Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Practice

I make no apologies for blogging about gurus, philosophy, or pop culture. Those topics are fun, interesting, and important. But the most important thing is practice.

“Practice” is what you do. It may be mental rather than physical, but it's always something more than believing or understanding. “Jesus is Lord” or “I am pure consciousness” or “Everything is One” may be OK beliefs, but they’re not practices. As Nike said – and Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS) said many years before – you have to just do it.

In the mid- to late-80s, I learned from ZMSS through spending time with him informally, attending his public talks, sitting retreats that he led and participated in, and having my first formal private koan interviews with him. He died in 2004, leaving about a dozen successor Zen Masters. The type of practice I do, and the way I understand it and communicate about it, comes mostly from him.

In this blog entry, I’ll talk about my practice, and hopefully other readers will respond in kind. Maybe we can do some cross-pollinating. In a separate entry next week, I’ll talk about the transition from my earlier yoga-style meditation when I followed Muktananda, to my current Zen-style. If there are readers who have gone through a similar process, integrating or switching between different practice styles, we can discuss it there.

My informal practice is trying to keep clear mind in all situations. Clear means empty, nothing at all, so acting with clear mind is just doing what I’m doing 100%. It means that when I’m doing computer work, I just do computer work; when I’m riding my bike, I just ride my bike; when I’m talking to a friend, I just talk to my friend; etc.

Of course I repeatedly get distracted by thinking: “I like this, I don’t like that, I want to get this, I want to keep that, this is good, that’s bad.” When I become aware of the thicket of thinking, I try to recognize it as insubstantial clouds appearing and disappearing, and return to the just-now situation, perhaps explicitly asking myself, “What am I doing right now?”

I use two special techniques to cut through thinking and return to clarity. One is mantra, inwardly repeating a phrase over and over. I use the mantra Kwan Seum Bosal, the Korean name for the thousand-armed Bodhisattva of infinite compassion. The meaning of the words don’t matter much; they’re mostly just a tool to help loosen my grip on any other type of thinking.

The other technique is to keep a Big Question. ZMSS always talked about questioning so strongly and sincerely that there’s nothing but Don’t Know. When I’m walking through town, for example, or riding the train, I’ll try clarifying my mind by bringing up a question like “What am I?” or “What is this?” Again, the exact words don’t matter so much. The point is to see existence as the total mystery it is. To find the mind that’s open, questioning, not-knowing, just reflecting each situation as it appears, like a mirror. When I notice that I’m holding some idea, I try to put it down, returning to Don’t Know and a clear perception of the moment.

That’s what I do in the midst of daily activity. I also do formal Zen practice, going to Empty Gate Zen Center 3 or 4 times a week for an hour or more of sitting, chanting, koan practice, bowing, and following various forms like wearing robes, lighting incense, and so on. In the Dharma room where we do formal practice, there are meticulous rules to follow. That means I don’t have to think about what to do; I just chant when it’s chanting time, sit when it’s sitting time, etc. This leaves me free to focus completely on how I keep my mind moment to moment. In addition to this regular practice, most months I’ll dedicate one or two days to a group sitting retreat.

Trying to keep clear mind during formal practice isn’t so different from making the same effort in ordinary life. Except for this: When I’m watching TV, for example, it’s easy to be attentive, since TV is interesting. When I’m riding my bike, I’m highly motivated to remain awake and aware, since otherwise I’ll get run over. But when I’m sitting Zen, being still and silent and looking at the floor, there’s nothing that’s helping me to remain present, to not get lost in memories or fantasies. It’s a worst case scenario, as simple and boring as it gets. Any moment that I can find clear mind while sitting Zen, it’s truly my own, since it doesn’t depend on the external situation. Since sitting depends on nothing outside, there’s the possibility that the clarity found while sitting can re-appear in any other life situation.

Sometimes evening practice at the Zen center feels like taking a mind shower. We take showers because ordinary activity makes the body dirty; practice is like cleaning the mind that’s dusty with the day’s thoughts. Sitting quietly, returning again and again to just-now mind, to the Don’t Know that reflects each moment… it’s like scrubbing the conceptual crumbs from the nooks and crannies of my brain.

I also work with koans (called “kong-ans” in Korean) with guiding teacher, Zen Master Bon Soeng (Jeff Kitzes). (Jeff is starting his own blog on the newly revamped Empty Gate site; check it out.) I find koan teaching an extraordinary and elegant method for pointing to the pure and clear truth of this very moment.

