Posts Tagged With: zazen

A daily dose of emptiness

A lot of the older teachings compare the teachings of Buddhism to medicine. Its an apt analogy for many reasons, if suffering is the sickness then the medicine would, logically, alleviate suffereing. The comparison works on another level as well, something that I only recently became aware of. Like medicine, Zazen and buddhism in general, seem to only be measurable in their results and not in the actual actions themselves. What I mean is that when you have a headache and take an aspirin the action of taking the pill does not bring instant relief (despite what the ads would have you believe), popping that pill does nothing for your headache at the instant you swallow it. Rather the medicine must be dissolved in your body and then travel throughout your bloodstream until it reaches the specific part you are trying to affect. After enough time has passed for all this to occur then you begin to feel the effects of the aspirin, you feel relief from your headache once the medicine has had time to be processed through you, not the second that you swallowed it.

I feel like it is safe to say that anyone doing Zazen (meditation) for more than a few months will develop doubts about it. After all, we are told over and over again that there is no goal to our sitting! Without a goal our normal, conditioned minds think “why the fuck am I bothering to sit here with my knees aching and my brain doing somersaults if there is no goal!?” Ive done it many, many times myself. At first I outwardly agreed with the “no goals” message while secretly hoping for some kind of pay-off like peace, or enlightenment, perhaps an end to my struggles or even just wishing for cessation of my desire for a goal! After awhile even those goals will go away and this then is when the “dark night” of the Buddhist soul begins, because once you stop secretly having goals the mind says “why bother?” and without that secret goal I think a lot of folks quit sitting all together, I quit a few times myself and thats when a funny thing happens…

See, the whole time you have been sitting “wrong” it has still been working on you. Like medicine you dont “feel” the effect at the moment of ingestion, the effects are only noticeable in how they affect the “symptoms”. If you have been sitting regularly and then skip a few days you will notice that a lot of old conditioning comes back, for myself that manifests as feeling very edgy and irritable, I begin thinking of scenarios and old grudges where I felt humiliated or attacked. The first time I quit meditation I was shocked at how quickly I turned into the same dissatisfied, frightened, angry person I had spent my whole life being. I was argumentative, unable to compromise or move passed a perceived slight, I just felt at odds with the world instead of in accord with it. Once I got my dumb ass back on the cushion all those negative habits and thought traps quickly disappeared. It still happens, I suppose I am “cursed” to meditate for the rest of my days but if all it takes to get my shit together is 10 or 20 minutes of meditation a day then I’m glad to do it.

The funny thing is that when I’m actually meditating, as in when I’m sitting on a cushion (called a zafu), I don’t feel any of this change occurring. It’s usually boring, often distracting as my monkey mind send one thought after another that I dutifully let go of and return to my breath. These days the knees don’t hurt anymore and I don’t find myself lost in a daydream for 8 of the 15 minutes I’m sitting for, but I also am not feeling more “peaceful, enlightened, or calm”, I just feel like I’m sitting and not much is going on. Now, however, I know that something is happening though I can’t feel it, the medicine of meditation is working on some level I can’t (or even care to) fathom. Amazingly, the years of doing “nothing” have produced something wonderful, a life I could never have imagined. I have learned to trust that when I take the pill by actually sitting daily that the suffering is alleviated, it’s not quick or “exciting” but it does work astoundingly well.

Even if I can’t feel it.

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the New Multi-post 3000! many subjects handled half-assedly in a hurry. . . ,.

1) The book reading/signing with Brad Warner was awesome! Not only did we fill the place to capacity (30 or so by my reckoning) but Kevin Sousa treated Brad, Cara, and I to dinner at his  Salt of The Earth restaurant! It was really fun and I was happy to host one of the more important authors in my life. Sometimes we get to meet our “heroes” and even more rarely they are sometimes as cool as wed like to think they are.

jsn n bradSpeaking of Zen. . . .


2) It’s a given in the Zen world that every person who gets “involved” in zen comes into the room with the “wrong” motivation. We want to be peaceful, to have less stress, to love more, better, or with more honesty. We want to improve ourselves, we want “enlightenment” or wisdom, at the very least we want to be something other than what we walked into the room as. One of the wonderful things about zen is that even if you start with the completely wrongheaded idea, doing it long enough and regularly enough tends to “work” anyway! One of the funny things is that we come to Zen looking to fix a particular problem or set of problems and eventually we learn that not only will we not get the solutions we are looking for, but that we aren’t even asking the right questions!

In my younger, poorer years I neglected going to see a dentist for a long time. I had good reasons for this, I was broke,  dentists are scary, and my teeth seemed fine to me. One day I noticed a spot on a tooth that I couldn’t seem to brush away, “oh great, ” I thought ” A cavity so bad that it’s on the front of my tooth!” So I went to the local college school of dentistry which offered extremely reasonable rates since you get worked on by recent graduates doing a sort of residency. After taking x-rays and examining I asked what the bad news about the spot was and the hygienist said “oh that’s just plaque” and popped it right off with a pick, on the other hand the x-rays had revealed severe bone loss and a need for immediate surgery and aggressive cleaning if any of my teeth were to be saved from falling out! In other words what i went in with seemed like a huge problem for me until the dentist showed me that it was nothing and that much more sever, undetected issue was at hand.

Same with Zen.

I came into zen looking for peace of mind, a way to make the whole world not scary and to somehow take away all the bad parts of my life while leaving the rest of it basically untouched. Well, just like my dissolving jaw line, it turned out that all the stuff which was out of sight, undetected, was causing far more harm than all the surface stuff i thought was the real problem. I don’t care how smart, wise, or perceptive you are, until you sit down and stay very quiet with your own thoughts for a little while you really can’t see what is causing the suffering in your life. It goes way way back and our minds have gotten so used to shouting it down and covering it up with superficial problems that we not only don’t know whats really going on down there, we don’t want to know!

