Faith Perspectives: Actions and Our Thinking are Intimately Connected
by Vimala John Nemick
"I have always thought the actions of men to be the best interpreters of their thoughts."
~ John Locke, 17th-century English philosopher
"A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes."
~ Mahatma Gandhi, 20th-century Indian leader
"If, with perception polluted, one speaks or acts, thence suffering follows as a wheel the draught ox's foot."
~ The Dhammapada
As a longtime student of Buddhism and a Zen meditation practitioner, I have often reflected on the idea of meditation as the "study of the mind"; it is the opportunity to experience the mind in action. By settling comfortably, focusing on the breath or other centering activity and simply allowing the mind to flow, I have the opportunity to study the mind. Thoughts and emotions, plans for later in the day, judgments, memories, all naturally arise when one is sitting still. The mind can be a very busy place. It's sometimes referred to (not entirely in jest) as "monkey mind," swinging from one thing to another.
Over time and with the intention to practice regularly, the monkeys become quieter, not entirely gone, but less distracting. With the mind more quiet, one can then recognize more clearly the "observing ego," that part of one's self that is aware, but somehow detached, from the activities of the mind. Things that arise become less important or troublesome and are experienced as simply interesting, a subtle and important shift. It is, in this way, that we come to see more clearly the "true nature" of the mind, of the self. Of who I. When "I get out of the way," who is left?
The three quotes above, from different eras and differing perspectives, point to the central notion that our actions and our thinking are intimately connected. My perception of an event or my judgment of a person or situation will be a reflection of my thinking/feeling state. Is the glass half full, or is it half empty? One's response to that old question is a commentary on one's state of mind. This seems to be a "comment on the obvious" and an idea that is common in contemporary therapies, personal growth work and self-help spheres. This notion also can be explored in our spiritual life.
It seems that if one truly "gets" the message of his or her spiritual tradition, one's mind is changed. Truly practicing one's tradition holds the promise of transformation — a more profound experience than reciting the words or showing up when we're supposed to, a deeper level of awareness. "Changing the mind" involves a different perception, a loosening of attachments to ideas that can hold us in a prison of our own making. We are able to see more clearly the ideas and opinions that keep us from happiness. Perhaps there is a softening of judgment, an openness to experiencing other people and possibilities.
All traditions hold love and compassion as root values. So, if in the realm of our spiritual life, we "get it" and truly change our mind, we will, quite naturally, think and act differently.
Vimala John Nemick, a priest in the Hollow Bones Rinzai Zen Order, leads Zen Meditation at the Bay Area Yoga Center in Green Bay, WI. Vimala can be reached at email@example.com.
Surrendering to Imperturbable Witness
by Scott Youmans (Post-Pendle Hill Sesshin Reflections)
It’s taken me almost a month to find the words to express my experience during and since last month’s six-day Hollow Bones Rinzai Zen Sesshin. I’ve written screens about it and then shuffled them into the drafts folder. In the end, I want to leave you with specifics about the practice, a sense of my experience, and a handful of the beautiful moments I was present for during the week.
Arriving at Pendle Hill, I picked up my key and a map from the building the zendo was in and then drove over to the dorm and unpacked. Coming back out into the parking lot, I realized two things: 1) I had a flat tire, and 2) I had locked the key to my room in my room. Thus my journey to enlightenment had begun!
The “key” situation was resolved when my roommate got his key, but as we walked to the zendo, the tire was still flat. I wasn’t worried. There were six days for a solution to arise.
A sesshin is a long period of meditation that usually includes both sitting and walking meditation, dharma talks, and some form of conscious embodiment like yoga. This sesshin began on Saturday with a casual welcome and introductory session where we were given context, instructions, and had an opportunity to ask questions.
The facilitators made it very clear that, while discomfort during the sit was inevitable, pain was not the intention, and we could ask for more cushions or even a chair. I found this attitude welcoming and accommodating, and somewhat surprising.
Beginning with dinner Saturday night and continuing until lunch on Thursday, we entered into our formal practice routine: Essential silence was requested at all times, including the avoidance of eye contact in order to maintain our own meditative state. We were also asked to wear dark clothing to help maintain a field of visual meditative awareness. This request was made all too apparent when a visitor during the week appeared in a bright yellow plaid shirt.
Each day began with morning service, a pre-dawn ritual involving chanting and movement designed to awaken our entire being. Thirty minute periods of sitting alternated with ten minute periods of walking meditation or longer periods of outdoor walking meditation.
In the afternoon, we broke into small “Mondo” groups where we went through a thirteen-question koan practice. After dinner, there was more sitting, and evening service, and finally Qigong and stretching before returning to our rooms by 10 p.m. Each day was spacious, calm, and relaxing, with free-time after each meal for reflection.
The meals, by the way, were amazing: organic, local when possible, and vegetarian with vegan, nut-free, lactose-free, and gluten-free options to meet our group’s various dietary preferences. I learned so much about how good vegetarian food could be. If I cooked like this, then I could see myself becoming mostly vegetarian, only consuming meat on special occasions.
Wednesday, as midday pivots into afternoon, I choose to sit and not move, to remain sitting through kinhin and into the next sit. Sitting for long periods of time has been easier than I expected. Sitting on a zafu on top of a zabuton, I need a single bolster under my left knee to keep it comfortably raised while my right knee rests easily on the flat bottom cushion. Subtly moving the weight of my head so that it is above my spine, I can alleviate the strain on the muscles between my shoulders.
I breathe in. I breathe out. Inhaling, I silently say the word “know.” Exhaling, I silently say the word “no.” Know: I know my true nature, my clear deep heart/mind. No: I say no to the forms and sensations that arise as I meditate.
Every sit has been different. Some sits pass unbearably, each minute ticking by like an hour, as my mind continues its habitual tricks: playing future conversations, inventing imaginary scenarios, re-playing difficult interactions, and distracting itself with the noises and lights in the room. Eventually, I notice what the mind is doing and smile, bringing myself back to the silence, bringing awareness back to the know/no mantra.
At some point, mind becomes a calm ocean whose deep currents flow from my heart, circulating up and around my spine, neck, and head. Calming. Still. Rising like heat from the pavement of a warm day. From this awareness I notice shapes and colors and let them pass by. I notice sounds and let them pass through me.
I notice bubbles of thought on the surface and let them fall back. I notice a feeling––discomfort in my knee––and let it go, I am not in danger, I do not need to move. I feel a need to itch my cheek, like something is crawling on it, and I this sensation go, I am not in danger, I need not move. With the passing of these physical sensations, I notice that my breathing deepens. The ocean of mind remains calm.
From this place of calmness something opens: There is awareness of something infinite and witnessing - of what it means to be infinite and witnessing. For a moment, there is awareness of what it means to simultaneously have-witnessed everything that has come before, to witness everything in this moment, and to continue-witnessing everything infinitely into the future.
It is an awareness of the endlessly beautiful horrific awesome terror of continuous creation and destruction, birth and death, desire and delight. Stars are born and die. Planets form and explode. People are born and die, love and nurture, hate and torture. And all the while, there is this imperturbable witness.
For a moment, there is no one sitting. For a moment, there is no one thinking. This must be what surrender feels like. And then the moment passes. Warmth washes up my body like a fever, and I weep for the enormity of what this awareness has witnessed and will continue to witness.
I shake slightly, realizing how much this presence has had to hold over
the eons, all of the terrible beauty of the universe. Realizing that
this witness is a part of me. The feeling is unbearable.
(continued next column)