A great thing about doing formal group practice is that everyone automatically helps each other persevere. One of my jobs at the center is to run practice on Tuesday and Thursday evenings after work. If I've got some desire or agitation at 7pm on those nights, it doesn’t matter; I have to let it go when it’s time for evening practice. The fact that I have no choice but to be there makes it much, much easier. I don’t have to struggle to find a motivation to practice; I can just do it for the sake of supporting the other people there. If I don’t want to practice, I get to put down that I want, and putting down I want is the best medicine for suffering.

I guess that’s enough talk for now about my practice, about connecting with that thing that’s before words, speech, and thinking. More to come about my history with different styles of practice next week. Till then, I look forward to hearing from everyone else who’s willing to share their own practice perspective in the Comments section.

13 comments:

gniz said...

Hey Stuart,

Thanks for writing that post about your practice. Its interesting, because although I have a different way of getting there, it does seem to lead to the same place.
Obviously that final goal is to get to "now" and "now" and "now" with little else inbetween.
How we get there is another story entirely.
My practice these days is breathing and relaxing. I have a teacher who comes from no tradition, although he spent time with Osho in India. He doesnt deify Osho and only speaks about those times occasionally.
But what he has imparted to me, is that when the body is tense, it tends to "kick me out" and I go unconscious. I become lost in thought and dreams.
So for me, the practice is moment to moment awareness of my breathing and my body, and trying to relax and open to each moment.
This has a similar effect to other practices, in terms of bringing me into contact with the present.
Why I find it to be beneficial for me, is that it really connects the dots as far as WHY I keep losing attention on the present.
The moment my body tenses and stops breathing, I tend to go unconscious.
Anyway, that is my practice and obviously I discuss it more thoroughly on my blog.

Thanks again for posting this stuff, Stuart, and good luck with your practice. I'm happy that you've found a "path" that embraces truth and experience over dogma and servitude.

Sincerely,

Aaron

www.gangstazen.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Gniz wrote:

"But what he has imparted to me, is that when the body is tense, it tends to "kick me out" and I go unconscious. I become lost in thought and dreams.

"So for me, the practice is moment to moment awareness of my breathing and my body, and trying to relax and open to each moment."

That's so valuable and so simple to do, when we are fortunate enough to discover this for ourselves, or find someone who can point it out.

When my body and or my mind get tense or 'knotty', yes, that is exactly when I start to be evicted from the present moment--what gniz calls being "kicked out".

A friend told me that she went to an interview to do volunteer work at a hospice. One question she was asked was, did she know how to tell when she was starting to store tension in various parts of her body, and did she know which parts of her body routinely knotted up when she became tense?

Because that kind of ongoing self awareness is essential if you are 1) going to stay in the present moment and care for others and 2) assists you to recognize the earliest signs that you are becoming overwhelmed, in the earliest stages of distancing yourself and that you need to find out where you need to apply practice and if necessary do self care.

On one of the SYDA yoga comments on Marta's blog, someone quoted a description of meditation given by a Ramakrishna practitioner--

(quote)Several years ago, I read a three-part article on meditation written by a Ramakrishna swami.
I looked for it on the web and couldn't find it, so, sorry, there's no link.
Two things he said stood out for me.
He said that maditation is Learned . And that people who already dissociate, Should Not meditate. Ever.

And he said that children should not meditate before the age of 8 or 9. That their personalities and egos should be fully formed before they meditate.

He said, "You have to be Somebody, before you can become Nobody."

(unquote)IMO, that kind of dissociative meditation is quite different from the Zen practice described by both Stuart and gniz.

Some forms of meditation are dissociative and others, like zazen bring us to the present moment. Its very important that seekers recognize this distinction.

I tend to have problems with dissociation, so doing zazen is actually the very best thing for me, and learning to become more athletic and aware of my body was a tremendously helpful adjunct.

Pursing bliss states that are escapes from the present moment would not have helped me very much--one eventually has to come back down, anyway. Bliss states are delicious but are high maintainance--they tend to require heavy inputs of energy, effort, and often require special, protected settings, a lot of stage set up--and social validation.

In extreme cases, these dissociative mood states can become as addictive as the happy powder for sale down at the BART station.

A friend told me that centuries ago in China, many Buddhist monasteries were shut down when one of the emperers decided to suppress Buddhism.

The Chan (Zen) Buddhists preserved thier practice with little difficulty. They found occupations in lay life, or went to the mountains. All they needed to do was find some place to sit, and then kept the practice going while they went about doing the daily chores. Bare bones, low maintaince.