Why am I talking about this now? Well for one thing, even with 10 years of meditating under my belt new things continue to be revealed as I sit zazen. The other day I was sitting, my monkey mind just beginning to settle down after about 10 minutes when something, a thought or realization i guess, popped in and I realized “I do a lot of things to be validated by other people!” It’s almost as if I’m always performing for an audience in the hope that someone (apparently anyone) will recognize it and pat me on the head saying “you are very good!” I recognize that lots (maybe all) people do this to some degree I realized how strongly it affected my sense of self! As soon as I had this sort of light-bulb moment I also realized that it was harming me, getting in the way of being a genuine person and easing suffering, I can now begin the work of undoing the habit.

Once again, I didn’t come to Zazen with the knowledge that what was causing my suffering was the set of habits and conditioning that had begun even before i was old enough to talk, but sit long enough and they come up. Sit even longer and slowly, inevitably, they go away.


3) Trayvon Martin.

I try to keep this blog as inoffensive as possible, however occasionally something happens (like the Sandy Hook School shooting) and I feel like maybe I have something to say. I wont address the murder and trial of Trayvon, and I think anyone who doesn’t have their head up their ass will agree that it is a fucking shame when a young person loses their life for whatever reason. Rather Id like to address the ridiculous  notion that somehow this case was not about race, and the even bigger fable that race is no longer a factor in this country. The right-wing pundit corral has even claimed that to mention race in this event is the real racism.

It is, of course, a load of shit. I have my own opinions on the Trayvon Martin case, but I think aside from this specific case the notion that we in the US are somehow “Post-racial” or that racism is a thing of the past is ridiculous. Anytime you have a society with a past like Americas you are going to have long-term fallout, repercussions, and ripples by which events of the past still affect the present. When a race has been systematically suppressed and given second best (or third or worse) opportunity for education and advancement then that group is going to be saddled with that legacy for a long, long time. The idea that just because black people are now granted equality (or at least lip-service is paid to their equality) can’t erase the result of generations of second class citizenship anymore than we can expect the oceans to repopulate overnight just because we stop overfishing today. Time, whether we like it or not, is required to right our historical wrongs as a nation. No amount of self-righteous “I never owned a slave, don’t blame me” can change the fact that generation after generation of black American has been raised with one boot on their shoulder holding them down. Both in historically overt ways (Jim Crow laws) and psychologically subtle ways (equating black people with “inherent” criminality) have created a chasm between black people and the rest of American society and no amount of right-wing self-denial can bridge it.

The problem is, most of the racist people in this country don’t even know that they are racist. By accepting the “common wisdom” that “we” are not racist, we deny the reality that is all around us.

We are born into a society with its own history, behavioral cues, and a class/caste system in place that we are indoctrinated with birth, like it or not, we are fed a series of non factual cues and stereotypes (about everything, not just people) that we generally swallow so early and is reinforced by our parents, teachers, media, and peers so constantly that we seldom question them. Sometimes when forced to deal with the reality of this unrealistic conditioning we stop, look around and get a tiny glimpse of reality and modify our worldview. Far more often, unfortunately, we circle the wagons and declare our dedication to the “party line”. As reality seeps further and further into our world, as I believe it always does, that facade of bullshit gets more and more brittle. its defenders more strident, and eventually, finally, the truth bursts forth like flood-waters and the new “reality” asserts itself. What a shame that it has to take so long and be fought against by so many who would rather cling to a clearly mistaken idea than to be uncomfortable for the short time it takes to become acquainted with reality.

Whether you or I  like the idea or not, the Trayvon Martin case was also about race. I see  it is an opportunity to examine my own biases and behaviors, it has caused me to think deeper than I normally do day-to-day about my own acceptance of the conditioning that this society has trained into me since I was a child. When something terrible happens, sometimes the best thing we can do is to take that shock, sadness/anger, and outrage and use it to look at our own world rather than turning the blame outward, its much harder to do, but in the end it changes the world for the better.

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Straight to the point

Apparently there is a holiday called “edge day” which began as a straight edge music fest in Boston more than a decade ago and which has continued to be celebrated every October 17th since. I myself do not drink or do drugs and haven’t since 1985 and yet I don’t call myself Straight Edge, although I used to.

I had never heard the term “Straight Edge” in the  early 1980s, I was a budding metal head/punk rocker when a friend made me a cassette tape labeled ‘Minor Threat’.  When I got that tape I had already fallen in love with punk, there was just something about the whole aesthetic which resonated with the part of me that constantly felt stifled by the silly conformist caste system of life in a Texas high school. For my entire life nothing has pissed me off more than someone (or something)trying to force me into a box. I wanted friends as much as anyone else but I just couldn’t modify myself to the level that seemed to be required to “fit in”. I have a big mouth and a personality that simply can’t just accept what is doled out, I need to know ‘why’ and if something seems nonsense or unfair I say it. Needless to say, this doesn’t make you a lot of friends with people who don’t like to think, for a clique to be a clique every member must be willing to shove aspects of their personality that the group deems “unacceptable” down into themselves lest the groups appearance of unity be threatened. I could not do this, I tried and failed miserably as an adolescent, and by the time I was 15 or 16 it was pretty clear that I was going to be a friendless loner since I couldn’t shut up and tow the group-think line.

Then punk came along. All of the sudden being iconoclastic was celebrated instead of the thing to be suppressed. I made a bunch of friends who reveled in being big mouth wise asses laughing down their noses at the jock-y, rich zombies who seemed baffled at our complete lack of interest in being like them! Even better was the powerful music that seemed like it was connected by a high voltage cable right to my angry teenaged soul. Social Distortion, Discharge, and the Circle Jerks spoke to me like no other music had, I was hooked. Those bands changed everything I knew about music, but when I put that Minor Threat tape in my beat up Walkman it changed my entire life! You see as much as I loved punk and the extreme metal that defined my life I found that most of my friends who were into the same stuff also were really really into getting wasted. I had just found my “group” and already I was marking myself out because I would not drink or get high. I felt like an alien, I simply didn’t understand why someone would want to be high, it scared me and the way that I saw people who were wasted acting didn’t do anything to change my mind.

