The wandering mind

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By Joseph Hall

Zen is clear that it is not about seeking happiness. Just telling a teacher that you practice zen to get happy will usually be met with a scowl and the words, “Zen is not a method of Self Improvement.” It’s not that zen has a problem with happiness, in fact Dogen even tells us that “Zazen (sitting Zen) is the Dharma gate of ease and joy,” so it can come as a relief to know that happiness is allowed. It’s just that the Zen masters of old knew the same thing that we all learn, that trying to be happy tends to get in the way of being happy. So while we don’t any emphasis on it, it does seem to be a useful barometer to give us some insights on our practice.

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My own experience was that I started sitting to develop a sense of samurai-like focus but started to notice there were a lot more flowers than I had thought instead, and also that I had some choices I didn’t have before. I’m happier than I was but I think that depends on how you look at things. Literally.

A few years ago, I took part in a study on happiness conducted by Matt Killingswort at Harvard who was is trying to follow the trail of the wandering mind, specifically, he wanted to know what happens to our mood when we daydream.   A few hours after I signed up, I got the first of 50 text messages which came at random intervals during the days, asking me questions like a three year old child... What are you doing? Do you have to that? Do you want to, what are you thinking about, who are you talking to, if you could jump ahead in time, would you?

In the 650,000 responses received, Killingsworth’s team discovered that the mind of the average human is thinking about something other than what they are doing 47% of the time.  In any given moment, half of us are not really here.  They also discovered that whether and where our minds wander is a better predictor of happiness than what we are doing.   What they discovered was what the average Zen student already knows, the wanderings of the mind lead to lower levels of happiness and it doesn't matter whether we are replaying a bad memory or imagining ourselves on a pacific island; when our mind leaves the here and now, our sense of well being quickly fades.  The researchers discovered that while fondly replaying the scene where the crowd went wild might elevate your mood for a short time, within fifteen minutes there is a measurable drop in happiness leaving us feeling worse than when we started.  It turns out that daydreams and drugs both follow the same addictive trajectory.

The Study found that doing what we want to do isn’t so important as we might think.  But being on task, being immersed in it is. 

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In the graphic here, my best moments were when I was doing what I had to do and when I wanted to.  The times when I was doing whatever I wanted were a little less fulfilling.  Surprisingly, doing what I had to do when I didn't want to do it left me just one percent less happy than doing whatever I pleased.  The lowest points occurred when I was doing something I neither wanted nor had to do, which makes me wonder why I do such things.

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The answer to why I was so happy doing things I didn't want to do was in word, immersion.  The more immersed I was, the higher my level of happiness.  My mood, shown in this nifty scatter chart, was directly correlated with my focus. 



The Phenomenal Mind

For me, a question arose from this experiment, if focus is the answer, what do we focus on.  The answer, at least for me, was catalyzed by a line of commentary in the research analysis.  A scientist who was expounding on the capabilities of the human mind was discussing the phenomenon of mind and how the mind was a phenomenon that existed outside the limits of the physical world.  Our neurons, he said, create an emergent system which creates something we call the mind.  The phenomenal mind, he said, was larger than the brain, and is capable of imagining whole worlds all it's own.  This, I thought, is where science and spirituality diverge and where I think Spirituality has it right. 


The Phenomenal World

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 According to the Buddhist teaching, we live in a phenomenal world, which isn't always as good as it sounds.  According to Buddhist cosmology there are two worlds that we live in - the absolute and the phenomenal. The absolute world is might be described as how things really are. The phenomenal world is how those things appear to us when when they appear in our minds. We can sense nothing about the absolute world, the phenomenal word, this interpretation is all we have.

This is why there is a Zen koan that goes,

If a tree falls in the forest,
And there is no one there to hear it.,
Does it make a sound?


Maybe a bell can help us understand this koan.



The Bell

When the bell rings, you think you hear a sound.  There is no sound to hear but you hear it anyway, even though it dosen't exist.  How can that be?

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The bell is resonant, meaning that when is it struck, the energy is released in such a way that the surrounding air around is disturbed.  The energy is absolute, so we can’t see it. But, as we know, the surrounding air is excited and moves outward. Perhaps it might strike an eardrum and the eardrum moves.  We hear a sound and it carries a meaning to us.  Maybe we think it's telling us to begin zazen and maybe a feeling arises. While we believe we understand that the feeling is separate from the sound we couldn't be further from the truth.  When the bell is struck, the air moves in much the same way that it is moved by wind and in the absolute world, a truer representation might be to hear the bell as static or the noise that wind makes in our ears as it rushes by. 

But our minds are constantly exploring the cosmos and just like the photos sent back from the voyager spacecraft, the details are not included in the original digital signal, but are inferred and created later.  When the eardrum vibrates, the frequency is converted to a binary code and sent to the temporal lobe.  The auditory cortex then creates an artist rendering, eliminating background noise and uses the binary data to create a sonar image of the world. 

This is what we call sound, an image so convincing the we think it must exist outside our heads.  The mind is so good at creating these images, that when we pick up the phone, which transmits only ten percent of the sounds carried by a recording, we recognize the voice immediately.  We somehow still hear the missing 90% as if it were still there.  The words we hear wrongly in a conversation, sound no different than the words that were actually there.  The sound is you. Nothing like it is occurring outside our heads.