Dogen Zenji, the fellow who brought Chan to Japan in the 13th Century, got his first inkling of Zen when he had a conversation with an old monk who turned out to be the head cook (tenzo) of a monastery. He was purchasing mushrooms to take back to his monastery.

Dogen was puzzled that a senior, distinguished monk was doing this menial kind of work and asked why.

The cook said, anyone seeing a distinction between meditation and kitchen work had not yet discovered Zen.

Dogen eventually went to the cooks' monastery and found it out for himself.

We are in the present moment on the cushion, cleaning the john, cooking the soup. First you find it out on the zafu, then you discover its everywhere.

Stuart said...

did she know how to tell when she was starting to store tension in various parts of her body

Since Zen Master Bon Soeng is a therapist in his day job, he sometimes gives these psychology-style techniques. I like the practice of, for instance, when my thinking is anxious, to focus not so much on the thinking itself, but on exactly how it feels in the body. Meticulously examining the emotion at the level of body sensation seems to loosen its hold.

IMO, that kind of dissociative meditation is quite different from the Zen practice described by both Stuart and gniz.

Right! All the time I hear people making proclamations (like "Children should not meditate!") that treat "meditation" as if it's some monolithic thing. Of course if we're going to communicate anything worthwhile, we've gotta be much much more specific than talking about "meditation."

One person sits quietly with a mind open and curious to whatever perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and sensations arise moment to moment. Another person sits quietly with the idea that they're connecting with some magical otherworldly energy. Another person sits quietly, hoping to get to a special state that they've read about in a book, having been told by a guru that they must consider this special state as holy and God-like.

All these people can call what they're doing "meditation." All of them may look remarkably similar from the outside while they're doing this practice. But the most powerful thing is how you keep your mind, so since these people are keeping vastly different minds, there's really little similarity in what they're doing.

I far far prefer using a phrase like "sitting" rather than "meditation." "Sitting" seems a much simpler, non-jargony way of describing what's going on.

And I do wonder at the irony... there are people who do a meditation that appears exactly like my sitting Zen, but if they're doing it with the hope and intention of escaping the ordinary moment into a special holy mind-state... it's an entirely different practice.

Stuart
http://home.comcast.net/~sresnick2/socalled.htm
http://stuart-randomthoughts.blogspot.com/

M.C. said...

Stuart,

Don't you think that emphasizing practice, what we "do", is likely to distract from the nondual truth of what we "are"?

Stuart said...

M.C. said...
Stuart, Don't you think that emphasizing practice, what we "do", is likely to distract from the nondual truth of what we "are"?

But what is "the nondual truth of what we 'are'"? What are you? I've found one pure and clear answer: Don't Know.

IF we knew who we are (i.e., if our true self could be contained by knowledge), THEN we could be concerned about getting distracted from this knowledge. But we don't know; this don't know is like empty space or a clear mirror. There's nothing at all there to be distracted from.

In other words... the distraction would be to hold some idea of what "the nondual truth of what we 'are'" is. If we don't hold any idea, if there's only don't know, then when you're sitting you just sit, when you're eating you just eat, when you're talking you just talk, etc, etc.

M.C. said...

Stuart,

What is, is, regardless of whether or not some imagined person "practices" or not.

All discussions of practices, "getting there", "just doing it" etc. tend to keep the illusion in place. The whole belief that there is a person who needs to "do" something is itself the root of the delusion of separateness.

Stuart said...

M.C. said...
What is, is, regardless of whether or not some imagined person "practices" or not.

I don't see the option of "practicing or not." You're always doing something; whatever you're doing, that's called "practice." (Even if you lie in bed all day, that's still doing something.)

All discussions of practices, "getting there", "just doing it" etc. tend to keep the illusion in place.

Why do you make this idea of "illusion"?

gniz said...

I think i agree with Stuart. My experience is that when I just leave well enough alone, i am unconscious, completely unaware of who or what i am.
At least through "practice" i have some awareness of my moment to moment experience.
There may be a higher practice (or nonpractice), what MC calls this awareness of the nondual, but i have not yet found that to be possible for myself.

Stuart said...

gniz said...
At least through "practice" i have some awareness of my moment to moment experience.

Thanks as always to you (and to m.c.) for prodding me to examine these things.

For what it's worth... Zen Master Seung Sahn, when asked about the meaning and purpose of Zen, would say something like, "To understand yourself and help others."