So when I heard Ian Mackaye scream the words “I don’t drink! I don’t smoke! At least I can fucking think!” On the song “out of step” I knew I had found my band! It was an amazing relief to learn that there were bands like this out there, that I really was not alone. I had been straight edge before I even knew there was a name for it. To this day I will still get a chill listening to their music, almost nothing since has had that electrical impact on me the way those songs did.

From their lyrics and from interviews I knew that to Minor Threat being straight edge was a personal choice, something to demand of myself not anyone else. I liked the fact that it was a credo I already lived without requiring anyone else to agree with me. It was all the back up I needed to simply stand up for my way of life without shame or superiority. As I got older I discovered that some straight edge folks didn’t feel the same way. The 1990s spawned all sorts of flavors of edge and some folks took it as an excuse to form the same kind of cliques and jock-y gangs that had driven me into punk rock in the first place. All of the sudden it was a pissing contest and I lost interest in defining myself this way by the time I was in my 20s, I still lived the life of a straight edge person, but the sense of belonging which those words used to generate in me was gone.

When I began to study Buddhism it was immediately apparent how similar it was to punk rock on many levels (including the suggestion “not to take substances which cloud the mind“) with one important difference, one was admonished over and over to question everything, even Buddhism! You were cautioned never to believe anything just because someone said it was so, not your teacher, not even Buddha. There was to be no safety in lazy thinking. Ever. You don’t just abstain for drinking or drugs because zen says so, you look at why this is so in your own life. The precepts were not rules to govern someone elses behavior, it was the things that someone who was already enlightened did naturally, not because they were ordered to or because some god told you to, but because if you had your eyes open and had spent any time looking at the world you would understand that it was the best to way to live while causing the least amount of suffering to everyone (including yourself!) Punk and Straight edge almost got there but like most great philosophies they rely on things outside to make them “worthy”. Peer pressure and guilt can only motivate for a short time and then the pressure needs to be ramped up, eventually you end up with the same sort of power structure enforcing the “rules” that punk originally sought to disregard/destroy. In the end authority of any sort means giving up your own responsibility to think for yourself and, it turns out, this is what I had been rebelling against my whole life.

Meditate for a little while, daily and seriously and it wont take long to see a lot of your cherished beliefs and ideals drop away. It wasn’t long before I found that many things I felt truly defined me were becoming like someone elses clothes on over my own. No matter how nice the suit, when it was on top of my natural clothing it felt stifling and constraining. I was surprised to find that I ceased feeling the need to be smarter than everyone else, I dropped my knee jerk atheism, I stopped having to define myself as straight edge, or a punk, or even a tattooer. So while my natural inclination was (and is) to live a straight edge life, I found that it felt more natural and direct to simply live that way without labeling myself. Of course one of the other things I realized is that it was not my business or right to judge anyone elses life choice and so I have nothing but respect for my friends who have decided to identify themselves as Straight edge. Even if their way is not my own, I have tremendous admiration for people who live in a society like ours which constantly bombards you with messages and peer pressure to get fucked up rather than deal with life head on, and who stand by their ideals in the face of all the forces marshaled against them. I feel the same way, but the label began to feel like it was getting in the way of the real work of living a straight, sober life with compassion instead of superiority or pity.

Do I think that the world would be a better place if no one did drugs, got drunk, misused sex, or blindly followed religions? Ab-so-fucking-lutely!! But what I discovered is that the only way I could truly make that happen was by policing my own life, by judging  my own actions and choices, and only when I approached the rest of the world, the drunks and the straight edge, the right-wing and the left, the jocks and the punks as all part of one universe. Zen opened my eyes to the fact that we are like leaves on a tree, individual and yet all part of the same , giant organism. I may not like the way some folks choose to live but I can’t deny that I am them (and they are me) and so hate and judgement against them is just hate and judgement towards myself. It was both  a relief to discover this and a huge pain in the ass, sometimes it would be a great thing for me to still be able to say “fuck those guys, I’m a good guy and they are bad!!!” but these days I can’t do that without seeing myself in “them” and knowing I am just the same as they are. So I continue to live an essentially straight edge life and finding it feels much more honest to just do what I know is the right thing without labeling myself, it turns out that calling myself Straight Edge wouldn’t honestly show how strongly I live that life! Words and labels, in the end, are simply too small to capture what amazing and complex things we really all are.

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the reality gap

I’ve been reading some interesting things about the brain and how we look at the world lately. one o the more interesting ones ive run across lately describes the way that our ears get information to our brains faster than our eyes can and both of them are faster than touch and smell. Hearing has a more direct (though still not instant) route to the brain while visual info needs to be reoriented the right way up among other modifications to the raw info before our mind “perceives” what we are looking at.  The differences are measured in milliseconds and yet if our minds presented this to us the way it receives the info we would hear words before the persons mouth had formed them, and we would see our hand touching a hot pan before we felt it. In an effort to give us a clearer picture of the world. Like the jarring sense of wrongness when a television shows sound and visuals are out of synch, it would be distracting to us to try to live in a world we observed this way. Our brains take all this info and edit it together so that we can understand it, but this also means that, by necessity, that we are not really living in reality.

By the time we perceive what is occurring it is already in the past,  we have gotten pretty good at working around this fact but as anyone who plays a musical instrument or walks the tightrope can tell you, sometimes the gap is still too much. The gap between perception and reality means that for lots of things we do at a high level of manual dexterity the mind is actually a hindrance instead of a helper. To think about the 300 notes in a metal guitar solo would be impossible and to then consciously force the fingers into the right combination and pressure on the strings is a feat that at the very least would destroy any possibility of sounding effortless and the chance of a smooth improvisation would be nil. The solution is practice. It requires that we train the body, consciously at first, to do what we require without having to “be in the driver’s seat” the whole time, we need to teach the hands and ears to work at the speed of reality without having to send everything through the tollbooth of the brain and then back out to the hands to say “ok now hold down the E string for .25 seconds”. Many baseball players have commented that they don’t really “see” the ball in flight, they simply swing where they “know” its going to be, the more they practice the better their guess is and the more often the ball hits the bat (and if you count foul balls and tips, the ball hits the bat most of the time).

