Non-thinking

February 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

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When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked, ”What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”

 

Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”

 

The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”

 

Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

 

This brief Zen story may seem abstruse but when ‘thinking not thinking’ is interpreted as not following thought, it falls into place with meditation as the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment.

We come to realize the extent of our distraction only after some attempts to practice being in the present moment. We find that our days have been spent watching thought play out on an inner screen. The stories we’ve projected about life, what people say about us, and what we think about ourselves, we’ve taken to be real. And we come to see that we’ve been interacting with these stories more than we have to the actual world.

To stop this we must first create an intention not to follow thought or, as Yaoshan said, ‘think not thinking.’ One way of doing this is described in the yoga aphorisms of Patanjali. He described thoughts as waves that have a certain force that must be countered by opposing waves of thought. Hateful thoughts, for example, are to be countered with thoughts of loving-kindness. By continually creating opposing waves of thought, the mind is eventually stilled.

In other practice thoughts are simply labeled as ‘thinking, thinking, thinking’. Emotions are identified as ‘fear, fear, fear’ or ‘boredom, boredom, boredom’, etc. The same is done with other distractions such as noises or physical discomfort. All distractions are labeled and the attention is returned to the present moment. In this way the mind uses thought to not follow thought.

Labeling thought has its place with simple distractions but there are more complex aggregates of thought and emotion that are not so easily named. These are the thoughts that are identified as self, and they naturally arise with thoughts that stand in opposition to the self. In psychology these opposing forces have many descriptors like the id and superego, the inner child and internalized parent or the underdog and the top dog. However they’re called, the conflict they produce may often make it impossible to simply sit and be in the present moment.

Holding these opposing forces up for thoughtful examination often helps to clarify and resolve conflicts. The aim is not so much psychoanalysis but a genuine attempt to realize these forces as merely thoughts that do not need to be followed or obeyed. When, for example, an inner parent has you feeling like a child again, by continually comparing your inner situation to the outer, i.e., the present moment, you come to realize that the parent exists only in your mind. Seeing this clearly means there is no need to follow the parent’s dictates, if they are not appropriate to the situation. It may have been in part related to these conflicts that Zen Master Dogen said, “Sometimes you study the way by casting off the mind. Sometimes you study the way by taking up the mind. Either way, study the way with thinking, and study the way with non-thinking.”

In the beginning of practice it is necessary to use thought to stop following thought. But when the intention not to think has become so established that it is carried out without thinking, as in a habit, thoughts are dropped automatically. Awareness of the present moment then arises naturally. That moment may still contain thoughts but they remain off to the side, so to speak. This alert awareness is non-thinking.

Non-thinking is not some far off goal. Whenever we are alert and momentarily not following thought; that is non-thinking. Whenever awareness is centered in the present, this is non-thinking. These may not be states that occur often in our practice but they are something we can experience today. And that is our practice, to take our isolated moments of non-thinking and turn them into a continuous string of never ending pearls.

The Ocean of Consciousness

January 21, 2017 § 5 Comments

heron-by-the-sea

Meditation is the continuous waking to the present moment from distracting thoughts. This description implies a need to learn the difference between thinking and non-thinking. In practice this means we must be as the heron that has one eye out for food, while the other looks steadfastly to the sky.

It is a sad fact that the vast majority of humanity is so caught up in distraction that life seems barren without it. There is little of the light of the higher life in these masses who disdain the silence of meditation in a fruitless quest to satisfy their cravings.

Above the majority are those whose circumstance and desire has enabled this light to burn a little brighter. These are the quasi-intellectual, semi-cultured ones who often gravitate towards ideology and dogmatism. In these the conceit of ego often erupts in senseless disputes that may at times lead to political chaos and even war.

There are fewer still above these two lower levels who, though still possessing of ego, have learned to put it aside in favor of humanity. We may say of them that their stream of thought is actively dedicated to helping others.

For the most part, thinking dominates the minds of all who are led by ego and desire. In the actual day-to-day experience it plays out as an on-going dialogue and stream of emotion that is often described as a movie projected onto an inner, mental screen. To the greater mass of humanity this movie is fragmented and chaotic. The quasi-intellectual may have more of a story line but it is the rare few above them whose movies may be of ‘epic’ proportions.

For those who meditate and practice mindfulness it may take a long time before they can just observe their movies without being caught up in them. The individual suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder provides an extreme example of this.

For most of us, even when focused upon a simple task the mind plays a story that we soon find ourselves following. When we become aware of this we can usually drop it and return to the task. For the individual suffering PTSD, however, there is no end to the movie. Worst still, the  movie doesn’t just involve the mind but has the entire body reacting to the horrific images being screened. And at the height of anxiety the movie may even jump off the screen into the outside world, leaving the individual feeling as if he or she were trapped in a theatre with no exit.

