Our practice is being able to say yes to everything that is happening Barry Magid June 10th 2017

A core concept in Buddhism is the emptiness of all things - that all things - emotions, trees, thoughts, the self - are aggregates of other things. The temptation is to ask - aggregates of what? But if we look we will find no essential building block. And so when we look at anger or love, we are looking at something very complex and multifaceted. Often in Zen we hear the word "just". Just be angry. But anger is not a simple feeling. It's a complex mental state with a whole narrative and belief system. How do we practice in the midst of such complexity?

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Someone asks, “What is the meaning of love?” And all sorts of answers are given. Words like pure and total, complete, unconditional, are used. Perhaps someone tries to answer simply with a kiss. But I would say that love is an unstable amalgam of attachment and dependency, desire, fantasy, and on and on and on and on.

The difference between the first kind of definition and the sort of list that I suggest in my answer, has to do with whether we’re looking for love or any other sort of emotion, like anger or anxiety or calmness to be simple, to be a basic building block, to be a kind of psychological atom of experience out of which other things more complicated are constructed.

Now I’m suggesting that love as well as all these other emotions are not simple. They’re not atoms of experience, but they themselves are amalgams, aggregates. In Buddhism we talk about aggregates as bundles of experiences or sensations or dharmas, moments of existence. And whenever we talk about aggregates, the temptation is to ask: Aggregates of what? Again we imagine that there’s some set of atomic blocks that go into the formation of aggregates. That’s the idea that’s being contradicted in the Heart Sutra when it says no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, . . . no realm of sight, no realm of consciousness, and so on and so forth.

It’s suggesting that we have this desire for there to be these basic building blocks of experience, but they’re all empty, they’re all non-existent. Basically it’s aggregates all the way down. Now to acknowledge that anything you can think of, including yourself, is an aggregate of other things, that it has no simple, on-going let alone permanent existence of its own, is one way of understanding the meaning of emptiness. What things are empty of is that kind of permanent existence or essential nature.

This is important when we look at how we practice with emotion. In Zen we often come across this word “just,” as in just sit or perhaps just be angry, just feel your pain, and it implies that the thing that we’re just doing is a simple one thing that will just do that one thing. But if we try to just be angry, we see that anger is not a simple feeling. It’s a complex bodily state in combination with the whole narrative and belief system.

It’s what Joko’s pointing to with her parable of the person in a rowboat. If you remember, this was in “Everyday Zen,” where she says to imagine you’re out on a calm lake rowing along in your rowboat, and when you row in a rowboat you are facing away from the direction you are going. As you go along, all of a sudden – Bam! You bump into something. And your immediate thought is that some idiot in another rowboat has banged into me. But when you turn around you see that the other rowboat you’ve bumped into has got nobody in it. It’s just been drifting and you ran into it. and immediately your whole reaction changes, There’s nobody to blame. The whole narrative changes.

Typically when we work with anger, the point is not to sit simply with that feeling, but to deconstruct it, to trace it back. When there’s anger there’s almost inevitably injury. Something has intruded on us, hurt our feelings, threatened us. In each case there’s a complicated story about what constitutes our vulnerability. You can’t talk to me like that. There’s this whole business of expectation, who the other person is, who we think we are.

The point here is that we don’t feel anything – we aren’t anything – in isolation. There’s no one-person description you can give of any of these emotional reactions. As soon as we talk about any kind of feeling or sensation or emotion, these simple things immediately conjure up a whole world. To have even a physical sensation is to conjure up a world that gives rise to it. To conjure up and think of it as emotion is to immediately conjure up a whole world of relationship and expectation in which we’re embedded and which contrives to it.

In this realization that nothing exists in its own right as a separate entity but that everything implies everything else, is what we mean by interconnectedness or oneness. Our sitting is the same way. When we say “just sit,” sitting is not a private inner experience that’s going on in our head while we sit on the cushion. The sitting cannot be boiled down to what’s passing through our mind at any given moment. The sitting doesn’t consist of whether or not we’re having thoughts or bliss or pain. The sitting is an embodied and social and cultural activity.

One of the reasons to pay attention to posture is a reminder that sitting is an embodied activity. It’s something that our bodies are doing, not just something taking place inside our heads. In a sense, pain is reminding you of that a lot of the time, but we think of that as an intrusion, not as the point.

For a long time when I started sitting, I know that I felt like the state of mind that I got into was the point of sitting, and I can remember doing a sesshin early on out in San Diego with Joko when I was sort of deep in concentration and I was sort of sitting on my cushion completely focused on my own mental concentration, and somebody would walk around in these sesshins and straighten people’s postures, straighten their backs. The person as jikido came up to me to straighten my back, and I turned around and brushed him aside. Go away! I don’t need any of that! What a character I was!

But, you know, it’s this intense sense that it’s the sitting that’s going on in your head. That was the mistake, right? And similar is the mistake that what’s going on is what’s going on in your mind and body instead of seeing that sitting is what’s taking place with all of us in a group and it’s not just taking place here in this group but is a byproduct of a whole cultural moment that we’re embodying and trying to express in what we do here.

There’s a great temptation in this practice to think that we cultivate one kind of state or another in our sitting. Sometimes we think that that state is calmness or a mind that is free from thought. I think that’s almost universal when people sit, that when they sit for a long time and their minds quiet down and not many thoughts are coming. “That’s a good sitting!” Right? But when they’re sitting there and they’re feeling distracted or in pain, or they’re really upset by something – well, that’s a bad sitting. That’s not what’s supposed to be happening.

And the dilemma is that we come to see sitting as a technique to try to get us into some particular mental state and stay in there. As I’ve said, the problem is not just that we can't do that, but we can almost do that. Right? If we can get very close, we can get good at it. But the problem is that everything that happens then becomes an enemy of that state, and it keeps us in an endless position of not quite there yet, of never quite doing it just right, or if we get it, we lose it. So this becomes a formula for a practice of endless aspiration and endless dissatisfaction. I don’t think that’s what Zen is supposed to be.

Zen is about the elimination of this dichotomy between good sittings and bad sittings, it’s about the capacity to stay with the whole of our experience, everything that our mind is doing, not to cultivate one state, but to see that we’re made up of a constantly shifting amalgam of all these things, and all these things are constantly changing, and are constantly empty and there’s no basis for them, one to another, once you see them as states that come and go, come and go, come and go. And our practice is being able to watch all these things happen, to say Yes to everything that is happening in our mind, in our body, and in the group and in our life.

I want to go back and think about that definition of love. Perhaps it’s that capacity simply to say Yes to everything.

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