Add to this the idea that our eyes are not perceiving things in one continuous stream, and it gets even more amazing (and unreal). Our eyes take dozens of snapshots per second and our minds fill in the gaps between using the images on either side of the gap. this generally works, but sometimes it doesn’t and we walk into a parking meter or miss a step on stairs and reality comes quickly to us in the form of a bruise. This is why slow motion film is so fascinating, we see a drop of water hit a puddle all the time, but it’s not until its slowed down hundreds of times that we see the tiny explosion, the halo of displaced water, and the bubble of surface tension pushing back upward.

One theory of schizophrenia is that the person suffering from the condition is simply perceiving all this sensory input in the “wrong” order. He or she may see one thing while hearing what occurred seconds or minutes earlier. Imagine how disconcerting it would be to hear the voice of someone who had left the room already or to feel the touch of someone who you have yet to see!

This is one of the things that makes trying to control every little outcome of our lives to futile, not only is randomness and others expectations fighting against us, but so is the fact that we are only ever perceiving a part of the information out there! Maybe one of the things that Zen Buddhism does is to help us live in that instinctual part of the mind that lets us hit baseballs, pull smooth tattoo lines, and play guitar solos. Maybe meditation is practice for living a little closer to reality as its occurring the same way that practicing kung fu is for blocking a punch your brain had not even perceived was on its way yet? It certainly feels that way! I definitely find myself feeling far less “suckerpunched”by life when I meditate regularly, it’s not that I don’t get upset when things go wrong, but that I see them in their proper context  little quicker and small set backs don’t cause outsized emotions and reactions the way they tend to when I’ve been off the cushion for some time.

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Freedom from comfort

I am left-handed, having been thus since I can remember it’s not unusual for me to do things with my left hand dominant that most folks do right-handed. So when I began learning about Buddhism and sitting Zazen I read about the hand position one is supposed to take when in meditation. It looks like this

and is known as a Mudra (and , embarrassingly this particular one is called the “cosmic mudra”. . .). The position of the fingers is a good way of keeping your mind in the moment, if you start to get to spacey and distracted your thumbs tend to drift apart and if you are too intense and focused you tend to squish our thumbs together. The pose is not arbitrary and I have found that it’s a good, unobtrusive way of keeping your arms in a comfortable position for some time while still being aware of where your mind is.  Anyway,  I had read about this and done it a few times and without thinking about it much. A couple of years into my sitting I was with a group of folks who were sitting together and one of them pointed out that my mudra was sort of, wrong. I was cupping my right hand in my left instead of the other way around as was traditional. “So what” I thought “I’m a lefty and this feels more natural, it’s not a big thing so whatever.” And for a couple more years I went on that way.

Some years later I was attending some “zazen for beginners”  type class and we were all sitting nicely facing the wall. A monk was walking around silently behind us, adjusting a persons shoulders here, correcting a posture there when she got to me she gently reached down and rearranged my hands so that my right hand was cupping my left instead of my typical lefty pose. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I was doing it backwards for years, but I did notice that instead of thinking “It doesn’t matter” I thought “hmmmm I better start doing it right.” And since that day I have.

Now bear in mind that I sit by myself 99% of the time so I’m not worried about being corrected, and I don’t feel that there is something intrinsically better about the right hand under the left position, but I realized that there was a freedom to be had in following this tradition, in doing something I was slightly uncomfortable doing. I keep the correct mudra position for the same reason I sit on a cushion on the floor instead of a chair even though a chair is more comfortable, I do it for the same reason I sit in meditation when my brain would much rather be looking at the internet or playing a video game.

I believe that most of us have a rather mistaken idea of what it means to have “freedom” and I don’t mean in the patriotic sense of the word. We believe freedom means the ability to do anything we want, to live without any sort of rules and to be comfortable all the time , but if we really look at the matter it soon becomes clear that kind of “freedom” is really less free (and more painful) than the alternative.  Children who are raised with no boundaries, with no discipline and who are never told “no” or corrected often report feeling unsafe and unloved as children for in later life. Why? as strange as it may seem, setting boundaries and establishing the rules of a society gives a child a sense of order, and a sense of their being important enough to be taught how to function in that society. Take their structure away and you seem to be telling a kid “I don’t care what you do, I’m too busy for you.”

Also we all want freedom from any restriction but until we decide to accept certain ones our desires go nowhere. Dainin Katigiri once used the example of wanting to be a doctor to demonstrate. We want to be doctors, that is our desire, to be free to be a doctor, but to achieve this we have to go to school where they have a LOT of rules we have to follow. If you try to go to medical school by not following the schools rules then you don’t get to be a doctor. They kick you out! You might desire to be a graduate with a medical degree but you are only free to be a janitor til you follow the universities rules! By the same token  if you want to sit with a large group of meditators for a long time then you have to follow the rules or you will disturb the other practitioners. You might want to stand up and sing “Pokerface” but your freedom to do that will harm the freedom of everyone else to meditate without hearing your melodious voice. Often these sort of restrictions were put in place for very practical reasons, in a zendo everyone turns the same direction when getting on or off their cushion, this isn’t because some monk got on a power-trip, it is to keep everyone from smashing their legs into each other when they sit down!

In our modern, western world we have a lot of things designed to make us comfortable. Things like air conditioners, cushy chairs, soft clothing, all free us from discomfort. However it only takes a cursory glance around to see how quickly this leads to people feeling entitled to be comfortable all the time. Kids gasp if they are asked to walk 2 blocks to school, people get into a $50,000 luxury car and feel adgitated when the seat heater takes 5 minutes to warm their ass, when my wife, Cara, used to work at a coffee shop I watched open mouthed when people would send drinks back because they ordered their latte to be at 140 degrees and “this one is clearly 145 degrees.” Sometimes I’m amazed that people get tattoos at all, a very small minority of customers do say things like “ugh, can’t you give me a pill so I don’t have to feel this!?”

