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Thoughts About Thought Barry Magid January 26th 2008

More than anything else, people come into daisan to talk about their wandering thoughts. They are concerned that despite their best efforts their minds just keep wandering. Now, the standard answer to this is to simply re-affirm the basics of our practice: the focus on awareness of body and breath, and the meticulous, but non-judgmental labeling of thoughts as they arise. And if we have faith in this simple process and practice it on a daily basis, it's true that over time, our minds will quiet down.

While there's nothing wrong with this approach, if that's the only way we understand our practice, it will end up simply being a technique for quieting the mind, one that we are good or not so good at. And that will be a rather one-sided and ultimately superficial picture of what practice is all about.

What is the alternative? Well, suppose you come into daisan and complain about that wandering mind of yours, and I say, "Well, of course! That's what minds do!" Or, you tell me you can't keep your mind from wandering and I say, "So what? Let it wander!" In other words, what if we stop thinking about practice in terms of any goal or any sort of self-control whatsoever?

When we label our thoughts, we're not trying to get them under control, we're simply reminding ourselves that our thoughts are simply that, just thoughts. But not only do we get caught up in the content of our thoughts, even more importantly, we identify our self with our thoughts, we think we are our thoughts. Do you hear that? "We think we are our thoughts." In Western philosophy the traditional line has always been that what makes human beings distinctively human is their capacity for reason, for thought. Who and what we most essentially are, is thought. But this is like asking Thought, "What is the most important part about being human?" and Thought answers (Big Surprise), "Thought!"

Now Buddhism has given an altogether different answer to the question of what we essentially are. And Buddhism's answer is "Nothing." There is no essential true, inner nature at all. What is there? Well, everything! Or, we could say, "This moment." And when we say 'This moment," we mean everything that is happening both what we normally think of as "inside" and what's happening "outside." You see, the great illusion is that who we are is something that is going on, privately, inside our heads as we sit here – that that inner, subjective experience is the real me.

But if you need an operation and you go to someone and ask "Are you really a surgeon?" what are you asking about? Their inner experience? No. Really, being a surgeon is the ability and activity of performing surgery. It's the whole activity, not the inner experience someone has while doing the activity. Who we are when we sit is not something that's going on inside our heads. It's the whole activity of sitting together in the zendo, it's our bodies, the other people in the room, the city where we live and practice, the long tradition that has taught us what we're doing here.

One thing that is going on, of course, is that we think as we sit. But it's just one thing – along with physically sitting still, itching, listening, getting up at the sound of the bell and so on. Thought is just one dimension, one event, among many. So what our thoughts are doing or not doing at any given moment, really doesn't make all that much difference.

That's one reason we give our attention to ritual and procedure in the zendo. Who we are is how we do all these things, not just how we think or feel while we're doing them. When we really break our identification with inner experience as the real me, then the fact that thoughts come and go while we sit is less and less important, less and less a "problem." Let them come, let them go. Let sounds from the street come into your ears; let thoughts come into your mind. Just sit with it all. Just be it all.

Now you can come into daisan and tell me what you think about what I've said.

Previous Talk

Barry Magid January 19th 2008 The scowl of Bodhidharma

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