Training the Mind: Lessons from a Zen Master
What is Zen? This is not such an easy question to answer with words. A traditional Zen master might respond with a shake of the head. Or by hurling a non-lethal object at the asker. Zen is a sincere connection with the flow of life. Zen is a concentration on whatever we are doing. “[Zen] practice is the direct expression of our true nature,” said one master.
In Zen, there is no faraway enlightenment. There are no gods and no goals. Zen is, in my view, just a clever way of living. Whatever we are doing– as long as our mind is fully engaged with the task – can be Zen. Even doing nothing can be Zen. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing to be done.
All we experience – past, present, and future – is filtered through our minds. Because of this, we should probably train them. Zen practice is, at bottom, mind exercise. As with any training regimen, we need someone to show us the way. We need a master.
The Zen master in question is not Phil Jackson. (Sorry NBA fans). This guru predates Phil by about 30 years. Shunryu Suzuki came to San Francisco in 1958, set up the Zen Center, and taught until his death in 1971. His favorite animal – one he believed epitomized Zen practice - was the patient frog, waiting motionless for an insect. The quotes below are from “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” a compilation of Suzuki’s talks. Ageless wisdom.
“When you feel disagreeable it is better for you to sit. There is no other way to accept your problem and work on it.”
A few months ago, I missed my plane. The word came 10 minutes too late. I had been sitting at the wrong gate – a gate with open seats – and didn’t hear the attendant announce my name for a flight change. Shit. Rushing to the airline desk, I explained my misfortune to a middle-aged guy with no hair. “No more flights today,” he snorted, looking mildly bored. I swallowed a mouthful of saliva.
Waiting for my ride home, I concluded that I was, in fact, the most incompetent traveler alive. Soon my self-flagellation reached obscene levels. How could I be so stupid? So utterly and totally inept?
Then I had a sudden moment of mindfulness. I straightened my posture, closed my eyes, and opened my awareness. I let everything in. It was miserable at first, but after a few minutes of acceptance, the incident lost its sting. And by the time I got home, I was chuckling about it. Suzuki was right – this is how to work through problems.
“If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your [practice], you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come and let them go. Then they will be under control”
The teaching is direct – we simply watch our thoughts, giving them plenty of room. We don’t try to control or shove them aside. I mean - have you ever tried to stop thinking about something? Ok, gotta stop thinking about my jerkoff boss… I’m relaxing now… but why does he need to insult my outfit at every staff meeting? ...oh no, stop…that plaid shirt really needs to go..
This is like using fire to put out fire. Instead, as Suzuki advises, create space in the mind and let thoughts drift through. Don’t greet thoughts like a nightclub bouncer, but more like a casual observer. Rather than rioting, the mind will settle down.
“Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transiency, we suffer.”
Everything changes. No truth is more fundamental. Yet, as Suzuki said, we don’t accept it. We identify very strongly, for example, with our body. We lock eyes in the mirror each morning – that’s me. We fix our appearance in our minds. And when it changes, we suffer. A receding hairline is a crisis. A facial blemish is a personal insult.
Yet most of our body is left out of this calculus. We don’t – with the exception of a splenectomy patient – identify with our spleens. (For all I know, I don’t even have one.) External appearances, however, are taken as “me.” This is absurd.
The contents of our minds are also in perpetual flux. Every appearance in consciousness simply comes and goes. Realizing this in the heat of the moment can diffuse fear, anger, grasping, despair (you name it.) It’s hard to stay angry when you see anger for what it is – a passing state. I employ this teaching on the golf course as needed.
“Whatever you do, it should be an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else”
This is the heart of Zen teaching. When we cook, we just cook. When we sit, we just sit. When we listen to a blowhard colleague talk politics, we just listen. We do things with a single mind.
This sounds simple, but it’s not. We are a culture of multi-taskers. Multiple browser tabs – invented by some diabolical programmer – provide unlimited opportunity for time wasting. If I access the internet mindlessly, I’ve condemned myself to at least an hour of link chasing until, horrified, I find myself watching a playful pink dolphin splash around on YouTube. You might call this un-training the mind.
But we can overcome this scattered-attention, multi-tab conditioning. We can teach our minds to be still in crisis. We can find freedom in knowing that everything changes…that there is nothing to cling to. There may be nothing special about Zen – no fancy shtick - yet its effect on our lives can be profound.
Zen practice is to appreciate each action with our full being. The whole point – the essence of Suzuki’s teaching - is to express our simple human nature in daily life. “We just think with our whole mind, and see things as they are without any effort,” said the great Zen master. “Just to see, and to be ready to see things with our whole mind, is [Zen] practice.”