Zen is a practice of letting things matter Barry Magid March 6th 2021

This morning I’ll be commenting on two short paragraphs from Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time.” Now I know it’s more traditional to offer commentaries on Dogen’s “Shobogenzo,” but I’m sure you’ll find these passages just as esoteric and obscure as anything in Dogen. So if you’d like, while I read them, just imagine to yourself that your listening to the Shobogenzo and I think it will work out just fine.

What the two have in common, as I hope you will hear, is a concern with non-separation. In these passages Heidegger uses the unusual word Dasein, which doesn’t get translated, where we might expect him to be talking about an individual or a person, but Dasein is his way of explaining that we exist. Dasein literally means being there, that we exist always in context, in relation. Our being is always being with.

The world of Dasein is being with the world, being in is being with. The inter-worldly being in itself with others is Dasein with. Others are not encountered by grasping and discriminating beforehand one’s own subject, initially objectively present from other subjects already present. They’re not encountered by first looking at oneself and then ascertaining the opposite for the distinction. They’re encountered from out in the world, which Dasein in full and circumspect essentially wills. As opposed to the theoretically concocted explanation of the presence of others which easily urge themselves upon us, we must hold fast to the phenomenal fact that we have pointed out, namely, that they are encountered in the surrounding world. This nearest and elemental way of Dasein to encounter the world goes so far that even one’s own Dasein initially becomes discoverable by looking away from its own experiences at the center of its actions or by not yet seeing them at all. Dasein initially finds itself in what it does, needs, expects, has charge of, over things at hand, which initially takes care of the surrounding world.

Here’s the second passage:
According to the analysis which we have now completed, being with others belongs to the being of Dasein with which it is concerned in its very meaning. As being with, Dasein is essentially for the sake of others. This must be understood as an existential statement as to its essence. But even when actual Dasein does not turn to others and thinks it does not need them or does without them, it is still in the mode of being with. In being with, as the existential for the sake of others, these others are already disclosed in their Dasein. This previously constituted disclosedness of others, together with being with, thus helps to constitute significance, that is, worldliness. As this worldliness, disclosedness, is anchored in the existential for the sake of which, hence the worldliness of the world thus constituted in which Dasein always already essentially is, lets things in hand being countered in the surrounding world in such a way that the Dasein of others is encountered at the same time with them, as circumspectly taking care of. The structure of the worldliness of the world is such that others are not initially present as unattached subjects along with other things, but show themselves in their heedful being in the surrounding world in terms of the things at hand in that world.

Therapists in the group might connect to these passages via Winnicott’s famous saying, “There’s no such thing as a baby.” By that he meant, babies are never found in isolation from mothers. They only exist because they have mothers. What a baby is is logically connected to what mothers are, and they’re found together in the world. So Heidegger, in his own esoteric way, is trying to describe a world of non-separation in terms of what we are, as always a matter of what we’re connected to, who we are connected to, what we care about, who we are concerned with, and what we do about these things.

He uses “care” in a particular way that can mean taking care of but also has a much broader sense of what matters to us, and when Heidegger talks about the worldliness of our world, basically he’s talking about how our world is defined by what matters to us. We live in a kind of world of mattering that has distinct contours and boundaries, and it has limits, according to what matters and what doesn’t matter. There was a famous paper in neurophysiology by Jerome Lettvin and others called “What the Frogs’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” in which they basically determined that the frog’s eye is built in such a way as to be a movement detector. It’s very good at seeing objects move against a stable background. In other words, it’s a fly detector. When one of these small objects is moving across a stationary background, a reflex happens, a tongue goes out and grabs a fly. What that means is that the frog’s world is in a sense defined and limited to what matters to it. It literally only sees what matters. It doesn’t have an eye capable of discerning fine details of stationary objects. It doesn’t need to see those things, and it doesn’t.