If we define "practice" as what we do, and we agree that we're always doing something (even doing nothing is doing something)... then it's not a question of practicing or not. But of course we're constantly making decisions about what to do. What framework, what direction can we use in making those decisions?

gniz comment reminds me of something I've personally pondered... that if we don't put any conscious attention into why we choose to do this or that, we can fall into the default mode of only doing those things that we think will get us good stuff, good feelings, good situations, etc. The problem is that, strange as it may seem, always trying to get good feelings for myself turns out to be a highly ineffective way to get happiness or avoid suffering.

And strange as it may seem, the much more effective medicine for suffering is to make a decision to specifically do something that's not determined by wanting to feel good or to get something for myself. To do something, rather, with the intention of understanding myself and helping other beings.

M.C. said...

I'm not trying to be a smartass. Just providing some questions that were fruitful for me.

If we define "practice" as what we do, and we agree that we're always doing something (even doing nothing is doing something)...


Are we? Who is this someone who is doing something?

then it's not a question of practicing or not.


In order for a person to practice, there has to be a person. But perhaps this supposed person is just an appearance, an assumption?

But of course we're constantly making decisions about what to do. What framework, what direction can we use in making those decisions?


If there actually were a separate person making decisions, that would be true. I think that is the assumption that needs to be examined, though.

The problem is that, strange as it may seem, always trying to get good feelings for myself turns out to be a highly ineffective way to get happiness or avoid suffering.

Who is this "me" and "myself" who needs to "get happiness" and/or "avoid suffering"?

Is this person real, who we really are? Or is it a dream character?

I like how Felipe Oliviera puts it:


By imagining a person who is separate from this consciousness suffering arises and all kinds of teachings and activities arise to help the person to be free. It is not possible for a person to be free. The person IS the prison. When all has been tried unsuccessfully attention is turned onto consciousness itself and the spiritual evolution mind game comes to a peaceful halt.


Stuart said...

Thanks more, M.C., for your contributions here.

Who is this someone who is doing something?

The answer is clear and simple: don't know.

In order for a person to practice, there has to be a person. But perhaps this supposed person is just an appearance, an assumption?

There's the sickness of believing that this "self" or "person" is a real, substantial thing. In Zen, this sickness is called "attachment to name and form." The medicine is an understanding: "This 'person' is an imaginary assumption."

Taking this medicine and curing the attachment to name and form leads to a point that's called, in Zen, "attachment to thinking." "The self is imaginary" can be good medicine, but it's still an idea, still just thinking.

Just as we don't cling to names and forms, just as we don't cling to the assumption "the self is real"... why cling to the idea "the self is imaginary"? Why make ideas about "self" at all?

If we put down all the ideas, there's one pure and clear thing that remains, and "practice" is just a name for that thing.

If there actually were a separate person making decisions, that would be true. I think that is the assumption that needs to be examined, though.

Examining assumptions is wonderful; examining means questioning. Questioning points to the before-thinking mind that's named "don't know." But examining does not mean finding an answer. Any time I think I know an answer, I throw it away and return to "don't know." Why hold anything?

nobody said...

You write about these things very clearly. It's interesting, because even though I don't have a formal koan practice, I've lately been experimenting with the use of the question, "Who am I?" and a few others to work with awareness. It's very effective, especially when my mind starts to get dull and complacent in sitting.

Stuart said...

nobody said...
even though I don't have a formal koan practice, I've lately been experimenting with the use of the question, "Who am I?"

FWIW, when Zen Master Seung Sahn did public Q&A and people would ask him what koan they should start with, he'd immediately say, "What are you?" One function of a koan is to point to before-thinking, don't-know mind, and "What am I?" is a straight-forward way to do so.

He even initially gave a meditation technique of inwardly repeating "What am I?" on the in-breath, and "Don't Know" on the out-breath. It's not intended to lead to a philosophical pondering of the nature of self. The technique is to throw away any answer that might appear in your mind, and always return to the don't know.

(I'm assuming you're the same "nobody" who does the "Into the mystic" blog? I'm bad with names, so I have trouble remembering anybody, much less nobody. If you are, I've enjoyed your blog, having surfed there because of the high recommendation from gniz, who's blog I've also enjoyed. Today I finally updated my links on this page and now have pointers to both these blogs. Sorry it took me a while. I've been in busy mode with my work as a contract computer geek for months. Hopefully I'll emerge from the busy-ness before too long. While I may not be nobody, I sure do like doing nothing!)