The nature of insight in our practice Barry Magid March 17th 2012

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What is the nature of insight in this practice? How do we understand it? What do we imagine we see or understand and what difference does it make? Insight is a word that’s also central to psychoanalytic or psychological practices and I’m always interested in comparing how we see things like insight from different perspectives and different practices, to what extent we’re arriving at the same place by a different route or whether we’re seeing something very different as a result of the different kinds of practice.

Insight is a core metaphor in both practices about seeing through some version of delusive thinking or misperception and insight in both practices can have the connotation of removing some kind of filter or eliminating some kind of projection that we’re putting onto the world and seeing things clearly or directly. It’s often a very problematic notion, the idea of ever seeing reality directly. Although we might have the subjective experience of that, it usually is a matter of getting unstuck from one particularly narrow or disfunctional story we’re telling ourselves about our self and the world and opening up into a story that is more capacious and accepting.

I suppose the one kind of expression of no story at all is what you have pictured in Bodhidharma’s encounter with the emperor where he says, I don’t know -- to who he is and what the merit of all his practice is. Don’t know. That kind of complete wiping of the slate. Each practice has some way in which we imagine we’re going to get unstuck from some version of the self-centered dream that preoccupies us. I remember when I was in training as an analyst, at the end of a long course this old Freudian professor said that at the completion of an analysis, the patient would finally be ready to hear the ultimate interpretation and of course we all pricked up our ears: OK, what’s that going to be? And he looked at us and he said, I am not your father.

Now I suppose if you’re caught up in a tangle of judgment and competition and rivalry and castration anxiety, trying to impress and trying to rebel, that interpretation can cut through it all in a flash, right? There’s nobody here to fight! What am I doing? I’m battling a ghost! I think that was his intent. But when we take any interpretation like that out of context it comes out sounding very banal, the same way it does in Buddhist practice if you just go around and say, All is One! Useless! Right? Yet there are moments when suddenly you can stop feeling separate and cut off from everything and suddenly you’re not separate in a way that’s been plaguing you your whole life, and you might say it in a way that actually means something.

The problem most of the time is that the very idea of insight gets caught up in a curative fantasy where we imagine one moment is going to completely unlock or turn things around, a kind of development of Here’s where we wave the magic wand, or Here’s where the princess kisses the frog. Something is supposed to transform completely. And while moments like that occur, they’re really not separable from what goes before and what comes afterwards. They’re not separable from all the practice that has gone before or all the conditions that set up that moment, and if they’re genuine you can’t separate them from how they’re going to manifest the next day and the next day after that and the day after that. Someone who has a drinking problem can have a very clear insight into the terrible damage his drinking is inflicting on his life and the lives of those around him, but we don’t think that insight is real or makes any difference unless every day thereafter he stops drinking, that the reality of the insight is not how it feels subjectively in the moment. It’s as it translates into a new life, a new form of behavior, a new form of conduct. If you really see it, you’re different enough that you behave differently.

Joko used to say, half-jokingly, that her criteria for kensho was whether people paid attention to putting the chairs back under the table on the patio, or whether they were sloppy and careless about how they handled things. She didn’t care so much about what wonderful thing you said in dokusan. She wanted to see if you were more careful, meticulous and compassionate afterwards.

Now one way we see that happening inside of this practice is when we see you sit in a way that allows you to have thoughts that come and go in a way that they just come and go and they’re just thoughts. This is what the idea of labeling is supposed to bring about. There’s one, here’s one, there’s the next one, and we just watch the flow of thought without getting caught up in the content of it in a way that hooks us. Some part of what we traditionally want to see as a measure of practice is not being particularly preoccupied with what’s going on inside in the same way.

That’s part of what being caught in a self-centered dream is about: being particularly wrapped up in a kind of inner monologue all the time, when we’re just endlessly thinking and arguing and rehearsing and planning and your world is this whirl of internal thought, internal representation that takes all or most of your attention to the point that you’re careless or inconsiderate about things and people around you. So in that analogy with Joko, the idea is, well, at least he’s not thinking all the time, and he can actually stop and pay attention. Did he stop and put the chair back where it belongs? You have to stop the inner obsession to pay attention to what’s on the outside.

Now unfortunately it’s the case that one can substitute obsessive neatness for obsessive thinking, and this does not necessarily represent a great developmental or spiritual milestone. It does make for a nicer environment, but people who just make that substitution often sort of look down their noses at people who don’t do it and are scolds rather than compassionate, so you usually can tell the difference. But the idea really is we can wake up from this self-centered dream in the sense of just take what goes on inside a little more lightly. Sometimes you hear this expression: You are not what you think. In some ways, you’re nothing but what you think, but if that is empty, then you carry it all lightly. You are just this train of fairly ephemeral, fairly inconsequential, fairly repetitive thoughts. It’s hard to get all puffed up about that kind of realization, right?

For Dogen, realization meant seeing the dropping of body and mind as something that happens constantly, that we can have a momentary insight. He called his in China, body and mind dropping away. But what does that mean other than what’s happening all the time anyway to us, that things are in a constant flow, flux and change? Mind is never still, there’s nothing in us that’s permanent, nothing in our body or the world that is permanent. It’s always moment after moment dropping away. For him zazen became the way in which we manifest or bear witness to the moment to moment dropping away so that zazen isn’t a way of making that happen. It’s happening anyhow. It’s a way of grounding yourself in that reality, and you sit in a way that manifests instead of sitting in a way that is suddenly or not so suddenly a means to an end. It’s a zazen in which you can no longer ask, Am I there yet?

Very often we think of people who seem to display some kind of clarity or insight and they are people who, as they say in the precepts, do not spare the dharma assets. In that sense they’re willing simply and whole-heartedly to respond through themselves into what’s next, what needs to be done. They’re not tied in knots of ambivalence or uncertainty about Do I want to? Is it the right thing to do? Maybe I can’t afford the time or energy for this right now? People tie themselves in knots in their self-centered dreams. That’s part of the sadness of it. If you’re going to create a dream you ought to at least create one you like. But most of the time we don’t.

I’ve said that one version of progress in practice is going from that kind of painful self-centered dream to just row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily life is but a dream. It’s the same thing: Life is a dream. But is it a free-flowing dream that you enjoy or is it a tied-in-knots self-centered dream of constant judgment and self-recrimination and complication?

So much of this practice is just showing up. The quality of your zazen is how much you are simply willing to show up for your zazen. How much are you willing to just make a bee-line for it, not let yourself be completely buffeted about, but: Oh -- I see what this is, I see what it does in my life, I see how important it is. I see it’s who I am. Therefore I’m just going to do it as much as I can. In lay practice that doesn’t mean going to every practice morning and night six days a week. It means really trying to be clear about how to stay grounded in this practice and not be caught up in endlessly Well, should I or shouldn’t I? Do I want to today? Do I feel like it? That kind of stuff. It’s really that kind of simple straight-forward commitment to showing up and being present that’s the sign of real insight, real depth of practice, not just one big moment one day on the cushion.

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