So Heidegger says our world is defined by who we are concerned with and the things we care for. And in this particular way of looking at things, like the frog, we’re largely born into those conditions. He says we’re thrown into a world. We find ourselves in the midst of life, in the midst of a particular culture, and it’s largely a given what matters to us. He says we have to learn to recognize both the givenness and the arbitrariness of those cultural givens, and we can see that taking place culturally in all sorts of ways in which we may grow up caring about or having matter only our immediate family or the people in our neighborhood or the people who we think of as like us, and there are all sorts of ways in which the vast majority of the people of the world are “other.” In a large sense we vaguely, intellectually know they are out there, but they don’t matter in the sense that we don’t take their life or needs or suffering with anything like the urgency we would feel if it was happening to the people close at hand, when it matters to us.

Now I’d like to suggest that this is a pretty good metaphorical explanation of what we mean by a self-centered dream. By being self-centered, we exist in a circumscribed world of what we care about and what matters to us and we’re oblivious to everything outside the boundary of that self-centered bubble. We may be oblivious to the suffering of others and we may be oblivious literally to the things at hand, the objects in our world that we overlook or treat as if they don’t matter. Joko famously cared about whether her students put things away carefully or not. There was behind the zendo in the yard a set of tables and chairs where people could sit during breaks. She always looked to see, after you sat at that table, did you put the chair back where it was beforehand or did you just leave the chair out, sort of at any old angle, oblivious to whether it was arranged properly or not? When you had a cup of tea, did you just leave it in the sink assuming somebody else was going to wash it or did you rinse it yourself and put it away?

In part, Zen can be thought of as a practice which increases the circle of the things we’re concerned about and the circle of things we take care of. Zen is about whether the bed gets made, whether the cap gets put back on the tube of toothpaste or the top of the bottle of olive oil, whether the dishes are washed and put away or left in the sink. And as Heidegger says, if we want to know who we are, we find that out not by some act of deep introspection but by looking at what we do, looking outside, no longer seeing ourselves as part of the self-centered dream, to define ourselves solely in terms of our thoughts and our feelings, solely in terms of things taking place inside our head or inside our own body. That’s who I really am. I think Joko would agree with Heidegger, that who we are is as much whether we make the bed or not, put the cap back on the toothpaste, as it is what I’m thinking about. Who I am is the quality of my interactions with my world. Who I am is the quality of my relationship to others.

Now one of the distinctions between Zen and what we find in Heidegger is that we have a notion of practice which he doesn’t have. He wants to use philosophy to gain insight into the nature of things. He primarily thinks that it is awareness of death, of finitude, that has the possibility of waking us up and how we are in the world, waking us up to what matters, how we care for things, but it’s not something that can be formalized into a practice or a discipline. In a way, it’s the nature of both religion and psychotherapy that they have practices, they don’t just have theories. They have practices, there are things that we do on a daily basis to foster our awareness of how we are in the world.

And that’s one of the reasons that over the years I’ve said, I’m religious rather than spiritual because I associate religion with religious practice and spiritual often has the connotation of being preoccupied with particular special states of consciousness. But being religious, or having a practice, is about what we do. We find ourselves in discipline, in ritual, in the repetition, in the showing up, that demonstrates to ourselves and others what kind of person we are, what we care about, who we are concerned with, and how we handle all of these people and things in our world. It is through care and concern that we push the boundaries and break through the bubble of the self-centered dream, which is only concerned with what kind of experience I am having on the cushion today. How am I feeling? Is this the way I want to feel? Am I doing it right? Am I doing it wrong? To move out of that is to see us as all participating in something together, where what we’re doing matters to everyone else here, which supports and co-creates the sangha in which practice can happen.

If I bring in something seemingly from left field, like Heidegger, it’s because I’m trying to shake up our usual expectations or picture of what Buddhism is and what practice is. Practice shouldn’t just take place in a Buddhist bubble, where we associate it only with a few authors that we’re used to reading and hearing quoted over and over and over again until they become common-place. I think the more we hear echoes of Buddhism, whether it’s in Whitman or in Heidegger, the more we allow our sense of practice to permeate every aspect of our life, from our reading to whether or not we made the bed this morning.

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