Half Asleep in the Buddha Hall — Free Chapter

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You Are What You Cling To

A Zen tem­ple had a tra­di­tion. The Abbot, upon real­iz­ing he was dying, would put pen to paper and write a death poem, which the remain­ing monks found comforting.

The cur­rent Abbot became aware of his impend­ing death.
He took to his bed, yet wrote no poem.

The monks became more and more agi­tat­ed, ask­ing, and then demand­ing that he keep with tradition.

Final­ly, with a weary smile, the Abbot wrote, and died.

After the funer­al, the monks assem­bled to hear the poem, which went:

Life is thus, and death is thus.

Poem or no poem, what’s the fuss?


A new min­is­ter was in the choir’s prepa­ra­tion room. The Open­ing Music played. The choir entered the sanc­tu­ary. Fol­low­ing in a row, each walked two nor­mal steps, then took a giant step, then resumed tak­ing nor­mal steps to the choir loft.
Lat­er, the min­is­ter asked why they entered the way they did. He heard, “That’s the way we always did it.”

The min­is­ter, curi­ous, asked the old­est member.

She laughed. “60 years ago, the church was drafty and cold. They decid­ed to put in a fur­nace. They cut open the floor to run the ducts, and ran out of mon­ey for two years. The choir mem­bers had to step over the gap in the floor for the whole time.
To this day, they just can’t stop themselves.”

This book con­tains a mass of con­tra­dic­tions, which is dif­fi­cult for the West­ern mind to accept. We nat­u­ral­ly look for the ‘right,’ ‘cor­rect,’ ‘true’ ver­sions of pret­ty much every­thing. Much of what we accept as true or right is sim­ply the end­less rep­e­ti­tion of an unre­flect­ed-upon process of learned judgements. 

What do you cling to, and why?

While it might be said that “We are the sum of our expe­ri­ences,” it is also ‘so’ that we are noth­ing more than our cur­rent expe­ri­ence. This can be a dif­fi­cult con­cept to grasp.

At many work­shops, peo­ple will check in with their sto­ries, pro­fes­sions, expe­ri­ences, and expec­ta­tions. I recent­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in a small group. A guy checked in. When he fin­ished, anoth­er par­tic­i­pant attempt­ed to check in by describ­ing her mem­o­ry of an expe­ri­ence she had ear­li­er in the day —the expe­ri­ence being about the man who had just checked in.

The leader stopped her, and asked her to lim­it her­self to talk­ing about what was up for her right now—no sto­ry telling. The par­tic­i­pant got quite indig­nant. She said, “No one ever lis­tens to me! You dis­em­pow­ered me by stop­ping me, keep­ing me in check. Peo­ple have been doing that all of my life. I want to make a con­tri­bu­tion out of my expe­ri­ence and am thwart­ed. I am angry with you.” The leader encour­aged her to continue.

She did, most­ly in the same vein, repeat­ing how she hat­ed it that no one ever lis­tened to and heard her. She talked angri­ly for some time, and then the lead­ers did some Breath­work with her.

As I watched and lis­tened, I thought, “Her expe­ri­ence of not being heard in the past, (or per­haps her expe­ri­ence of not being heard the way she want­ed to be) is caus­ing her to miss that she is being lis­tened to intent­ly in this moment. Rather than her report­ing a past event, we are see­ing and hear­ing her as she is, right now.”

Living in the moment is blocked by clinging to the past.

The habit of cling­ing is so ingrained that we don’t notice we are doing it. Peo­ple have a pro­found, life chang­ing expe­ri­ence and per­haps notice a relax­ation in their bod­ies. Then, they remem­ber their past sto­ries, their eyes glaze over, and they begin to re-describe them­selves in terms of their past expe­ri­ence. They dis­count the present on the altar of the past.

They return to being what they cling to.

Bob says, “Mary does (this,) and I do (that.)” The intent is to con­vey an “a leads to b” rela­tion­ship between the two events. This is odd.

First, think­ing this way means that Bob sees him­self as a help­less vic­tim of Mary’s actions. This lets him off the hook, both for his behav­iours and for his feelings.