Whereas PTSD is produced by trauma, our movie producers are our culture, family, personal talents and other attributes that go into making us who we are. It is because our movies are so intricately involved with our identity that they are difficult to drop. And why when we persist on the path that a point comes when anxiety sets in. This anxiety is a signal that we are loosening the very attachments that make us feel safe and secure. Having pruned the tree of distraction, we begin to realize that we must leave its cool shade if we are to fully enter the light.

This is where many fail to progress to the next level that we may call Cosmic or Transcendent Consciousness. The ego, in sensing a Voice that says “I am I yet also Others,” fears the loss of its personal identity. So it hesitates. But if we continue to set one eye on the sky and the other on what lies below the surface, we will eventually see that we’ve been standing in an Ocean of Consciousness, all along.

Liberation

December 31, 2016 § 1 Comment

dongyu-gatsal-ling-nunnery-calendar(Click on image to go to Dongyu Gatsal Ling website.)

Practice is the continuous movement from distraction to the present moment. Awakening from distraction to the reality of the moment is enlightenment. As Kosho Uchiyama said, “The only true enlightenment is awareness of the vivid reality of life, moment by moment.”

We only know life as vivid reality when we attend to it fully, without distraction. Until that moment, it seems as if life has placed a pane of glass between it and us. This feeling of separation comes from having attached qualities to the self that it does not properly have, like anger or loneliness. As these qualities are distinct and discrete it is falsely supposed that the self is, too. There arises the fiction of a separate body with its own life and own needs.

The belief that awareness requires a ‘somebody’ who is aware is, in the final analysis, just another thought. Like other thoughts, it distracts from the immediacy of the present moment with questions like, “How will this affect me? And, “What’s best for me?”

We can take that thought, that sense of self, into practice and observe it, just as we do with any other distraction. In observing what we thought was our self, the question will necessarily arise as to who is doing the observing. “Who am I?” we ask.

I, as observer, will ultimately be revealed to be no self, at all. As we step further back from what was thought to be a permanent, separate self our consciousness empties of thinkable content. To quote Tenzin Palmo, “the further back we go the more open and empty the quality of our consciousness becomes. Instead of finding some solid little eternal entity, which is “I”, we get back to this vast and spacious mind which is interconnected with all living beings. In this space you have to ask, where is the “I”, and where is the “other”.”

As Sri Aurobindo wrote it in the poem “Liberation”,

I have thrown from me the whirling dance of mind
And stand now in the spirit’s silence free,
Timeless and deathless beyond creature-kind,
The centre of my own eternity.

I have escaped and the small self is dead;
I am immortal, alone, ineffable;
I have gone out from the universe I made,
And have grown nameless and immeasurable.

My mind is hushed in a wide and endless light,
My heart a solitude of delight and peace,
My sense unsnared by touch and sound and sight,
My body a point in white infinities.

I am the one Being’s sole immobile Bliss:
No one I am, I who am all that is.

Distraction

December 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

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The more we practice, the more difficult it seems to stay in the present moment. Hardly a moment goes by that we are not drawn into some pleasant fantasy or actively engaged in some inner act of denial. When walking, our minds are elsewhere. When listening, we are formulating a response. It seems that all that’s needed for a new distraction to arise is a turn of the head or a blink of the eyes. Yet distracting thoughts have not increased. Practice has simply made us more aware of their presence.

Lest we become discouraged, remember that just before his great enlightenment the Buddha’s mind was filled with images of greatness, riches and beautiful women; followed by frightening images of armies threatening his life. These, we are told, were caused by the demon Mara. But if we strip away the mythology are they not just distractions? The same distractions you and I have everyday? If so, it seems that up to the moment of his enlightenment, the Buddha’s mind was not unlike our own.

The Buddha saw through his distractions. We, on the other hand, have yet to penetrate the fog of distraction that stands between the world and our awareness of it. When we sit in practice, however, this fog begins to reveal itself as our own judgments, fears, hopes and desires. It is these we drift into in our effort to stay in the present moment. It is our deepest fears and greatest longings into which we are pulled. “Desire,” said some adept, “is never-ending. The mind is always thinking.”

Through mindfulness practice we see this fog descending upon our awareness in daily life. Yet it is just because we are more aware of our distractions that we are better equipped to wake from them to the present moment or, that is, our actual surroundings. Admittedly, we are like the dreamer who only dreams he is awake but that, at least, is a start.

If we are diligent in our practice some small hints of what’s to come will appear. These will be brief glimpses of the unreality of thought. It will be easier to resist falling prey to fear and anger. Desire may take a bit longer as we find ourselves praying, as St. Augustine did, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Nevertheless, if we have reached the point where we see a difference between the awareness of now and the distracted state, we have created a foundation to deepen our practice. And, we have taken the first step on the long path to Buddhahood.

Squaring the Circle of All-Encompassing Awareness.