Our freedom to live in comfort has, ironically trapped us in a world where we are only comfortable at a specific temperature, hearing specific music, wearing specific clothing, surrounded by people who feed our inflated sense of self in a specific way. We are prisoners of our comfortable world, we are imprisoned within our “freedom”. Wouldn’t true freedom mean that we were comfortable in many variable conditions? Shouldn’t true freedom mean that we can function and be happy even when everything was not catered specifically to our particular preferences? If you could be settled and calm when it is too hot or cold, when your are hungry or anxious or tired, if you could remain steady when everyone else was losing their composure, then that would be true freedom. Putting my hands in the correct posture means I can sit zazen peacefully even when conditions are not ideal.

A lot of corporations have gotten rich simply because we can’t stand to be inconvenienced or uncomfortable for even a moment. I believe that 90% of the people on antidepressants are being done more harm than good simply because we are fed the myth that we must be “happy” all the time and that to feel sadness or discomfort is an illness. Why do we  want money, fame, power, or all three? Because we believe that it will bring us freedom to do whatever we want, the sad part of this delusion is that if you take a look at anyone with an over abundance of those things they seem far more imprisoned by it than the rest of us. . .

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Eyes on the (wrong) prize

In the world we have three basic choices of how we will interact with the reality. Under these larger umbrellas is a myriad  of variation, but at the core we all decide, consciously or not, to face the world as it really is via one of these attitudes.

1. we can accept the world as it is and attempt to align ourselves and our personal mythology (beliefs) to this state of “as it is”.  (Buddhism, Taoism, etc)

2. we can negate the world, perceiving it as an illusion or a place of punishment, our beliefs can be aligned to reject it totally and to see the “as it is” as something to be transcended by rejecting all the trapping of this  totally (Jainism, Hinduism, etc)

3. we can believe that the world is imperfect or impure but can be somehow corrected through our behavior, prayer, or attitude. In this view the “as it is” is faulty and requires rehabilitation through our efforts (Judeo/Christian, Islam)

I think its pretty clear that most of us in the western world were brought up in  the third worldview. Even if our families and friends are agnostic or atheistic it still remains that in the west we have a strong cultural tradition of “correcting” the world outside of ourselves. This attitude manifests itself in many ways besides our religious attitudes, our country was settled under the notion that the natural state of the Americas was wild and in need of taming, our forests were “wild uncontrolled places”. The native people of the Americas and Europe were considered ‘savages’ who could only be acceptable once they were “civilized”(often we “civilized” them to death). We don’t even accept ourselves as we are, we must be skinnier, prettier, richer, stronger, or in some way superior to the way we naturally occur in the world.  The very basis of our attitude, a belief that is so deeply ingrained in us that we almost never question it at all, is that things as-they-occur are just not good enough! Even those of us who are religious seldom pray for the willingness to accept the world as is, instead we pray for the change we desire to occur in ways that will satisfy us.

Joseph Campbell once said “This worldview expresses the notion that through certain kinds of activity, a change can be brought about. Through prayer or good deeds or some other activity, one can change the basic principles, the fundamental preconditions of life. You affirm the world on condition that it follows your notion of what the world should be. This is like marrying someone in order to improve him or her – it is not marriage.” (italics mine)

We believe that our happiness, our salvation, our very ability to live is dependent on how successfully we change the world to suit ourselves. We view anyone not actively involved in driving themselves crazy with all this activity as “lazy”, “complacent”, or even “cynical”. The very idea of putting ourselves in accord with the world is downright radical (and in some cases heretical)to most western minds. We demand that reality agree to straighten itself up and conform to our ideal.

The results of this attitude are all around us, we destroy enormous tracts of forest and habitat, we use antibiotics so profligately that we have bred super bugs like MRSA, we demand ever more highways and our cities sprawl outward like cancers, we assign anyone not in agreement with our world view a traitor or heretic, we punish instead of rehabilitating, we demand others do what we say instead of what we do .We go to war to challenge attitudes in other lands, we kill others and we kill ourselves.

We try to “fix” anything we come into contact with.

The word “fix” has several definitions and in this case two distinct definitions apply to this attitude. On the one hand the word ‘fix’ means to correct or repair and this is how we believe the proper way to interact with reality is. The other definition of “fix” is to nail something into place, to make it permanent, to make it solid, and this, not coincidentally, is the other problem with our western worldview. We try to take the dynamic and ever-changing world and freeze it into a simple black and white problem with a convenient black or white solution. The problem is that reality is bigger than our worldview. The other problem with our solution is that reality doesn’t give a shit what we think of it either.

There is, outside of all our notions, beliefs, and filters; a reality that simply happens. Stars are born and stars burn out, deer are killed by wolves and meteors wipe the life off entire planets in an instant, people fall in love and people fall off cliffs and none of it is good or evil, it simply is, it is reality and our ideals against that reality are as worthless as spitting to put out a forest fire. Even when we do manage to make a change it never, ever ends up the way we envisioned it. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. We try to do what we believe is “good” and the result is that we cause more harm, more suffering, more delusion!

The good news is that we are here and we are here in a form that allows us to make a choice with how we interact with the world. Animals can only act like animals and their path is more or less fixed by genetics and the environment. Rocks and rivers pretty much simply exist. We are the only sentient beings on Earth who can take in this glorious parade and decide to do something with it. According to some ancient Buddhist stories, even the gods are too caught up in being blissed out to see things as they really are, only us regular folk can do that!