Sound is not anything that exists in the absolute world, but simply a representation of an available data source presented to us in a way we can understand.  It is what computer programmers call a graphic user interface.  When I think of bats, it just seems highly unlikely that their sonar is experienced as hearing.  Bat brains,  I suspect, would be better served by seeing sound than hearing it.

Contrary to popular belief the majority of our oversize brains are not devoted to intelligence, but simply to interpreting the senses, to conceptualizing the world that we see.  This, it would seem is the most important this we do, our intellect and imagination require comparatively little space at all.


The Mystery

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How is this related to our happiness?.  The answer is simple.  If focus reveals happiness, then it is good to have something to focus on.  The world before our eyes is a mystery, and the more we immerse ourselves in this mystery, the more we find who we are.  A shift occurs in the mind simply by trying to understand what is that we are seeing.  This is true because while we ponder the mysteries of our mind and wonder how to find it, the world IS our minds, a particular movie made from our karma.

When you hear the bell you hear the sound of your karma. 

That’s worth paying attention.






Gratitude

Gratitude

Like Brother David says, we are on a journey that requires courage. So a crucial question arises - where will we find the courage to let go and truly be alive? It’s a big question and one that goes way beyond the confines of Zen or even Buddhism. Brother David is a Benedictine Monk from Austria, so if he is writing this, finding this courage seems to be a universal quest. This is so important that I am not going to write about it here since it seems that this kind of courage can only be found on the journey of your life. And it is your life.

My meditation Doesn't Seem to Be working

My meditation Doesn't Seem to Be working

When three people ask the same question in a week, it’s easy to come up with a topic for your blog.

All three were sincere about their practice and they were regular in their sitting, however in the midst of their deepened awareness each noticed that a deep intuition seemed to be arising, 
    
    “…my mediation doesn’t seem to be working.  Should I be doing something else?”  

Zen Driving

Zen Driving

On this side of the monastery walls,  it seems like people are always trying to find time and space to practice.  Between our work, family, meals and a full array of errands, we might feel fortunate to fit a morning sit in before we head out into the world in a rush.  In this moment that arises as the door closes, we might discover the greatest and most overlooked opportunity for Zen practice in our lives - the commute. 

Following the breath

Following the breath

I learned breathing from butterflies. One day I was sitting at Tassajara, and I felt in tune with the breath of everything. The trees were breathing. About twenty butterflies were sitting on hot rocks, very white hot rocks, with clean water cascading between them. The butterflies were all breathing at once, opening their wings, and I tuned them in. It was very fantastic to feel that.       
Kobun Chino Otogawa  

Building Your Home Temple

Building Your Home Temple

If you live in a home, the path to your cushion goes right through the world of myriad things.  There are notifications on our devices, children wanting to eat, every distraction does the dance of importance, and even when we do make it to the zafu, sometimes a face-licking dog seems to be siding with Mara - an ancient deity who incessantly pestered the Buddha and who’s primary motivation seems to be to keep us from meditating.  It’s at least good to know that it’s not just us.  Apparently, if there’s a deity involved in what we are going though, people have been trying to fit practice into a hectic life for a very long time…

A Mission

A Mission

Kobun Chino Otogawa came to America with a vision which he never fully articulated with words.  While Suzuki, who brought him to this country to help establish the first Zen monastery at Tassajara, had a delightful gift for translating zen into quotable English phrases, Kobun is most often described in terms of movement, grace and a sense of presence.  Zen is an embodied practice and in Japan very little of it is ever explained.  Having taught the forms of Zen at Eijeiji, and being a skilled calligrapher and kudo archer, Kobun was classically trained and adept in forms, and yet he appeared to be reluctant to perform and teach them - conscious of the fact that his way might get in the way of your way.  Instead he seemed enamored of the vision of what could arise if the seeds of Zen were to take root in new ground.  

Geography

Geography

The purpose of a fishtrap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to. 

Zhuangzi

 

 

The Transcendental Nature of Shoes

The Transcendental Nature of Shoes

Instead of looking inside the words in our head for meaning and chasing our emotions into an imaginary past, we can realize that our mind is actually the buildings and trees around us and hidden in them is everything we are looking for. The mind not only invents the questions, but also the answers. We live in a maze of our own making. The solution to it is nothing more than walking through a world of wonder.

Building a Structural Framework for the Breath

Building a Structural Framework for the Breath

The thing your average buddhist spends the most time on is watching the breath.  Dauntingly, this simple practice immediately becomes frustrating as the ever helpful ego steps in and tries to run the show.  The next thing you know, you are sitting there with a growing feeling of awkwardness which occasionally transforms into another feeling...growing suffocation.  From there, myriad forms of hilarity can ensue.  The ego, it turns out, is really not good at respiration.  Thus, we practice with the breath for exactly that reason.

