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Growing Up and Waking Up Barry Magid September 16th 2023

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Norman Fischer, the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, said something to the effect that Zen students need to grow up as well as to wake up. I think that’s an honest if somewhat belated recognition that our practice and our teaching is directed as much to the psychological development of one another as it is to so-called spiritual development, and that that’s been, for the last generation, a crucial question as to how to understand each half of that equation, and how they relate to one another.

I don’t know how long it’s been since Jack Engler famously said, “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.” That was a recognition of the same kind of thing, but unfortunately Engler’s formulation just turns out not to be true, and I think it was that very catchy phrase that he came to regret because he was endlessly having to explain it and modify it.

If it’s at the most basic level to be nobody means to have some kind of experience of emptiness or oneness or kensho, well, unfortunately, the truth is that can happen to anybody anytime. It would be much neater and simpler if kensho was the culmination of a process of psychological maturation, and I think that in the 60s and 70s there was sort of a fantasy that that kind of thing was what was going to happen in practice, that gradually, as a person matures psychologically, they become more and more open to the spiritual. But this kind of pyramid with the spiritual on top resting on a firm foundation of the psychological, turned out to be psychologically naive and wishful thinking, and what we’ve seen since, is not only can spiritual experiences coexist with all sorts of levels of personality development or pathology, but psychological maturity is not even and consistent either.

The more we understand about dissociation and trauma and different self states, the more we understand how many people who have sectors of their personality which are highly mature and competent, yet still have the capacity to be triggered by things that evoke early trauma into all sorts of kinds of reactivities. It can manifest as fear and anger and this kind of intense fight or flight reactivity to something that seems out of the blue to someone who otherwise seems like they’ve got it all together. And of course the whole history of Zen is littered with teachers who seemed to have their act together except when it came to their personal relationships and their intimate sexual lives. That seemed to exist in a whole other plane or dimension. It was not integrated at all with their spiritual lives.

So fifty years on, things are a lot messier than we had hoped. Now, all this leads us to ask, How is it that we are trying to structure practice now with a kind of honest acknowledgment of the psychological complexities that people bring to practice as well as their spiritual aspirations? When I’ve talked about people’s curative fantasies, it’s been an intent to make explicit the complicated psychological underpinnings of what presents as spiritual aspiration, and we have to be honest about and come to terms with all the ways in which we typically try to use practice to escape or bypass vulnerability, bypass emotional need or reactions, and so forth. I think this is now a pretty familiar story.

In part, traditionally, the growing up piece that Norm Fischer referred to, was supposed to be the business of the monastic residential training. In a traditional way you get a lot of gungho and otherwise feckless and disorganized young people brought into monastic life, and they have all sorts of problems with intimacy and anger or substance abuse or crazy relationships, and I think it was Suzuki Roshi who said it was like putting a snake in a bamboo tube. You’re trying to straighten him out, right?

But a big part of what residential training did was to give consistency, stability, discipline, a schedule, a set of responsibilities, expectations, to people whose lives might otherwise be very chaotic, and an enormous part of what Zen practice did for people, and still does, is that basic character development. You get up in the morning, you show up, and you’re on your cushion when the bell rings, if you’ve got a job you go to it. It’s this whole mentality of just doing it really can give people a sense of purpose and dedication and self-cohesion. Anything that actually happens on the cushion, that’s gravy. Right? Or we could say the icing on the cake because it’s like little kids, where you basically get ahold of the cake and lick the icing off, and you get a big sugar rush. That’s spiritual practice for most people.

It’s a little more complicated to deal with that growing up side in a non-residential lay practice center. Obviously, from the beginning, I’ve tried to integrate therapy with Zen practice to get at that growing-up side from a different direction, and that worked in its own idiosyncratic way that is not that replicable by other people in other places. But it was twenty-five years or so ago when I started this out. Basically I talked to a bunch of my patients who might be interested in this sort of thing, and I said, let’s have a sitting group the way I might ask them to join group therapy. Well, it’s going to be a different kind of group therapy. We’re going to sit and not talk.

Basically, I recruited a group of people who were interested in this integration of their psychological practice and their spiritual practice. As we get bigger and we get virtual and things are structured differently, I don’t see everybody in therapy anymore. There are too many of you. So we do have to try to ask: What kind of training or structure do we present, particularly to newcomers, that can incorporate some of that psychological mindedness and some of that framework?