When you sit Zazen you take a moment to simply sit with the universe as it is. And yes I mean that you literally sit with the entire universe, it might be the only time that most of us take to sit still and be quiet for long enough to let that happen. So what does happen? Well, for myself it turns out that eventually, slowly, the noise begins to quiet down and a lot of notions that I used to think were very much a part of this thing I call ‘me’ drop off. One of the things that falls away is the notion that the world isn’t “right” and that I need to correct it. I began to accept that there was a lot of things that simply occurred and didn’t require me to interact with them at all. Things like being super opinionated or argumentative went away as I became comfortable with the fact that other people simply are going to believe what they are going to believe and that it isn’t my job (or even my right) to try to “fix” them or their ideas. I also noticed that lots and lots of nice things began to happen to me, small things, but still an unusual amount of shit started to go right in my world once I quit trying to tweak everything and everyone around me to meet my standards. Lastly, I discovered that what I thought I wanted the world to be like wasn’t half as cool as the world that just happened once I put my small little notions of  the world away.

It turns out that what we humans think the world ought to be like is small and stupid and petty compared to its real state just as it is!!! I mean this literally, the world is trying to give us all that we need and more if we would just get the fuck out-of-the-way with our stupid notions and let it!

I have a good friend in Alcoholics Anonymous and she once told me that when she first started going to meetings she was asked to write down 5 things she wanted out of her life with sobriety. She did and  was told that if she stayed on the path of sobriety that not only would those things come true, but that in time she would look back and they would seem small and silly compared to what her sobriety would have given her. Sure enough, all her 5 “wishes” came true, but she told me that her life was unimaginably more rich and wonderful than the things she desired on that list, once she got out of her own way the universe (or god, or karma, or fate, whatever)  was able to show her that her desires were really too small for all the awesome gifts that the world was trying to give her.

So it is with us all, I believe.  We may not all be alcoholics, but we are all addicted to our conditioning. To our faulty view that we need to fix this world before we can be happy. The trick is that when we fix ourselves first, happiness comes on its own.

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Not One, Not Two

It’s impossible to start delving into Zen Buddhism without some preconceived notions about “what it is” before having learned or experienced anything for ourselves. This is generally how the world works, you hear about a good restaurant and that gives you the motivation to go try it out. Unlike a restaurant , however, most of the ideas that I had about Zen buddhism were way off base and after doing it for some years now i can feel confident in saying that everything I thought about it was wrong.

Which is ok, because the nice thing about Zen Buddhism is that eventually you find that you weren’t listing to the wrong answers, it’s that you were asking the wrong questions altogether!

Years ago a well-meaning customer gave me book to read that was by a 13th century samurai, the customer knew of my interest in Japanese history and zen and thought it might enjoy this book. The author mainly went on and on about how great it was to cut the heads off of other samurai and about how a good samurai doesn’t think, he just takes orders. Not exactly my cup of tea, but there was one passage I liked a lot, in a section about what samurai ought to think about religion the author wrote, “The Samurai should not study Buddhism, for the Buddha way teaches him to see things two ways when a samurai should only see things one way.” I always loved that bit, and im sure that it is true. If you want to be good at taking orders, slicing off heads for imagined slights, and extorting rice from the peasants then I suppose Buddhism probably would have made that harder.

At the end of the day there is nothing you can have heard about Zen, nothing you could read or talk about Zen that will give you any idea of it until you actually do Zen (which means sitting Zazen). You can read all about Oranges but until you taste one you really have no idea about what an Orange really feels like on your tongue. We don’t like the idea of this very much. We are smart, we know about going to the moon and curing diseases, we know about making energy from atoms and making 10,000 parts into a working automobile so why can’t we just know about Zen from books and others reporting?

It helps to stop thinking of Zen as something your brain does. It’s not a skill learned by reading the right books or reciting the right words any more than you can win a bike race by watching the tour de france on tv and reading cycling magazines. It also helps to understand that most, if not all of the really fundamental turning points in my Zen practice happened when something clicked in my Intuition, not my intellect. All of the sudden a lot of those wacky Koan stories and seemingly contradictory sayings in the Zen literature began to make some kind of sense on a gut level if not on a mental one (though im still pretty baffled by a lot of it) some things just seemed to begin sounding true. Not even true really, more like recognized.

Do you know that feeling when you are waiting for a friend in a busy place? An airport, a lunchtime cafe, somewhere with a crowd of people coming on going and you feel that tiny bit of apprehension as you scan each person looking for your friend, when suddenly there they are! At that moment you know that it is your friend, you don’t need to look at another person, you don’t doubt your eyes or  ask for their ID to confirm that it is your friend, you simply recognize this person you have known for years among all the unfamiliar faces going in and out. That is what it begins to feel like after a few years of Zazen.

You can’t take my word for it though, if you really want to know what Zen Buddhism is all about, try it and see what it tastes like.

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If you had to guess what do you think would be one of the most difficult aspects of being a Zen Buddhist?

Would it be sitting in meditation for long periods while your knees groaned and your mind ran around like a monkey? Or perhaps dealing with the realization that you can no longer hide behind your own bullshit? How about finding the motivation to continually rededicate yourself to a practice with the avowed goal of not having any goal at all?

Those are all challenges to be sure, but for me what has been harder than all of those things is the challenge of dealing with other people and their bizarre notions of what Buddhism is and does for you. Any time I lose my temper or become frustrated there seems to be someone to pop up and say “Huh, guess you’re not so zen after all!” or the person who acts aghast when I order a meal with meat on it “I thought you had to be vegetarian to be a buddhist!?”

Which is annoying a bit, but with the lack of information available to the general public and Zens difficulty to be described in a soundbite I understand these misconceptions. What seems extremely difficult to deal with, however, is the same sort of misinterpretation from other zen Buddhists! People who could and should know better , many with decades of practice under their belts and yet still labor under the most ridiculous notions and preconceived ideas, particularly about how others should act.

For example, the average non-zen person has a stereotype of a Buddhist as a peaceful, hippie type walking around and gently leading ants out of his way, never getting angry,  or ever having sexual or silly thoughts, and always deferring to others so as not to cause conflict.The sad part is that a shit-ton of Buddhists believe this garbage as well! Well its a load of shit and a real shame that so many folks get caught up in the idea of “acting buddhist” that they don’t bother to actually BE buddhist.

The problem is that we have all come to Zen with our own baggage and notions, our upbringing and cultural bias, in short we come pre-programmed with conditioning. We, all of us, have been indoctrinated with a set of filters by which we view the world and one of the first things we learn in Buddhism is that almost every single one fo these filters is not “true”. The very idea that we can take our minds and wrap them around reality is the very thing that we strive to undo in Zen, our way is to try to see and act in accord with reality as it really is, not how we think it is, want it to be, or fear it might be. We are so used to putting all the screens of social conditioning in front of reality though that’s its very difficult, even scary to try to live without them.

So you end up with so-called Zen Buddhists who feel that they have to act calm and peaceful and  “good” even when it’s actually inappropriate to do so.  These folks must live in perpetual fear of snapping in public where all their other fake acting friends will see and shake their heads “ah, he’s not very zen is he”.

The fact is that all the trapping of “being zen” originally occurred naturally as a result of the practice. You feel more peaceful because you aren’t filling you head with ridiculous notions (like “I have to act peaceful”) you may become a vegetarian because you become aware of the chain of events and suffering that eating meat entails, not because it’s the “Zen” thing to do this week. Being a Zen Buddhist means learning to act appropriately to a given situation as they arise, not with some pre-programmed ‘nice guy” routine, but as reality genuinely warrants. Sometimes being a Zen buddhist means you have to call someone a thief if they are being a thief, or punching someone in the nose to stop them from punching their girlfriend in the nose. if there is a nice way to do this then we try that way, but if it’s just not appropriate then we do what is appropriate.

We are not robots, no real Zen Buddhist is always Mr. Nice-guy (and he also isn’t Mr.Smug Dickhead on the other side of the coin) We swear, we have sex, we get frustrated and we deal with it all as naturally as we can with as few conditioned responses as we can. Ultimately its about being in synch with real reality not a prettied up pretend version of reality.Any Buddhist worth his time on the cushion has discovered that having expectations of others is one fo the best ways to remain in the shit-mud of delusion. Keep deciding how other people ought to act and you will, guaranteed, be disappointed time and time again.

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Why you gotta bring up old shit!?

Today at work a very talented tattooer that Cara and I will be sharing a booth with in next months Baltimore tattoo convention came to visit us. In the past year or so we have become friends with J and it’s always nice when you can say that about a local tattooer, far too often we (as in “we tattooers”) see everyone else in town as the competition, as potential enemies at the worst or as someone to compare ourselves to at best. The longer ive been doing this for a living the more I appreciate that in some way each every person “pushing the pins” has a role to play in our chosen field. It’s certainly more productive to consider all these other tattooers my colleagues than it is to consider them my foes. Which brings me to my next point.

This artist who visited our shop today works with another artist who I apparently was extremely rude to in the past. I used to be the typical mediocre tattoo guy who was so insecure that anytime some other person would come in and talk about learning (or wanting to learn) to tattoo I would gruffly dismiss them and their dream, regaling them with stories of how hard it is, how difficult they would find it, and how there was already “too many of us in this town already.” This was years before I became a Buddhist and years before I felt any sort of confidence in my own abilities, the result was a whole lot of tough guy bluster and a whole lot of hoping that folks didn’t notice how poorly I actually tattooed.  So I was embarrassed to hear that now that this artist still has some hurt feelings over the matter, she has since gone on to become a very good artist (and in far less time than it took me to be even passable). As I talked with J today he mentioned that one point he too had come into the shop selling his first set of flash and talking about his dreams of being a tattoo artist, and , you guessed it, apparently I was a douchbag to him as well.  Of course the irony is that not only have both people gone on to become really talented (through years of hard work) but that both remember at a pivotal moment in their tattooing careers that I was an asshole to them.

I d0 feel guilty about this and I certainly wouldn’t approach the conversation in the same way today (even if I believed the same things, I have learned better ways to say it). Im not losing sleep over it or anything, but i do believe that everything has a lesson in it.  In this case the lesson I have drawn from it is that some thing I had done in an off the cuff manner, something I have no recollection of,  has had ripples that at least these two fine folks remember. I’m not suggesting that they are traumatized by it but it has made an impact to the point that they remember it while it is long gone from my memories. That is not an  inconsequential thing to consider. We all bear scars in our memories of childhood, of school, of important moments when our lives were altered by another even if it is only the slightest bit. Being one of the few creatures with a conception of the past has  down sides as well as numerous upsides and one of these is that we don’t just remember the past, we relive it.

It’s a good reason to be a little more careful with how we treat other people.

When people begin studying Buddhism they often stumble on the idea of Karma. Everything else seems to logical and straight forward in Zen and yet here are all these otherwise level-headed Zen masters asking us to be aware of something that sounds like magic.  I sure did and the cause of my confusion is, like everyone, I had my own ideas of what words mean and to me karma meant some magical hand of justice punishing people (sometimes in another life, but we’ll get to reincarnation in a different long ass blog) for their sins in the past. The more I did Zazen though the more I began to realize that all the ideas I had in that sentence were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works.  I didn’t need to believe in a magical force because the results of Karma happen naturally, as naturally as the fact of you pushing a ball makes it roll. In this case I realized that 1)I had hurt some folks back when and it has caused 2)me to feel bad about it when I learned that it had made them feel bad. There it is, Karma right there with no magic  or outside force necessary.

So, you might ask, if Buddhists don’t really believe in a past or future then why do I feel bad for something that happened in a mythical past? In other words, if Im so buddhisty then why can’t I just say to myself “all that old stuff is just an illusion and doesnt matter”? It would be nice, but I can’t because all that bad stuff  from the past is happening right now.

the end.

Just kidding, I wont try to dodge the hard stuff that easily.