Awareness Practice

Awareness Practice

In zazen, we seek to become develop our sense of awareness of the world around us, to open our senses to every detail, and to discover the hidden impact of our slightest actions. We do this by sitting in front of a wall and staring at it. Sometimes this works, of course, and the boundaries between ourselves and the room seem not so hard anymore. Sounds drift in from outside, and we allow them to intermingle and intertwine with our mind as they pass. As the practice period continues, this deepening awareness allows us to see, on the large scale, our connection to the earth and our role in global warming. On a smaller scale, as attendance has grown over the last several months, our practice has also deepened our ability to hear every #*%& sound in the zendo.

The American Practice Period

The American Practice Period

Long, long ago, deep within the Indian subcontinent, Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath a Bodhi tree and found something that the people who met him afterward called enlightenment.  In time, he found himself living in a place called Deer Park, surrounded by people who were calling him Buddha now, and they had come to hear him teach the things that he had learned which had brought him first to the Bodhi tree and then to Deer Park.  Before long, there were more monks than the local community could support and this fact illuminated another truth, that the time had come to send the monks out into the world.   The work of a Buddha is always larger than the place where he sits.  So, calling them together, he sent his senior monks outwards, to begin to radiate the teachings into the surrounding forests, fields, villages and towns.  Each of them had different abilities and travelled to different places and purposes, but all of them carried two instructions,  First, when the moon was full, they were to gather in groups and renew the vows that guided them along the path.  Second, when the rains came, they were to return toDeer Parkfor the duration of the monsoon season to practice together.

Wax On – Wax Off

Wax On – Wax Off

One of the disappointing things about Zen is that I always thought there was going to be more wax on – wax off.  Like most people, my idea of Zen was formed at the movies and in dormitory conversations and in the occasional buzzed hot tub speculations.  The twin pillars of  eastern philosophy were Shogun and the Karate Kid, where Arnold from Happy Days turns out to be a totally cool old Samurai dude living in LA who teaches young Daniel-san karate by making him wax his car over and over again.  Just when Daniel-san is about to quit, Mr Miyagi gives him is first karate lesson and Daniel-San discovers that he already knows how to block the attacks - it’s the same motion as putting the wax on and wiping it off.

A Pocket Buddha

A Pocket Buddha

2500 years of fascination with a single individual have cultivated fields and fields of prose and poetry, with each age and each sect adding more and more words to a body of writing larger than any library.  As Buddhism has deepened over the centuries, the number of perspectives has grown exponentially and any statement of “fact” about the Buddha can be challenged from all sides as soon as it arises.  Even if a lifetime of scholarship were endeavored to the cause, one would be hard pressed to gain a complete understanding of the facets of Buddhism in a single incarnation. Each of us, then, is left to fashion our own construction of the Buddha.  Dauntingly, this is like trying to remake a crystal vase from the shards of glass found in a dustpan.

Hardwiring the Brain: The new science of sculpting the mind.

Hardwiring the Brain: The new science of sculpting the mind.

Within the last generation, what we thought we knew about the brain has completely overturned, as new testing devices and methods have been created to begin the process of accurately measuring and mapping the mind.  These discoveries have been nothing short of revolutionary.  While the brain is not the mind, it is the physical basis of the mind and understanding the machinery behind the curtain renders the mind trainable, not just in concept but as a physical reality.  Twenty years ago it seemed to be a scientific fact that the brain was static and the focus for brain health was on the conservation of a finite number of brain cells.  Then, just as Steve Jobs was being “permanently” removed from Apple in disgrace, nueroanatomists were beginning to direct incredibly sensitive scanners inside the cranium.  It was discovered that inside the brain, just like in the world of Apple, real genius, even what the organism is and does, is not nearly as fixed as the experts thought. What has emerged since then has been the unveiling of a brain that is regenerative, reconfigurable, and trainable.

Jedi Mind Training 101

Jedi Mind Training 101

So you’ve slogged through a little bit of practical neuroscience and you’re beginning to notice that everyone is talking about rewiring the brain which is fascinating but you’re the kind of person that would rather just get in there and do it.   This of course has always been the hallmark of a young Jedi. George Lucas didn’t just sit at his desk and make Star Wars up.   Lucas was driven to create a story that would describe the path of personal transformation, the way in which we become who we are, and how we might even transcend ourselves.  The creation of this story involved a spiritual journey of its own, and Lucas’ guide was Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist who studied the myths and religions of all times in search of their commonalities.  Campbell’s belief was that truth could be found behind the group of  metaphors which held constant across cultures.  For the film he was conceiving, Lucas chose the Japanese Samurai as his archetype.  The weapon would be the sword in the form of a light saber, the religion, Zen in form of something we would all come to recognize as The Force.

Metta Sutta

Metta Sutta

Thus the Buddhadidn’t trouble the monks with the technical details of the existence of tree spirits.Instead he went directly to the root of the problem.When we do harm to others, we become attached to consequences of our action.When we rationally determine that we have escaped the consequences, our deeper minds, often correctly, come to believe that justice, lies hidden somewhere in the world around us.Since the internal monologue has dismissed our cautions and proceeds headlong into self centered action, the mind simply communicates beyond words and as artists have done to avoid despotic censorship since the beginning of time, simply weaves the truth into the fabric of an acceptable story. If our actions are harmful, a feeling of nemesis begins to take form.