easily seen is that when the mind believes these to be its true self, letting them go is felt to be the death of self. Thoughts are then seen as something to which one must cling to preserve one’s own life. That is why even the most painful of thoughts are so hard to release.

Mindfulness, koan study or just sitting, work to bring the mind to a point where the mind can release its tigers and enjoy the fruit of the present moment, as portrayed in the Buddha’s story. This is sometimes called going beyond duality where the mind no longer dwells in right or wrong, good or bad. It is also called no self. But place these esoteric descriptions aside and all that needs to be worked on is the simple realization that thoughts are neither real nor are they “you”. They can be let go and, in letting go, beyond duality and no self arise naturally.


Do not think bad, do not think not-bad

April 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

Cherry Blossoms 0277A1

When a child grows up with low self-esteem, she may go through life feeling “bad”. If her up-bringing involved punishment then a fear of punishment and anger may be superimposed over the feeling of badness. If a trauma is then added to the mix, a fear of being attacked or of dying may then cover the fear of punishment. These coverings do not replace the original low self-esteem but merely mask the feelings it engenders; feeling that may, over time, develop into self-hatred.

Some may be familiar with Sharon Salzberg questioning the Dalai Lama on self-hatred. For his part, the Dalai Lama could not understand the idea of self-hatred because he could not fathom how anyone could hate his or her Buddha nature. His response raises the question of whether a proliferation of low self-esteem and self-hatred exists in the West that does not exist in the East. If this is the case, should not we in the West be careful when taking up spiritual practices that are designed for the Eastern psychology?

In The Gateless Gate, Koan 23, the sixth patriarch asks “When you do not think good and when you do not think not-good, what is your true self?”

The intent of the question is to have the student of Zen realize a non-dualistic state beyond notions of good and bad. However, a person with low self-esteem may inadvertently take this koan as a directive to reject all thought of his or her own goodness. Such a misguided approach would be detrimental to the mental health of anyone filled with self-hatred. Their mental health depends on the practice of self-compassion, not self-negation.

Perhaps, for the Western mind, Koan 23 might be better phrased as, “When you do not think bad and when you do not think not-bad, what is your true self?” This phrasing does not alter the essential nature of the koan and may help those with low self-esteem, as it does not encourage a denial of self-worth while the koan is explored.

One might argue that the teachings of the Patriarchs and past Buddhas do not need tampering as they have lead many to enlightenment. Yet we in the West have to consider that our psychology is not identical to the East’s. We also need to consider that even the Ways of Old are known to be dangerous when used by the wrong person.

Not all Eastern practices need to be rewoven for the Western mind. But if you find that a particular practice has become detrimental to your happiness and mental health perhaps you should consider that although you might be the “right person”, you have chosen the “wrong method”.

The cause of suffering

March 22, 2015 § 2 Comments

Willow 0754

The human mind, à la brain, is a unitary system. Although specific areas perform specific functions they do not work in isolation from each other. When an idea takes hold of one part of the mind it can spread to every part and come to dominant how an individual sees the world. This is how attitudes are formed. To use Carl Jung’s definition, an attitude is a readiness of the psyche to act or react in a certain way.

A subset of attitude is psychological contamination wherein a negative experience or idea colors and contaminates your view of the world. Contamination is marked by a denial or negation of the good of a previous state that has been overwhelmed by a negative experience or idea. It is through contamination that a passing feeling of unworthiness can spread to leave a child believing that every aspect of his or her self is “bad”.

Because contamination is marked by denial, the child with low self-esteem quickly learns to hide his inner self. The child begins to deny his feelings and takes no responsibility for actions that he believes will be met with disapproval or punishment if acknowledged. He begins to fear, then suppress, his own natural assertiveness and spontaneity.

This self-negation leads to a fear of discovery that if carried into adulthood leaves an individual with an undefined fear of being exposed or “found out”, though by this time there is no clear idea what is feared to be found out. It also leads to endless suffering in the form of anger control issues, depression, anxiety or addictions. Yet, if examined closely, it will be discovered that at the heart of these problems is the attempt to change what a person is into what he or she is not. And therein lies the crux of suffering.

Suffering results from the attempt to change what “is” into something it isn’t. Suffering results from trying to make yourself into something you are not.  Suffering results from denying your own true nature.

In a state of meditative self-inquiry you can see how your mind reacts with denial to what you don’t like. You may see yourself holding onto a belief even though part of you knows that it is in conflict with the real world and/or your true nature. If, for example, you get news that contradicts your core values, you automatically try to reinterpret the news so it conforms with your beliefs. This attempt to change reality into something it isn’t causes a great deal of stress and it is this stress that creates your suffering. Yet, when you name your self neither good nor bad, you open to your true self and the end of suffering.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the trauma recovery category at August Meditations.

%d bloggers like this: