Recently, I was asked “How do we do battle with our interior demons of doubt, self-deprecation, anger, fear, boredom, flights of fantasy, future thinking, obsessive thinking, past replaying, etc.?”
There is a way to turn this heavy morass of conflicted confusion into gold, but how? I begin by suggesting that we turn our “enemies” into “allies.” We must learn how to neutralize our interior demons by witnessing and naming them rather than angrily blaming and judging ourselves or others. My experience tells me this is a lot easier said than done. Just how do I do this when I am on the cushion? There once was a Japanese swordsman who said the best way to rid oneself of dis-ease was to keep company with it, but just how does one keep company with dis-ease and not get drowned by it?
The best advice I can give is to do what works for you based on your own experience. When we were toddlers and learning how to walk, no one could teach us how to do it; only through painful experimentation did we finally learn how to put one foot in front of the other and keep our balance. The same is true for learning how to keep afloat in the midst of a raging sea of conflicted confusion.
When we drown in our own mental turmoil we slowly learn what doesn’t work. It doesn’t work to fight or push the waves of mental disquiet into being quiet or still. This kind of effort to stop or push away mental activity only makes things worse, and quickly exhausts our energy. There are still sits even today when I drown more than I float. But on the whole, through years of practice, I am slowly gaining the ability to artfully float in even the roughest seas.
I have found that there are ten steps or challenges that usually must be met before our limited sense of mind can consciously merge with limitless, unrestricted, “Blue Sky” Mind (a.k.a. No-Mind, or Mu-shin). At any point along the way we can lose our balance, or our ability to float, and drown in a morass of our own confusion. The ten challenges are as follows:
1) Finding a good posture and physical balance while sitting, standing, walking or working; without it we will not float at all.
2) Developing exquisitely slow, gentle, deep breathing, without which we will drown quickly. We can demonstrate accomplishing this step by repeatedly counting off ten slow gentle exhalations without much distraction or effort.
3) Listening to the five primary senses that report the environment around our physical form. If we can’t remain aware of at least this much input from the here and now then we have already sunk.
4) Listening to the interior senses that report the breath rising and falling, the heart beating, the blood circulating, and the interior comfort and discomfort zones. If our mind can not remain aware of these more subtle forms of information then it is time to back down these steps and gently work forward again. While doing zazen we all eventually feel chased by the pain in our legs; when we fight it or try and run away from it then we are demonstrating our lack of capacity to sit and listen to physical sensations.
5) Listen for, or becoming aware of, our own interior balance point, or center of gravity. If we can get this far then we have started to float, i.e., enter the initial realms of conscious samadhi.
6) Dropping our mind’s eye to our interior center point we become capable of listening to our own thoughts, feelings, ideas, hopes, desires, wishes etc…. This is a more difficult challenge and is often where we get lost by following our mental activity rather than just observing it. Drowning in this realm of mental activity can produce great boredom, cyclic thinking, or just a more subtle sense of being lost in confusion.
7) Beneath our surface mental activity there are the many voices of our personal and collective unconscious. These include the critical, judgmental voices of our parental and ancestral introjects (interior reflections), along with the archetypical voices inherent to the human condition. Some of these voices will be wise, others will be foolish or delusional, all of them will be subtle and not easy to distinguish. Learning to listen and not be distracted by this level of mental activity can take years of practice. Drowning in this level of mental activity can produce symptoms of unintentional sleep, daydreams, fantasies, and occasionally Makyo (mysterious visions, deep dreams occurring in or associated with zazen).
8) Listening to Nature, i.e., becoming aware of sun, moon, star, bird, tree, rock, passing cloud, the ten directions (eight compass points and up and down), and the ten thousand things as they are of single essence. This is really a rather easy step, hardly a challenge at all, more like a reward for staying afloat.
9) Listening to the Silence that Speaks, the still, subtle voice of the Universe, the Quiet Power, the thunderous tranquillity of NOW, the Tao of no name, Mu… Sometimes when our life is already manifesting a lot of harmony, and we are not under much internal or external stress we can start with this step.
10) Listening to Who is listening. Fully becoming the listener and the listened to. Accomplishing this challenge requires dropping the mental boundaries between self and other, host and guest, subject and object. Here all things move about and intermingle without distinction or separation. Realizing this step means that we are empty, empty completely empty, yet here now in physical form fully awake. Master Rinzai refers to accomplishing this challenge as the condition of no rank and no post (uninhibited, free, spontaneous, naturally creative and fully compassionate). This step is a kind of death, and often our existential anxiety and fear of annihilation prevents us from even briefly breaking through, or letting go, to this ultimate finality.
As always, these separations are arbitrary and not necessarily linear or exhaustive; yet, they speak deeply of my own experience. I share them as a way to help focus my own understanding. None of these challenges are particularly difficult; glimpses of harmony, awareness, and wakefulness are not that hard to come by, but consciously manifesting harmony most of the time will, with practice and great patience, take most of a lifetime.
Returning to the question at hand, how to float in rough seas of mental activity, we must learn to relax. If we struggle against the rough seas, we sink. When in doubt always return to a gentle awareness of physical balance, regular breaths, and pristine natural observation of just what is. When in doubt just say to the waves of mental activity “not two,” meaning nothing separate or excluded from Tao (Ocean of Oneness). Another way to put it would be “this too,” as in, “this too must be accepted, included, processed and released.”
Sometimes I form a mental image of myself as a great mountain able to face any storm without moving. Sometimes I use an image of myself sitting in an alpine meadow next to a raging glacier-fed river. The raging river represents for me my raging thoughts, feelings, hopes and desires. The glacier represents my locked up frozen, but melting, unprocessed traumas, trials and tribulations that have been laid down as layers of packed snow and ice, year after year, throughout the course of my personal history. Sometimes I imagine that on a hot day (a hard sit, or stressful day) the glacier melts more rapidly and generates a flood of raging waters or mental activity that can sweep “me” (the one who is trying to listen) away. When this happens I can feel like I’m drowning in confused, conflicted, and sometimes obsessive, thought patterns. This, as you may well understand, is extremely uncomfortable. If I try and swim out of the rapids, I am easily exhausted. So I try and remember to relax and just float with the flow, waiting for the rapids to exhaust themselves a little down stream where I can reach shore without much effort. Once on shore, I start the process of climbing back up to the alpine meadow; in other words, I work the program of challenges I’ve listed above.
I see it as my core responsibility to work this program. Working this program frees me from the burden of my own unprocessed knots of personal history. The alternative is not pretty; I become buried by my own excrement. I am convinced that only by the daily working of this program can I be free to fully meet the circumstances of here and now and spontaneously, creatively and compassionately respond with what needs doing. It is not easy, but it is simple, and what else is there to do? In the hope that these images and metaphors prove helpful to you, I conclude with a deep gassho (bow).
Autumn 1995, “Plum Mtn. News”