Suffering and Renewal
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer/ November 30, 1999
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
The world is very difficult, very confusing, and we are lucky to be able to take a day and sit. What a simple thing to sit down and breathe. Nothing particularly deep or spiritual about it. Just sit there. And yet, I think that everyone here knows that in a subtle way, over time, this simple sitting really does change our lives.
I have been thinking a lot lately that one way to understand our sitting is to recognize that through our sitting we are meeting another person; that is, a much larger person who is sitting on the cushion with us, a person who is not exactly different from you and me, but who is also not exactly the same. Just the process of sitting like that will help us to discover this person. And then as we continue with our lives, little by little, we find a way to allow this person to act through us, through our lives, and then we see that it is possible to let go of fear and anxiety, and just trust this person. Trust the deep wisdom of our own lives.
I am sure that many times I have mentioned the story of Tōsan, who is asked by a monk, "Why are you working so hard?" And he replies, "I do it on behalf of another." The monk says, "Why doesn't he do it himself?" Tozan says, "He has no tools."
So sitting this way, as the years go by, we begin to see our life as a tool of this larger person and to feel more and more that the source of our happiness is how well we use our lives on behalf of that person.
There is another story that you all know of Daowu and Yunyan. Yunyan is sweeping the floor, and Daowu says, "Too busy." Yunyan says, "You should know that there is one who is not busy." Daowu says, "Oh you mean that there are two moons?" And Yunyan holds up his broom and says, "Which moon is this?"
The story of Daowu and Yunyan points to the person I am speaking about, the person who is not busy, who is always willing and able to accept what is, no matter how difficult and atrocious it may be; the person who is present in our lives, even when we are too busy, even when we are suffering too much, even when we are too confused. We keep on sitting and our confidence in this person grows. We understand that there aren't two moons, that the person is nowhere else but right here where we are, and little by little we trust that as the true guardian of our lives.
In classical Buddhism there is a really useful discussion of meditation practice in terms of the Five Hindrances. We sit and notice these five hindrances coming up, and we work with them as the path towards calming and clarifying ourselves on the cushion. The five hindrances are: attachment and aversion; laziness and excitement; and doubt. Laziness is often translated "sloth and torpor." Sometimes excitement is translated as "flurry and worry." I have noted over the years that excitement is a very popular word in our culture. People say, "Boy, that was exciting!" And they mean this in a positive light, "That's exciting! You got a new job? That's exciting!"
These are five hindrances or faults that may arise, and so I will say a little about each of them. Attachment: you are sitting and a thought arises; you are hooked; you grab hold of it, and you make more of it. You use one thought to manufacture more thoughts, more feelings, more sensations. As you notice that happening, as of course it does happen, you recognize it for what it is - attachment- and come back to the breath. That's why the breath is a really great device, because no matter where your mind is, your breath is always there, your breath is always going on. So you notice the attachment and come back to the breath. You gently open up the hand of thought and let go of the thought or sensation.
Sometimes it is the opposite. The hindrance or fault is aversion. You are sitting there, and you notice that you are averting from a thought or sensation. This is harder to see because aversion often covers up the thought or feeling completely, but while you are sitting there, you notice through the physical sensations in the body that you are averting from some thought. Sometimes you are sitting on your cushion and actually try to escape yourself like this, and behind the physical sensation is the feeling from which you are averting. When you feel that, when you feel tightness or a sense of being blocked in your sitting, then again you can use the breath to soften and go toward that place in the body or in the heart. You can use the breath to guide you and soften you, so that you don't have to flinch and glance away.
And then there is laziness. Sometimes we all work hard and are tired, and we might sit in meditation and get sleepy, but sometimes I notice that even if I got a good night's sleep, as soon as I sit down in meditation, I start snoozing, and my mind becomes dull. Laziness, sleepiness, sloth, or torpor may be a way that the body copes with aversion. Just as you counteract attachment with letting go, and you counteract aversion by turning toward, you counteract laziness by trying to bring up your energy, opening your eyes wider, noticing the light in the room, trying to make it more bright. That's when it is a good time to introduce other practices to wake you up, such as chanting a sutra to yourself. Or you can take up Tonglen practice. Many times I have talked about ways of practicing that can engage the discriminating mind in order to bring up the energy. If none of that works, you can stand up and meditate, and then if you fall asleep, you will fall over and smack your head against the wall and you will have an incentive not to do that! Anyone who is too sleepy in zazen can just stand up. You can stand up in front of your seat and meditate, and that will keep you awake.