November 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

evolution-of-thought-3a

There is a simple power that grows as we learn to just sit in the present moment. Each time we return to the moment from distracting thought and emotion this power grows. Each time we disengage from the constant chatter in our heads, it becomes stronger. At first we do not notice anything different. Yet behind the stories we endlessly tell in our heads there is a change going on. Deep within, adjustments are being made. These we need not attend to. In fact, we cannot attend because they are taking place in a realm beyond thought. All we need do to promote it is to just sit. This power is the power of awareness squared.

In mathematics, a square is the result of multiplying a number by itself. In life, awareness is squared when it becomes aware of itself. It is Life realizing Life! In meditation and mindfulness, awareness is squared when there is a continuous waking to the present moment from each distraction.

Waking is a good word as we are always aware but not always awake to this simple fact. At any given moment we experience many things. The breath, the pressures of clothe on the body or some distant sound. All lay within the awareness even though we are not attending to them. When we turn to these sensations we do not say we were unaware of them. We know we were. We were just not aware that we were aware.

In the practice of meditation and mindfulness we cultivate the awareness of being aware or, if you like, awareness squared. It starts with the simple act of focusing upon a single object or activity. As the mind settles on this activity it becomes aware of being aware of the item. This awareness squared is not long maintained, however, as the mind soon slips back into distracting thought and feeling. When the mind becomes aware of this distraction it brings its attention back to the meditation object or activity. Again and again this dropping from awareness squared to awareness and back again takes place, all with the aim of training the mind to remain mentally alert.

Over the course of weeks, months and perhaps years, practice unfolds as a matter of continuously returning to the present moment from each distraction. During this time many things are happening behind the scenes, not the least of which is the appearance that thoughts are becoming more and more numerous.

In spite of appearance, thoughts are not becoming more numerous. They are always arising in a manner that neither increases nor decreases their number. What in fact has happened is that the awareness of thought that has always existed has been squared. The mind has become aware of all the thought that has been going on all the time.

Just as certain sensations (as in the above example of clothes and sound) always exist in awareness, so the mind is constantly thinking. It takes an act of effort to be aware of this thinking and a continuous effort to maintain this awareness. Even with effort there is no initially awareness that these thoughts lack substance and exist only in the mind’s imagination. Only through constant practice does this awareness develop.

When the awareness squared has reached a certain level of maturity the mind will have a sudden insight and see that thoughts are just thoughts. They are not things that exist in the outer world but insubstantial dream illusion with no power to rule or dictate the terms of how you are to live and feel. For that brief instant the mind is free from the tyranny of thought.

If the ground has been properly laid there may arise a deeper awareness that the self, too, is just a thought or construct in the mind. The identification with thought will stop, if only for a moment, but there will remain a lasting Value regarding the true nature of self. The self is not thinkable. Identity lies outside the realm of thought where it sits watching the ever-flowing stream of thought.

This, by the way, is not the end of practice. It is just the first resting place along the Path.

The Nature of Thought

October 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

thinking

Meditation is the practice of keeping the mind awake in the present moment. It is awareness without mental commentary. “When we are mindful,” says the Buddhist nun, Tenzin Palmo, “there is no commentary.”

The mass of humanity is closely identified with the mental commentary that streams through their heads every minute of every day. While so identified, people believe that they are these thoughts, and that what they think must be right and true because it is who they are. Meditation aims to curtail this belief through a continuous process of waking up from this mental commentary. This is not an exercise in self-analysis but it may include an analysis of the nature of thinking to break its hypnotic allure.

Part of thought’s allure is that it seems real. This seemingness leaves us believing that what we think is something that actually exists outside of our heads. We become convinced that thought is something we must deal with. And the way to do that is through further thinking that only leads to more thought and more things to deal with.

One quality of thought is what I like to call ‘looping’. The idea is taken from the days when magnetic tape was used to record sound. When the ends of that tape were joined the tape would loop around, playing the same thing over and over again. A lot of thinking is like that. What we felt and thought yesterday is replayed today, and will be replayed tomorrow in an endless loop. (Something to consider when you think mindfulness is boring!)

Identification, the seeming reality of thought and its loopiness, affect us in many ways. Like a sound fading into the background when heard over and over, loop thoughts fade to lower levels of awareness. If we are not actively engaged in some outer activity we follow them down into a bubble of thought that dims our awareness of the present moment. There, we  make the same judgments, have the same desires and feel the same anxieties over and over. All the while believing we are engaged with the real world.

We can easily see others caught up in their bubbles, such as the person who believes his way is the only way. Or in the person who exhibits compulsive behavior or suffers Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is harder to see our own bubble but it’s there, acting to distort our perception of the world and self. When we start to practice meditation and mindfulness the true extent of this bubble starts to show.

To again quote Tenzin Palmo, “…the difference between being aware of the thought and just thinking is immense. It’s enormous…” When caught in our bubbles we are just thinking. When we practice waking up to each moment we are aware of the thought. We see that they are just recordings. We see that we are continually reacting to them as if they are real. And we begin to question whether we actually are what we think and feel; or someone and something more?

I ask Master Hakuin for spiritual direction.

October 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

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