I think people need to be inculcated in a sense of community, and a commitment to a regular schedule, into some kind of showing-up discipline, and I think that’s harder to do in this context, but we need to keep it in mind, and I think that more and more that’s going to be the responsibility of the sangha as a community and Chris as the resident, to embody that kind of cohesion, because I’m just not physically around so much anymore, and that’s the reality of things. I’m going to keep teaching for the foreseeable future, but a lot of it will be on Zoom. But when new people come here, I think we don’t want to give them the impression that this is just an interesting show that comes up on the screen that they can tune into once a week and that’s their practice. How to get people integrated into the sense of commitment and discipline and community – I think that’s a challenge for all of you in the upcoming generation.

I want to say one more thing about the old dichotomy about growing up versus waking up. Andrew Tootell, who teaches an Ordinary Mind group in Australia, refers now to the relational self as the part that’s growing up, and he uses that term as a way to get out of the Buddhist terminology of self or the ego as something that people think they’re supposed to be getting rid of. We’ve been dealing with that bugaboo for the last fifty years. How many times do I go someplace where they say, Doesn’t psychology try to strengthen the self and the Buddhists say the self doesn’t exist, and if it does, we’re trying to get rid of it? We get a little tired of answering that question.

When we refer to the relational self, what we’re trying to do is at least to talk about all the legitimate needs of a human being, of a person, for love and intimacy and empathy and value and meaning. All these things are final parts of healthy psychology that we’re not trying to get rid of, and they’re all the things that in a sense were taken for granted as part of the background character development of monastic training. So not only does the self exist, but we need to respect it and take care of it and grow it. We’re not trying to say that it’s non-existent or try to make it go away. I’ll say it for the thousandth time.

What about the other side? We have all this language about Buddha-nature and the true self. What is that? A typical kind of metaphor that permeated practice, was essentially a picture that underneath all this psychological stuff which we’re trying to wipe away, will be the true self, will be your Buddha-nature. All you have to do is get rid of your self and personality and ego and under all that will be the pure gold, the true self. Right? And sometimes that got called things like pure awareness or consciousness or something.

The dilemma then became that certain states of samadhi or concentration got identified with – Oh, now I’m plugging into the real thing, rather than to have a sense that any state of concentration or awareness is simply another capacity of your physical body and mind. It’s an aspect of a person. You’re not plugging into something vast and cosmic and transcendent. Your body is in a different state, and sometimes we cultivate those states and sometimes they come naturally, but one of the paradoxes that we come around to after all these years, is that it turns out that the everyday self that everybody is trying to get rid of, is very real, and we’re not getting rid of anything. What we realize is its impermanence. It’s constantly changing and it depends on all sorts of other people and conditions, so that emptiness of the self is a realization of that reality of change, but the self is a real part of real people.

You know what turns out to not exist? The true self! You’ve got the whole damn thing backwards. Sorry! What the true self turns out to be, is that experience of the Absolute being just this moment, of simply being present in the moment. Your true face, your original face. Just this. Now, normally we’ll say, this isn’t it! This is not right! I’ll be one with the moment, but not this moment. Right? I want a different moment to be one with, and so we operate in a world of endless fussiness and complaint and judgment. Basically, what Joko did in all those years, was teach the Absolute as manifesting as your bodily tension, as your anxiety, as your irritation, as your thinking. These aren’t all resistances to overcome. Stop! Wait a minute! This too is it! This too is it!

What we call kensho is some moment in which you, for whatever reason, stop wiggling around and trying to climb out of your own skin and just staying in the moment. Sometimes that’s a big deal, and sometimes it’s just more and more a natural part of the background. It can be such an unusual experience that we think, Oh my God! I’ve seen God now, or something. But basically it’s an experience of fundamental just okayness of being this. But it’s not plugging into another reality, it’s not finding something deep inside that’s been hidden all this time that now you’re uncovering.

There are all these tricks and koans that make you think you’ve got to go deep inside to find your true self. Well, it’s actually just the opposite. Zen Is trying to teach you to become extremely superficial. It’s all right on the surface. It’s all right on the surface of each moment and each breath. And it’s a shame that that gets reified into something all abstract and transcendent like Buddha nature or original face or true self. In a way the trick of that kind of language is to join with you in your curative fantasy until you're pushed to a breaking point. You think something’s hidden? Be my guest. Knock yourself out. Go search for it.

That’s like the story of the Second Patriarch, Huike, who says, My mind is not at rest. Well, says Bodhidharma, bring me your mind. I’ll put it at rest for you. Huike says, I’ve looked everywhere. I can’t find it. At first Bodhidharma sends him on this hopeless quest but for most people it’s only by wearing it out that it comes to any kind of conclusion. I’m trying to sneak in the answer here. It may save me a little trouble. I don’t know if that does anybody any good or not. So our task is growing up and waking up. I hope we’re getting a little clearer about what that means.

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