Excitement is when the mind is agitated. You can't sit still. The mind won't stop. A good way to counteract excitement and to calm the mind is being with every breath, clarifying with every breath.
Doubt is a hindrance if you see that you are sitting on your cushion and are not making any effort. It means that you are not applying the practice. To counteract doubt, you make a commitment to yourself in the beginning or in the middle of the period to apply the practices and pay attention to your mind.
Of course, with all these hindrances there are times when nothing works at all. Then you just practice endurance, patient endurance with an impossible situation that you cannot correct.
So this is one way to look at meditation practice. We don't have to reify the five hindrances and make too big a deal out of them. We each have our own way of working in our meditation, but it is instructive to hear about the five hindrances and tone up our meditation practice.
But the reason I am bringing them up now is that I thought that each one of us could develop a life list. Birders, people who do bird watching, make a life list of all the birds they've seen. Each one of us can develop our own life list of hindrances. What are your favorite hindrances? I am talking about your life, not just on your meditation cushion. What are your five or ten or twenty hindrances that knock you off your seat, that make you confused, that make you flail around and create more suffering for yourselves? I am working on my favorites. We all have different ones because of our karma and personalities. What is a hindrance for one person is a breeze for the next.
I will speak today about two of my favorite hindrances, and if you have any of these hindrances, you will have a head start, but if these are not yours, then you will have to start from zero!
The first hindrance is getting swept away by emotion, especially fear or anger. Very popular hindrance. The second one is the feeling that we have to be right, or the feeling that we have to be in control and in charge of what is going on. So I would like to discuss these two hindrances and tell you some of the ways I thought we could work with them.
So, swept away by fear and anger. That's really a good way of looking at it - swept away - because that's what happens: you get swept away. Fear and anger are really powerful emotions, and we have to humbly recognize that at any time they have the power to sweep us away and take us over completely. When we have these feelings, we really believe them. It is hard to have perspective, and we become reactive before we even know what we are doing. We are speaking and acting out of this very compelling feeling of anger or fear. We have a complicated relationship to these emotions. We are afraid of the emotions, so we avert from them. The aversion to fear is actually so strong that mostly we don't allow ourselves to feel it, and that is where anger comes from. Not wanting to feel the uncomfortable feeling of fear, we feel anger. Instead of cowering in the corner with fear, we lash out at someone, and sometimes the best person to lash out at is ourselves. Generating critical self anger, criticism of ourselves as a way of not facing our deepest fears, can be an insidious way to wear down the soul. And then if we are mad at somebody else, we are agitated and run around, avoiding our fear, avoiding our tremendous vulnerability. A human being is a very vulnerable creature; in fact, that is probably the best definition of a human being: "a radically vulnerable creature that understands on a certain level that he or she is radically vulnerable." But we don't want to recognize that.
We are often overcome by a really crazy energy in our lives, and this is not at all unusual or rare, so we better have a way of recognizing and practicing with it. So how would we do that? Well, one thing is that we would begin by understanding these powerful emotions of fear and anger as a path. When we see fear and anger we should think, "This is my path. This is my practice. This is the way I need to go." So, before we get swept away, realize "Now I am feeling fear. Now I am feeling anger." Label it and name it and see it as a path. Stay with it closely and study it. How does it feel to be afraid? How does it feel to be angry? How does it feel in the body? How does it feel in the mind? How does it affect the thoughts? One could actually say to oneself in the face of the emotion, "This is anger. Anger is not myself. This is fear. Fear is not myself." You could practice that "thought yoga" as a way of being close to the anger or fear and not allowing it to sweep you away.
