Thoughts during meditation or bird watching Barry Magid February 2nd 2008

Many of you have been asking about all the thoughts that go through your mind during zazen. Invariably, these questions all imply that somehow having thoughts is a problem. But it is not as simple as that. We are here to observe our life as it is. As Dogen said, "To study the Way is to study the self." So if thoughts are what occupy our minds that is where we have to begin our study.

We sit quietly like bird watchers; our "birds" are our thoughts. So having thoughts isn't a problem, they're what we're here to look at. But this being New York, the variety of birds is pretty slim. Pigeon, sparrow, robin, pigeon again, pigeon, pidgeon... Once in a while a peregrine falcon swoops down and eats a pigeon. But mostly sitting here in New York we get accustomed to seeing the same familiar species over and over again. This is what the process of labeling our thoughts is all about. We recognize that the myriad individual thoughts that pass through our head all end up belonging to a few familiar species; worry, pain, expectation, distraction. Once you categorize thoughts this way you find you can get through long stretches using very few labels. I once went through a week long session not needing more than 6 labels for all my interesting and varied thoughts!

So the first step in working with thoughts is not finding a technique to make them go away, but to observe their varieties carefully and make a simple set of labels for yourself. And then, instead of following the thought all the way along, once you recognize what species it belongs to, put a label on it and return to your quiet observation of the field. When we see that certain themes recur over and over again, accompanied by strong feelings and bodily tensions, those are the ones we zero in on, and try to focus ourselves wordlessly on the accompanying physical sensations. Species of thought that we recognize as "distractions" (what's for lunch; where did I leave my hat) we acknowledge, label and step back from.

After we've been bird watching for a long time, one day we may suddenly be struck by a view of the clear empty sky through which all our birds are flying. Many of you have had that experience in one form or another. But our basic practice is not gazing into the sky - it always returns to watching the birds.

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