When we first start a meditation practice, we are often really surprised to see how active our minds are. There’s this cacophony of thought that’s always sort of in the background, and as we get to know our minds through meditation, we see how this continuous flow of thoughts shapes much of our moment-to-moment experience. After a while, we start to develop some skill at being aware of these thoughts even when we are off the meditation cushion, and that gives us some flexibility in how we respond to events. It’s quite powerful, and it has the potential to fundamentally re-shape how we relate to others.
Even after many years of meditation, though, I think many of us still have a little bit of an idea that our minds should somehow be quieter than they are. We may think, at some level, that zazen is only what happens in the quiet spaces between the thoughts. When we’re thinking, maybe that’s somehow not practice, but when our minds are quiet for a few seconds, then that’s when the practice occurs.
The point of our practice isn’t to clear out our minds, or to stop thinking. At first, our practice is just about getting to know the habitual patterns of thought that are always bouncing around in our minds and to find a little space so that we aren’t just completely tossed around by our mind. And at a deeper level, we may come to understand what is meant in the Heart Sutra: ‘form is emptiness, emptiness form’. We may come to understand that this means that the very thoughts that are always spinning around, habitual and anxious, and that we think we need to change, are themselves a complete manifestation of Buddha’s life, right here, immediately, with no need to change much of anything.
This idea is described in a really interesting recent essay by the poet Christian Wiman in the magazine ‘The American Scholar’. He talks about this idea from a Christian perspective, and I wanted to talk about it a bit tonight, and how his ideas relate to our Soto Zen practice. Here’s what he has to say:
During a dinner with friends the talk turns, as it often does these days, to the problem of anxiety: how it is consuming everyone; how the very technologies that we have developed to save time and thereby lessen anxiety have only degraded the quality of the former and exacerbated the latter; how we all need to “give ourselves a break” before we implode. Everyone has some means of relief—tennis, yoga, a massage every Thursday—but the very way in which those activities are framed as separate from regular life suggests the extent to which that relief is temporary . . .
THE GREATNESS of James Joyce’s Ulysses is partly in the way it reveals the interior chaos of a single mind during a single day, and partly in the way it makes that idiosyncratic clamor universal. However different the textures of our own lives may be, [Leopold] Bloom’s mind is our mind; the welter of impressions he suffers and savors is a storm we all know. And that is the book’s horror too: some form of this same fury of trivia is going on in the mind of every sentient person on the planet. How much cruelty is occasioned simply because of the noise that is within us: the din is too great for us to realize exactly what we are doing to others, or what is being done to others in our name. Thus an offhand remark, which leaves us as easily as a breath and which we think no more of than a breath, cuts a friend to the quick. . . Life has accelerated greatly since Joyce’s time, and now, as our selves scatter into bits and bytes, and our souls, if we are conscious of them at all, diminish to little more than a vague wish for quiet, even the linear associativeness of Ulysses can seem quaint.
HOW DOES one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life? It is one thing to encourage contemplation, prayer, quiet spaces in which God . . . can enter the mind and heart. But the reality of contemporary American life—which often seems like a kind of collective ADHD—is that any consciousness requires a great deal of resistance, and how does one relax and resist at the same time?
. . . the Catholic nun, Sara Grant, speaking about, and quoting from, the Kena Upanishad (said): “Brahman is not ‘that which one knows,’ but that by which one knows, as though a crystal bowl were aware of the sun shining through it. ‘When he is known through all cognitions, he is rightly known.’” But . . . you could quote Christ himself in support of this idea: “To believe in me, is not to believe in me but in him who sent me; to see me, is to see him who sent me.”
This is emptiness in form. All specific, mundane things are a manifestation of the ultimate. Can you recognize emptiness through all cognitions? Can you see that all things are embodying Buddha’s life?
I do think, though, that both the problem of, and the solution to, our individual anxiety is a metaphysical one. . . It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music which, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we are giving to other things. It is not hard to hear this music, but it is very difficult indeed to learn to hear it as music.
THE MEANINGS that God calls us to in our lives are never abstract. Though the call may ask us to redefine, or refine, what we know as life, it does not demand a renunciation of life in favor of something beyond it. Moreover, the call itself is always comprised of life. That is, it is not some hitherto unknown voice to which we respond; it is life calling to life. People think that diagnosing the apostle Paul with epilepsy or some related disorder nullifies any notion that God might truly have revealed something of himself on that road to Damascus. But God speaks to us by speaking through us, and any meaning we arrive at in this life is comprised of the irreducible details of the life that is around us at any moment. “I think there is no light in the world / but the world,” writes George Oppen. “And I think there is light.”
THERE IS A DISTINCTION to be made between the anxiety of daily existence, which we talk about endlessly, and the anxiety of existence, which we rarely mention at all. The former fritters us into dithering, distracted creatures. The latter attests to—and, if attended to, discloses—our souls. And yet it is a distinction without a difference, perhaps, and as crucial to eventually overcome as it is to initially understand, for to be truly alive means to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence, to feel one’s trivial, frittering anxieties acquiring a lightness, a rightness, a meaning. So long as anxiety is merely something to be alleviated, it is not life, or we are not alive enough to experience it as such.
AT FIRST, attending to the anxiety of existence can seem like a zero-sum game. Any attention turned toward the truth of the spirit is attention turned away from all we have come to think of as “life.” Thus we parcel out our moments of devotion—a church service here and there, a walk in the woods, a couple of hours of meditation a week—all the while maintaining the frenzy of our usual existence outside of those moments. This is inevitable, for the initial demands of the spirit are intense, but it is not sustainable, for the soul is not piecemeal. We are left with this paradox: only by hearing the furthest call of consciousness can we hear the call of ordinary life, but only by claiming the most mundane and jangling details of our lives can that rare and ulterior music of the soul merge with what Seamus Heaney calls “the music of what happens.”
Our practice of Soto Zen Buddhism includes both form and emptiness. It is through the form of our practice – the way we sit in the zendo, how we bow, how we walk, how we chant – that we realize emptiness. It’s not that there’s something special or magical about the postures or the schedule, but because we don’t realize emptiness in form in our daily lives, we need to do something special to remind us. Over time, we may start to experience our spinning minds and our busy daily lives with a warm feeling in the heart, a feeling that maybe we could call meaning, but it’s a sense that, at least maybe, this life really is Buddha’s life.