What I mean when I say  its happening right now is because each moment contains all the past and all the future right in it.  It sounds weird but all this is occurring countless of times per second, the universe is formed and destroyed over and over and we live each moment as a moment. Dogen once used the example of firewood. Firewood is just firewood, he said, it isn’t a tree anymore, and it isn’t ash yet either, however it does contain both “being a tree” and “being ash” in it. So even though I’m the guy who isnt-a-dick-to-beginning-tattooers anymore, I still have that guy-who-is-a-dick-to-beginningtattooers in me. I’m both at the same time even though one happened “a long time ago”. Yes its as confusing as it reads but if you do something to help you live in this moment a little more (like say, Zazen) it begins to make more sense than the commonsense notion of existence does.

Think of it like a piece of movie film, each individual frame is just a picture, a still life of a scene. If you were to run film, through a projector at 4 frames per second it wouldn’t look like a movie, it would look like a very confusing series of flickering stills and you would also see the black lines between frames. But if you speed that up to 24 frames per second all the sudden it looks like continuous motion. Our eyes , it turns out, don’t work in one continuous stream, rather they take a whole bunch of pictures per second, in fact it takes less than 24 pictures per second or else it film wouldn’t look like it was in motion, get it? Once you get up to a high enough series of flashing frames the effect is of continuous, flicker free motion even though the reality of film is that it is always just a series of still images. Life occurs in moments, each one unique and complete in and of itself.Its one of the many things that seem like a contradiction in Buddhism but that in reality works without needing us to “understand it” with our brains, intuition is the proper tool for that job in this case.

Whatever action we make contains its results already within it. It’s why no one ever really “gets away with it” and why Karma doesn’t require a guy on a throne with lightning bolts in his hand. If you kick a dog the seeds of that dog biting your leg in return are already within that action, if you treat people poorly then the fallout from that is in your action as well. The interesting thing is that the more deluded we are the longer the effect seems to take, we don’t perceive it because we are acting under the ignorance of rule of cause and effect, the more you sit with it however the less and less lag you see between acting and its fruits. Theres a reason Zen masters don’t go around kicking dogs and stealing porno mags from the corner store and it isn’t because they are “nice guys” (though they may indeed be nice, that’s incidental) once you become aware of karma and its inevitable-ness it just doesn’t make sense from a self-preservation standpoint to keep setting yourself up to get run over by Karma (my karma ran over my dogma. . .. har har).

So yes, the past is an illusion, and I’m paying for it now.

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Word up!

The written word, it turns out, is a really really poor way to communicate. I read an article recently about an emerging area of psychology that studies how and why we make decisions. Not the decisions themselves, but the method that humans generally use to determine things. It was pretty interesting but to me the most fascinating part was the fact that scientists discovered that people had only a slightly higher than 50/50 chance of reading a written lines a sarcastic or not. In other words, almost half the time we are likely to read a serious e-mail or internet post as being sarcastic, and vice versa.  Anyone who has gotten into an argument over a text message or email because the reader completely misunderstood their intent already knows this, the fact that it is almost impossible to have a civilized discussion online is further proof if any were needed.

Communication in the real world, it seems, can’t be preserved in writing without some loss of essential meaning along the line. In fact writers of fiction depend on this strange disconnect to make their medium work at all. If you read the line “the killer came running out of the alley with his axe raised” you mind fills in what the killer, the alley, and the axe look like, but it does more! Your brain also fills in what the lighting is like, how fast the killer is running, how he is holding the axe, and his expression, none of which was in the sentence at all. This is great for fiction, not so great for any other sort of communication where the writers intent needs to be understood explicitly and not inferred.

Writing is an attempt to put reality into a conceptual form. It’s a way to take a bit of the real world and make it into a form we can show other folks, but when we do this it turns out that the real world we wanted to show gets changed! What the next person reads is their version of our concept of what we were trying to say!

Ok, so what is my point? Simply this; we live most of our lives as misinterpreting the real world as much as others misinterpret what we write to them. Our minds are forever trying to put the real actual world into some concept that we can grab hold of. The result is that instead of the fluid ever-changing reality of being a person we become “a tattooer named Jason” and then instead of accepting that later on we are “a guy eating a salad” we try to hold onto it all becoming “a guy named Jason who is a guy who is a  tattooer who is a salad eater” and on and on til we have 5000 layers of things our brain feels like it absolutely MUST hold onto or else it wont have a “clear” concept of reality. The fact is that if i meet you face to face and we talk there is very little chance that you will misinterpret what I mean to say (and bear in mind that spoken language is still conceptual, but with all the other cues a face to face discussion has it far more direct than writing) .

When we talk directly, we have a (more) direct experience of the other persons thoughts, when we do zazen for a while we have a direct experience of he world itself.

Sometimes the brain is not a fan of this, especially at first there is the very palpable sensation of trying to hold onto its habitual patterns and routines. Yesterday i spoke with a good friend of mine who has been sitting for about a year now, he recently got his car totaled by a driver who was on her cell phone and rammed into his car. Due to her lack of attention and her crappy insurance he will be getting almost nothing for his ruined car, he said to me “I know I’m supposed to be more upset by this, but i just am not.” His mind knows that in the vast majority of his past this situation would make him stressed out and rageful and yet he isn’t.  We marvel at the fact that we can SEE our minds trying to take us to that habitual place of conceptualizing, but we also now just watch it go without biting the hook. Of course he was upset when the event happened, and when he first got the news about her insurance situation, but his displeasure came and went naturally, without holding onto it, without reinforcing it;  we find that strong emotions have a finite lifespan.

The world just can’t be put into a conceptual thought and still accurately reflect reality. We sometimes need to use these concepts to function but we can do so without holding onto them unduly. I can go to work and be a tattooer without needing to carry all the baggage of acting or behaving in a way that reinforces the artificial concept of myself as a tattooer ( like growing a lumberjack beard and drinking too much). In the same way that writing doesn’t really convey the authors reality, our habitual patterns do not really convey reality. Life, it seems can only really be experienced, not ‘understood’.

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