March 23th 2019 Barry Magid March 23rd 2019

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One of the rallying cries of the suffrage movement at the beginning of the last century was "We want bread, and roses too!” and I think we can understand the idea that if we give women the vote they're going to champion not just material changes, not just increases in wages and making sure everybody has bread, but they also had in mind their need for education, for the arts, for beauty. And it is a reminder that man does not live by bread alone, which was a message of the gospels. Looking up the phrase "bread and roses," I also found a reference to an ancient proverb, "If you have two loaves of bread, sell one, and buy flowers." It's a nice idea.

I'm thinking of this in terms of what different theories and practices propose that we need: What's missing, what are they offering, and particularly do they offer a single, unitary, or what other kinds of solutions? Whether they find a way to reduce whatever our suffering is to the absence of one particular crucial element that they're going to provide, or whether we have theories or practices that offer different things in different dimensions, and see that our needs and our capacities are multiple.

In the reading for our discussion group, Erich Fromm, while I am sure he does not deny the need for bread, tends to frame our basic source of suffering as a state of separation that we're born into, and that overcoming separation is the prime psychological task in our lives. In the Buddhist teachings, we're also told that separation is the primary problem in our life, but the take on it is different, because there it is as if we've come down with an illness or a delusion that makes us believe that we're separate, when in fact we're not. So the dominant metaphor in Buddhism tends to be medicinal or therapeutic, whether it's Buddha’s metaphor of pulling out a poisoned arrow, or generally a whole way of thinking of the Dharma as an antidote to delusional thinking.

The other aspect of the Buddhist solution presented to us is that the one thing that we need to receive is the teaching, the Dharma, and after that, everything is focussed on not so much what we need to get, but what we need to do. The Eightfold Path is a kind of description of right action, right speech, right this and that -- I never can remember lists of anything -- but it's the development of capacities, and these capacities occupy many dimensions, and I think in that sense they recognize different kinds of needs, but they're focussed on how we need to shape and control our life according to this teaching that we've been given. I think that it's also true that when we engage in these practices and this form of life, it creates an environment, a community of practice that gives back to us by its very nature, so it's not intended simply to be one-directional, though as I often point out we often hear about the need to be compassionate, but very rarely do we hear about our need to be loved or be at the receiving end of compassion, though I think this is equally true.

When we think about what we do here, it may be hard to identify what is the crucial element. Is there a crucial element in this practice? In one sense, we would think it's obviously our experience of zazen that’s unique to Zen Buddhism, but the danger there is that it makes what’s called the essential, seemingly private and internal, it's what you do silently on the cushion facing the wall, that makes the sangha and the rituals and the whole of the form of this life simply a set of enabling conditions, things that let you get to do this practice of zazen. But that picture itself may be completely backwards.

When people talk about the transformations in character that happen particularly in monastic practice, the emphasis is often on how the whole form of life is transformative. What happens to a person when they submit to that discipline, when they make that commitment to get up early every morning, not to get enough sleep, to live a life that puts aside all their usual likes and dislikes, and even what they would ordinarily think of their most basic needs, where they sacrifice their own sense of individuality, dress like everybody else, do the same thing as everybody else, eat the same thing every day, chant the same thing, all the things you normally think give you your precious individuality are just wiped away over and over and over again. And people say that when you've lived this way for a while, something quite transformative happens in a positive way, it's not simply submission, but you're relieved of a great burden of self-centeredness, there's great peace and freedom to be found in that life, and in a sense all that takes place almost regardless of what's going on in your head when you're sitting on a cushion.

I often think of an analogy to the way people talked about what happened in therapy or analysis. In the old days, in Freud's day, when they were convinced that what was transformative about analysis was the interpretation, that this was a method for unlocking otherwise unavailable truths about the unconscious, and that analytic interpretations gave people insights into the way their minds worked and what their motivations really were, that were not available any other way. And they thought about the analytic relationship, the form of the relationship, coming to see the analyst three, four, five times a week, being listened to, being questioned, being paid attention to, all these things were sort of the form that surrounded the interpretation, and if you had a warm and understanding relationship with the analyst, that made you more willing to accept what would otherwise be an unpalatable interpretation about what was really going on. And so the model was like that Mary Poppins song, "A Little Bit of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down," the relationship was considered to be the little bit of sugar that you had to have in order to swallow the interpretation.

But a hundred years later the pendulum tended to swing in exactly the opposite direction. All those interpretations were seen as just the content of what was otherwise a curative relationship. What was most transformative was coming many times a week to see someone who showed interest, who showed understanding and compassion, who you felt understood you without judgment in a way you had never been treated before in your life, and that having that kind of relationship was a new beginning and a new experience, that tended to repair or unlock hitherto frozen aspects of personality. And from that perspective, when you look back on some of Freud’s original cases, you see that there are a whole group of people who did very well when this genius gave him his full attention five days a week, and they felt: My goodness, this guy is really interested in me, and he's really not judging me, and he really cares about what's going on inside me. You know every now and then he says some really crazy shit, you know, and I tell him a dream, I don't know what he's talking about, but it's so different to feel I'm the object of the attention of someone like this.

It's very easy, in a way, to tell diametrically opposed stories about what was going on, and I don't think that there's such a thing as the real story about what was going on. I frame it that way to say that it's easy to foreground or background very different factors in terms of what you think is crucial. I always try to illustrate that by saying that the way I taught my son Zen was to teach him to make his bed every morning. The point was not that he ended up with a made bed, but that he became the kind of person who made his bed every morning. I think that in order to get that made bed, you have to become a certain kind of person. You have to develop a certain kind of attention and discipline and awareness, and a lot of our practice is like that. What kind of a person are we becoming in the process of doing this?

So I never minimize the importance of showing up. It's important to get over a lot of the mixed up ideas that you carry around in your head about what’s going on when you sit on a cushion, but it's also very important that you simply show up for that experience whatever it is. To make the commitment to come here, whether it's many times a week, or just Saturdays, to decide to make the commitment to train to be a jikido, to help support a sangha, to just learn to get along with this odd group of people who show up, who you might otherwise have nothing in common with, but who all come together to do this strange thing, who might rub you the wrong way, but who somehow you need to work together with to make this happen. All those could be seen as the secondary, or enabling conditions that make the zazen happen, or it could be the other way around -- the zazen is just the excuse we have to engage in this discipline, and this practice, and this way of learning to work together. It's very hard to separate the message from the medium, very hard to say which is the medicine and which is the sugar.

But these are all things to keep in mind in our discussion group. It's important as we go forward to have it be part of an on-going question about what we think we're doing when we come here.

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