Sec­ond, Bob acts as if this sup­posed causal­i­ty is innate­ly part of the system—as if there are no oth­er choic­es available.

And the irony is that as long as Bob thinks this way, he’s right.

On the oth­er hand, since it appears that Mary is not hold­ing a gun to Bob’s head, Bob could do any­thing he want­ed when Mary acts. Bob is not a help­less vic­tim, with­out choice. Bob ren­ders him­self help­less by cling­ing to the sto­ry he tells him­self, (the ‘a’ leads to ‘b’ sto­ry) as opposed to act­ing clear­ly, with no clinging.

In order for us to move past the things we cling to, we must let go.

That this is obvi­ous does not mean that let­ting go is easy. I’m writ­ing this in the Van­cou­ver Air­port. Most Cana­di­an air­ports I fly out of have a booth, flog­ging ‘Air­miles Mas­ter­Cards.’ I had the reg­u­lar ver­sion of this card, so I’d walk past and ignore the entreaties of the nice peo­ple flog­ging the cards. You could say I was cling­ing to the idea that I knew what they would say, and had pre­de­ter­mined that I wasn’t interested.

Just a lit­tle data for you: My flight, round trip from Toron­to to Van­cou­ver, cost me 2800 points. I only had 2600, so I had to top up, at a cost of $110 dollars.

Today, I stopped to lis­ten to the pitch about the GOLD Air­miles Card. I did so because I judged the woman doing the pitch was very cute, (so I thought I’d enjoy talk­ing with her,) and because, for the first time (regard­ing Air­miles Mas­ter­Cards,) I was curi­ous as opposed to clinging.

Turns out, for $70 bucks, I col­lect Air­miles 4 times faster, and can fly on West­Jet for 1600 points, any­time, any­where they fly. Hmm. Want to guess what I did?

As soon as I for­get that things are as they are in this moment, and then they shift, (short­hand: things are as they are, and then they aren’t) I cre­ate for myself the expe­ri­ence of being stuck and help­less. If I have pre­de­ter­mined (in advance and with no evi­dence) that there is only one pos­si­bil­i­ty or one choice of behav­iour, then there is only one pos­si­ble way the present sit­u­a­tion can unfold.

Notice that I said, “in advance and with no evidence.”

To ‘wake up,’ I must remem­ber that past expe­ri­ence has no leg­isla­tive abil­i­ty. Just because I’ve refused to lis­ten to Air­miles pitch­es for years and years, I don’t ‘have to’ this time.

Just because, in the past, you have cho­sen to think you were being inval­i­dat­ed, does not mean that you actu­al­ly were. More sig­nif­i­cant­ly, it does not mean that you will be inval­i­dat­ed this time. How­ev­er, if you expect to be inval­i­dat­ed, you will cre­ate that expe­ri­ence, no mat­ter what is real­ly going on.

In the past, I have made it dif­fi­cult for myself to hear and accept warm com­pli­ments. Dar­bel­la laughs at me about this often (among oth­er things she laughs at me about.) She says, “They all love you. They all hate you. They all love you. They all hate you. Or, you could get over yourself.”

I want­ed to change my pat­tern, so I began a project of lis­ten­ing for com­pli­ments. I dis­cov­ered that I was receiv­ing what I was lis­ten­ing for. I can now say that I hear and accept warm compliments.

I do not min­i­mize, write off, or lim­it the expe­ri­ence. I do not say, “Well, this won’t last. Soon, I will go back to blow­ing off com­pli­ments.” I say, “I heard and felt this expe­ri­ence com­plete­ly, and I like this feel­ing.” I thus am open­ing myself to con­tin­u­ing to hear what is actu­al­ly offered.

We are what we cling to.

Old habits die hard. This is why we expe­ri­ence what we expect to expe­ri­ence, despite what is real­ly hap­pen­ing. The only way past this is to notice how cling­ing to “This is the way I’ve always done it,” gets us the same results.

If I do not like what I am get­ting, there is only one choice. I must let go of cling­ing to the old way, and shift what I do. Things shift when I do.

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