The next way of working on fear or anger or other strong emotions is to work in a way that we have been working today. Just to sit on our cushions and breathe and establish that little bit of extra spaciousness in our lives helps us to see fear and anger as practice. You can't really name something and study it unless you have some choice in the matter, where you have a little bit of extra space to say that I am going to relate to it in this way and not in that way. Most of the time fear and anger sweep us away so quickly that we don't have a choice, but when we work on our meditation practice, when we sit on our meditation cushions, and come to see our lives on the cushion as part of our life all the time, we are creating that little bit of space. Our consciousness, our emotions, are just a little bit more pliant, so that they are not so intractable, so impacted as they might have been for a long time.
I think of sitting as kneading our consciousness just as you knead bread. You keep manipulating it, changing the texture of it, making it more pliant and smooth. When practicing meditation this happens, and then we have that little space, and we have choice; we have the capacity to say that I won't be swept away. The emotion is there and I can't make it go away, but instead of being reactive and swept away, I can begin to make the emotion a pathway for myself.
And then one sees the extent to which justifying and blaming are the most popular productions of strong emotions. You have a big, strong emotion, and then right away you are trying to figure out where that came from and who is to blame. Much better than feeling the emotion. I don't want to feel afraid, I don't want to feel angry, but I do want to figure out who made me feel this way and assign blame. Whether we blame ourselves or someone else is quite immaterial. It is maybe more insidious when we blame ourselves, but blaming another person is really just the same thing as blaming ourselves.
Blaming and assigning reasons may be an oversimplification, but I think that it is the truth that you can always assume that these things are cover ups. So a way of practicing with powerful emotions is to train yourself to stop being fooled by blaming and return to your actual feelings. Take a step back and see what you are feeling instead of trying to look outside and blaming. It has nothing to do with who is at fault, because it makes no difference; when you are overcome by an emotion, that's the reality and that's your responsibility. Don't be fooled by your ideas of right or wrong. That's how we justify our blaming. Not to say that doing wrong is irrelevant, but most of the time ideas of right and wrong are a kind of smokescreen for our passions.
I wish you could write all this down, take it home, and do it. Then you'd say, "What do you know? I am no longer troubled by powerful emotions. This is great! " Unfortunately, that will not be the case. You can listen to all this and try to put it into practice, but you will still suffer from being overcome by powerful emotions for quite a long time. So then you have to have the practice of patience and forbearance. Train yourself just to be able to be there. Recognize that there are all these stories of spiritual transformation, and this is great, but when it really comes down to it, there are no quick fixes. When the conditions are ripe for anger and fear, anger and fear will be there. I don't care how many brilliant enlightenment experiences you have had, if strong enough conditions are there, you will feel them. So we all need a way of coping with that, and forbear with them. In fact, our brilliant spiritual practice can itself can be an excuse for a failure to really skillfully deal with these emotions and to forbear with them.
So that is a little bit about my first favorite hindrance and applying the practice to daily life: being swept away by emotions.
The next hindrance is our endless desire to want to be right and to have everything under control. Now, if you reflect on your sitting practice, just today, for instance, you probably would agree that trying to control your mind does not work that well. When you decide that your mind is going to go this way, usually it goes the other way. Actually it's not very skillful to try to control your mind. The more you try to control your mind, the more you are controlled. On the other hand, the more you let go and accept and allow, the more you are free. What is interesting about life is not about how often one is right. What is interesting about life is that you grow. There is an endless possibility to learn about yourself and about life. And when you insist upon being right and insist upon being in control, you don't learn much, because you are not open to what else is happening. In your relationship, in your work, and in dharma practice itself, being open to the possibilities and always letting go, not trying to control, is really the way. One learns not by thinking that one knows, but by recognizing that one doesn't know. That's when a new thought comes into your mind. Learning comes from not knowing, from not controlling, from being willing to risk being wrong, and from being willing to be surprised. A mind that is willing and open is a mind that can learn.
We are, although we might not feel this way, in a cooperative relationship with all of the reality around us. In other words, it is not up to us to control things and bring about outcomes. We make effort, but we make effort in cooperation with other people and the world at large. When you don't feel the need to control and make everything go your way, it's actually more interesting to find out what will happen. So one makes sincere, strong effort with the feeling of openness, asking "What will happen?"