The Discriminating Mind is like a Hammer

If you wish to see things clearly, then disengage the thinker, and let everything else come and go freely. As human beings we all possess this wonderful tool called discriminating consciousness, or our rational mind. It is this aspect of consciousness that determines our likes and dislikes, separates subject from object, analyzes problems, discriminates between coarse and fine. This aspect of our mind often becomes so dominate that we confuse it with our own individual identity. Though it is a crucial tool essential for every human being, we often become so dependent on it that we are rarely able to put it down in favor of more subtle and profound tools. It is like holding a hammer so tightly in our hands that we can never pick up a tooth brush when we need it. In fact, it is often the case that we go around hammering everything with our discriminating consciousness, and we wonder why happiness is so hard to find after thoroughly banging on all that comes our way.

In Zen training we are taught how to practice putting down the hammer; in other words, how to disengage the thinker, and fully realize the one who holds and wields the hammer and all the other tools of human existence. It is a relatively simple task, but it is not easy to do. I fear that many people come to Zen training hoping that Zen will somehow “correct” their bent or skewed rational mind. It probably won’t. Zen is about discovering who is holding the hammer, it is not about “fixing” anything. The way the rational mind works is very dependent on early development because that is where we learn how to think about things. Zen is much less concerned with how we think about things than with who is doing the thinking. So if your hammer (rational mind) was bent up before starting Zen training, don’t be too surprised when it is still skewed after long years of Zen practice. Zen teaches us how to put down the hammer, realize who was holding it all along, and even how to pick it up again with less dependence on it. If you want to straighten out your rational mind, or improve your individual identity, go see a good psychotherapist.

During meditation we are never trying to stop thoughts, feelings or any other kind of sensation. Zen meditation is about expanding one’s awareness, not limiting it. However, we are actively training ourselves to not engage the thinker, that is to say, not to engage our rational discriminating faculties while observing everything just as it is. How do we do this? It is not easy; however, some methods include gently following and counting the breaths, saying a short mantra, or repeating a koan like Mu. All of these methods occupy the discriminating parts of our mind with an activity that is simple and focused; thus curtailing more complex engagements. After awhile, when the discriminating mind relaxes its analytic hold on our broader consciousness, we too can relax and begin to witness just what is, without reliance on any focusing method.

How then do we maintain this open awareness without re-activating discriminating mind? Recently, I tried out Aikido training. In Aikido, one learns how to accept an opponent’s attack without fleeing or resisting in any way. This is done by accepting the opponent’s energy, blending with it, and releasing it. On the inhalation, the incoming energy is accepted and harmonized. On the exhalation, the energy is released (i.e. dodged, thrown or pinned). This activity of accepting, blending and releasing can work for any kind of input to our awareness. It matters not if the input is from inside or outside of one’s body. Any arising thought, feeling or sensation can be accepted, blended with and then released. For example, a sensation of pain from the knees can be acknowledged (i.e. accepted, impossible to ignore anyway), blended with (i.e. take a breath), and released (i.e. exhale and let the message go). The same thing can be said for a thought, feeling, fantasy or dream image, or any other kind of sensation. With this kind of practice we slowly learn how not to be distracted by discriminating consciousness. We learn how not to engage the thinker. With this accomplished, occasionally our mind will effortlessly attain independence from the roles we play, where the barriers between self and other drop away, and where we can fully meet the present moment of eternity, freely able to do what needs doing.

Genjo Marinello

Autumn 1996 , “Plum Mtn. News”