essential zen lessons

Zen 101  —  Essential Zen Lessons

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series Zen 101

Essen­tial Zen Lessons  —  Com­ing into pres­ence is the key focus of Zen, and is accom­plished in Zazen and “sim­ply notic­ing. Here we begin to explore the foun­da­tions of build­ing an “atten­tive­ness practice.”

climbing the jungle gymn
I made it! I’ve arrived! I’m the best!”

A series on learning and living zen

Back in the day I read the June 2008 cov­er sto­ry of Psy­chol­o­gy Today - “Dare To Be Your­self.” The prob­lem with it is that it is decid­ed­ly results ori­ent­ed, as some­thing from a West­ern per­spec­tive would be. While it describes liv­ing with flex­i­bil­i­ty and flow,

it’s clear that such an approach is seen as a technique to get somewhere  —  to being authentic, (Whatever the hell that means.)

Well, gag me with a spoon.

I want to be authen­tic, real, who I real­ly am,” is often short-hand for, “I want to con­tin­ue to do stu­pid stuff that does­n’t work, and get oth­ers to behave, so that I can be happy.”

It’s why so many peo­ple are so sap­py when they “fall in love.” There’s all this emo­tion­al vibra­tion going on, and it’s a dis­trac­tion from the under­ly­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion the un-exam­ined life brings.

Zen, on the other hand, is all about “is-ness.”

In oth­er words, what is going on inside of you  —  all of the mess, and game play­ing, blam­ing and dra­ma,  —  IS your life. As is what­ev­er your body is doing, moment by moment. To again quote the amaz­ing Taoist, Stew­art Wilde, “The way it is, is the way it is.”

I would say, “The way it is, is the only way it is.”

There is no get­ting past who we are, there­by achiev­ing some state of bliss where every­thing is, well, “just per­fect!” Per­fect is just one more goal  —  one more “judge­ment point.”

The pre­vail­ing west­ern myth is that the goal of life is hap­pi­ness. From a Zen per­spec­tive, all that is pos­si­ble is to be present. Or per­haps bet­ter put, all that is pos­si­ble is the aware­ness of being present  —  it’s not that being present is a choice, after all.

Look­ing for more on this topic? 

Check out my book, Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall.

Wayne’s “East­ern” book takes you by the hand and helps you to find peace of mind. Half Asleep in the Bud­dha Hall is a Zen-based guide to liv­ing life ful­ly and deeply.

Here’s the first three Essential Zen Lessons.

Essential Zen Lesson 1  —  Be Present

If pres­ence is all there is, why is it so hard to be so? Well, let me re-intro­duce you to your egoic mind structure.

For me, the odd part about the Psy­chol­o­gy Today arti­cle is that the writer is caught in the “authen­tic self loop.” This is the idea that peo­ple are actu­al­ly both real and “sub­stan­tial.” Our minds do this to us by con­struct­ing sto­ries of past and pro­jec­tions of future.

wayne and the giants
Me in the land of giants…

This is a pho­to of “me, age 8 or there­abouts.” Who is this per­son? Does he exist? Where? 

If you say, “That is you then, and you are now who you are now,” there is no way to prove that. You’d say, “Yeah, but genet­i­cal­ly you are the same.” No way to prove that. Even if you had a genet­ic sam­ple from “then,” there’s no way to prove it came from “me, then.”

None, not one, of my cells is the same as his were “back then.”

In other words, the picture captures a frame in a movie.
He existed like that in that moment, and never before or since.

If I think I am actu­al­ly him, then I will con­coct sto­ries about him; about how he was back then. But any sto­ry would be based in my “now.” What he was think­ing, who he “was” back then  —  a mystery! 

I actu­al­ly have no clue about what this pic­ture is of. I rec­og­nize the girl to my right, and she seems to be col­lect­ing the offer­ing at school, which makes no sense. So, I’d have to invent a sto­ry.

Which is what you do, every time you describe yourself.

Pres­ence is bring­ing your atten­tion, con­tin­u­al­ly, to the frame of the movie that is “now.” In this sense, it would be Zen-ish to say that we are process­es as opposed to fixed real­i­ties. In each moment, with each breath, we come and go, are born, and die, and are born again. Hard con­cept, since all those mem­o­ries and sto­ries seem real.

