"To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing": zazen, associative thinking & value-driven behaviour (1st post)
Last updated on 11th August 2016
"But the future is the future, the past is the past; now we should work on something new." Shunryu Suzuki
In 1970 I started to learn meditation with the Cambridge Buddhist Society. It was the year that Shunryu Suzuki's great book "Zen mind, beginner's mind" was published. I was deeply intrigued. So much of his writing was challenging:
" ... when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do ... Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes. This is the goal of our practice ... So our practice is not a matter of one hour or two hours, or one day or one year. If you practice zazen with your whole body and mind, even for a moment, that is zazen. So moment after moment you should devote yourself to your practice ... When Buddha transmitted our practice to Maha Kashyapa, he just picked up a flower with a smile ... Our life can be seen as a crossing of a river. The goal of our life's effort is to reach the other shore, Nirvana ... the true wisdom of life, is that in each step of the way, the other shore is actually reached. To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing is the way of true living."
There is so much beauty and wisdom here, and it echoes into many aspects of current cutting edge research. See, for example, the post (and handout) on Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman's work "Our minds work associatively: this is of central importance for psychotherapy and for life in general" with its comment "The events that took place as a result of your seeing the words happened by a process called associative activation: ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain. The essential feature of this complex set of mental events is its coherence. Each element is connected, and each supports and strengthens the others ... All this happens quickly and all at once, yielding a self-reinforcing pattern of cognitive, emotional, and physical responses that is both diverse and integrated - it has been called ‘associatively coherent'." The point I want to highlight here is that the mind (and the emotions, physical state, and quality of attention) can reach a particular state pretty much "all at once". Yes it's important that we gradually & consistently work to nourish & improve our lives, our health, our wellbeing over weeks, months and years. But also we can "be here, now"; and there's truth in the challenge "To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing is the way of true living". This ties in so fascinatingly as well with our increasing understanding of "embodied cognition" ... that within just a couple of minutes of positioning our body in a particular way we already significantly shift our emotional state, our readiness to act, and our internal biochemistry. I have written extensively about this in a series of previous blog posts (and handouts) - see the three-part sequence beginning with "Embodied cognition: posture and feelings" and the pair of posts on "Power objects, power postures, power clothes, power prayers: all ways to facilitate change".
And it links as well with "The bus driver metaphor" and the acknowledgement that "We live or don't live our values right now, today. Values (unlike goals) are not some destination that we're travelling towards. Values are the way that we are travelling, the way we make our journey. If my key values are to live with determination and courage, or with love and kindness - this is the direction, the way I want to travel. It's like saying "I've decided to travel North-West. This is the compass bearing I'm going to follow." I can start to follow the compass of my values right now. If I'm heading North-West right now, then I'm doing it. It's not something I have to wait for or work towards. It's now. As the Christian mystic Angelus Silesius put it (possibly rather over-bluntly) "'In good time we shall see God and his light' you say. Fool, you shall never see what you not see today!" While the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, said "If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?" and the poet T. S. Eliot wrote "And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
Yes, so much beauty and wisdom here. What are your key values? Is it important to you to be kind, to love, to wonder at the extraordinary miracle of this world, to live with courage, to step forward into life? What deeply matters to you? What are you about ... really about? How would you most want people to remember you when you die? In the next post I want to look more at linking these ideas with recent research findings in embodied cognition.