A cou­ple once assured me that they would always be “in romance” with each oth­er. They imag­ined that they had been “in love / romance” for 8 months, after all. 

Since they were pre­tend­ing they could pre­dict the future, I invit­ed them to remem­ber the begin­ning of oth­er rela­tion­ships, when they had felt the same about past lovers. They briefly looked sheep­ish, then spoke in uni­son, “This time, it’s dif­fer­ent!” (Of course, they are right, but for anoth­er rea­son entirely!)

Des­per­a­tion here, folks. I feel good right now, and I want this to last for­ev­er, while get­ting “bet­ter and bet­ter.” Yet, there is no for­ev­er. There is just this moment, and my choice as to how I will be in it. To think of the future is per­verse, as it actu­al­ly takes me away from this moment, and “here, now” is all there ever is.

Essential Zen Lesson 2  —  Drop Clinging

Sure, I’m speak­ing impos­si­bil­i­ties. It’s not pos­si­ble to nev­er cling. (Dou­ble neg­a­tive! Wow!) How­ev­er, we can notice and let go.

Cling­ing has three forms. We pull what we want toward us, we push away what we hate, and we are neu­tral to much of our expe­ri­ence. All of this is done in our heads, as we judge the object of our intention.

  • Want­i­ng more is the state of men­tal­ly grasp­ing onto some­thing plea­sur­able as opposed to expe­ri­enc­ing the now.
  • Push­ing away is men­tal­ly cre­at­ing abhor­rent sto­ries, as opposed to expe­ri­enc­ing the now.
  • Being dis-inter­est­ed is escap­ing into your head, where you judge that your fan­tasies are “bet­ter” than expe­ri­enc­ing the now.

Cling­ing is all about think­ing that your thoughts about liv­ing are bet­ter than actu­al­ly liv­ing. Cling­ing is thus a judge­ment  —  a men­tal eval­u­a­tion of some­thing past  —  a set­ting up of sce­nar­ios that are then com­pared with the now.

And the now is found to be lacking!

All fight­ing is caused by this. I have a thought about how you should be, I judge that you are not as I want you to be, and there­fore, if you love me, I decide that you should want to fix your­self so I can have my fan­tasies match real­i­ty.

I judge that how I imagine you should be is more important than how you are.

Yet, when some­one wants you to match their belief of how you should be, you get all bent. Weird, eh?

Engagement in the here and now is simple presence.

This, then this, then this. No thought of “all of this should be dif­fer­ent.” That’s cling­ing to a thought. Instead, do some­thing dif­fer­ent, do what you are doing, or leave. 

Way too sim­ple, eh? After all, you are here to tell every­one else what to do, right?

Get over it.

Essential Zen Lesson 3  —  Simplify

We cre­ate com­plex­i­ty to build a sense
of impor­tance and drama. 

I saw this with clients all the time. They’d report some event, and they’d blow it up to such “large­ness” and impor­tance that I was sur­prised the thought did­n’t explode. 

They’d put hours and hours (some­times years and years) into their sto­ry, and there were twists and turns and paus­es and tears and lots of drama.

I used to do this a lot. I’d go off to my ther­a­pist, Glo­ria,  and tell her one of my “trag­ic tales.” She’d lis­ten, shake her head, and say,

Cute, but stupid.”

I’d sigh, and let go of the story.

I’m not smart. I’m just good at dropping my drama. I see me hurting myself and decide, for this moment, not to.

Ram Dass used to talk about “Nobody Spe­cial train­ing.” Same thing. We want to be sig­nif­i­cant, noticed, impor­tant. We’re not. No one is.

Sto­ry sim­pli­fi­ca­tion is this: “This is it. How it is right now is how it is, and in the next moment it will be that. Me too.”

This does not pre­clude action. It’s like me and Glo­ria. Her action is to point out my inat­ten­tive sto­ry mak­ing, and to invite me back to the present. It’s a short, sweet approach to ther­a­py and life. If she chose to engage in debate about my sto­ries, she’d join me in mag­ni­fy­ing them.

Sim­pli­fi­ca­tion extends to all of our actions. It’s the mean­ing of “Chop Wood, Car­ry Water.” When chop­ping, chop. When writ­ing, write. When work­ing, work. Let go of the need to bore your­self or dis­tract your­self. Do what the present moment requires.

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