Charlotte Joko Beck: some notes on meditation
WHAT ZEN PRACTICE IS
Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen
- Practice is about experiencing the truth of who we really are.
- Practice is about being with our life as it is, not as we would like it to be.
- Practice is about the clash between what we want and what is.
- Practice is about the transformation of our unnecessary suffering.
- Practice is about attending to, [and] experiencing, wherever we are stuck, whatever we’re holding, whatever blocks us from our true nature.
- Practice is about turning away from constantly seeking comfort and from trying to avoid pain.
- Practice ultimately deals with just one thing: the fear at the base of human existence—the fear that I am not.
- Practice is about willingly residing in whatever life presents to us.
- Practice is about seeing through our belief systems; so even if they remain, they no longer run us.
- Practice is about turning from a self-centered view to a life-centered view.
- Practice is about learning to be happy, but we will never be happy until we truly experience our unhappiness.
- Practice is about slowly increasing our awareness of who we are and how we relate to life.
- Practice is about moving from a life of drama to a life of no drama.
- Practice is about learning to say “Yes” to everything, even when we hate it.
- Practice always comes back to just the willingness to be
- Practice is about finally understanding the paradox that although everything is a mess, all is well.
Here are some notes from Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck:
We’re transformed by what we do. And what is it that we do? We constantly make that choice. We give up our ego-centered dreams for this reality that we really are.
We’re all right here now. Where else could we be? But the point is to realize clearly what that means; this total oneness; this harmony; and to be able to express that in our lives. That’s what takes endless work and training. It takes guts. It’s not easy. It takes a real devotion to ourselves and to other people. Now of course, as we practice, all these things grow, even the guts. We have to sit with pain and we hate it. I don’t like it either. But as we patiently just sit our way through that, something builds within us.
Just do the best you can. Stay with your sitting.
I’ll tell you how far I’d walk to see a new teacher: maybe across the room, no farther! It isn’t because I have no interest in this person; it’s just that there is no one who can tell me about my life except—who? There is no authority outside of my experience. There is only one teacher. What is that teacher? Life itself. And of course each one of us is a manifestation of life; we couldn’t be anything else. Now life happens to be both a severe and an endlessly kind teacher. It’s the only authority that you need to trust. And this teacher, this authority, is everywhere.
This Mommy and Daddy that we’ve been waiting for are already here—right here. We can’t avoid the authority even if we want to. When we go to work, it’s right there; when we’re with our friends, it’s right there; when with our family, it’s right there. “Do zazen constantly; pray constantly.” If we understand that each moment of our life is the teacher, we can’t avoid doing that. If we truly are each moment of our life there is no room for an outside influence or authority. Where could it be? When I am just my own suffering where is the authority? The attention, the experiencing is the authority, and it is also the clarification of the action to be done.
Sitting is essentially a simplified space. Our daily life is in constant movement: lots of things going on, lots of people talking, lots of events taking place. In the middle of that, it’s very difficult to sense what we are in our life. When we simplify the situation, when we take away the externals and remove ourselves from the ringing phone, the television, the people who visit us, the dog who needs a walk, we get a chance—which is absolutely the most valuable thing there is—to face ourselves. Meditation is not about some state, but about the meditator. It’s not about some activity, or about fixing something, or accomplishing something. It’s about ourselves. If we don’t simplify the situation the chance of taking a good look at ourselves is very small—because what we tend to look at isn’t ourselves, but everything else. If something goes wrong, what do we look at? We look at what’s going wrong, and usually at others we think have made it go wrong. We’re looking out there all the time, and not at ourselves.
When I say meditation is about the meditator, I do not mean that we engage in self-analysis. That’s not it either. So what do we do? Once we have assumed our best posture (which should be balanced, easy), we just sit there, we do zazen. What do I mean by “just sit there”? It’s the most demanding of all activities. Usually in meditation we don’t shut our eyes. But right now I’d like you to shut your eyes and just sit there. What’s going on? All sorts of things. A tiny twitch in your left shoulder; a pressure in your side…Notice your face for a moment. Feel it. Is it tense anywhere? Around the mouth, around the forehead? Now move down a bit. Notice your neck, just feel it. Then your shoulders, your back, chest, abdominal area, your arms, thighs. Keep feeling whatever you find. And feel your breath as it comes and goes. Don’t try to control it, just feel it. Our first instinct is to try to control the breath. Just let your breath be as it is. It may be high in your chest, it may be in the middle, it may be low. It may feel tense. Just experience it as it is. Now just feel all of that. If a car goes by outside, hear it. If a plane flies over, notice that. You might hear a refrigerator going on and off. Just be that. That’s all you have to do, absolutely all you have to do: experience that, and just stay with it. Now you can open your eyes. If you can just do that for three minutes, that’s miraculous.
When we practice like this, we get acquainted with ourselves, how our lives work, what we are doing with them. If we find that certain thoughts come up hundreds of times, we know something about ourselves that we didn’t know before. Perhaps we incessantly think about the past, or the future. Some people always think about events, some people always think about other people. Some people always think about themselves. Some people’s thoughts are almost entirely judgments about other people. Until we have labeled for four or five years, we don’t know ourselves very well. When we label thoughts precisely and carefully, what happens to them? They begin to quiet down. We don’t have to force ourselves to get rid of them.
If you are new to practice it’s important to realize that simply to sit on that cushion for fifteen minutes is a victory. Just to sit with that much composure, just to be there, is fine. Practice at any stage is just being who we are at that moment. It’s not a question of being good or bad, or better or worse. We begin to learn that there is only one thing in life we can rely on. What is the one thing in life we can rely on? We might say, “I rely on my mate.” We may love our husbands and wives; but we can’t ever completely rely on them, because another person (like ourselves) is always to some extent unreliable.
There is one thing in life that you can always rely on: life being as it is. Trust in things being as they are is the secret of life. But we don’t want to hear that. I can absolutely trust that in the next year my life is going to be changed, different, yet always just the way it is. If tomorrow I have a heart attack, I can rely on that, because if I have it, I have it. I can rest in life as it is.
When we make a personal investment in our thoughts we create the “I” (as Krishnamurti would say), and then our life begins not to work. That’s why we label thoughts, to take the investment out again. When we’ve been sitting long enough we can see our thoughts as just pure sensory input. A thought in itself is just pure sensory input, an energy fragment. But we fear to see thoughts as they are. When we label a thought we step back from it, we remove our identification.
We want to think. We want to speculate. We want to fantasize. We want to figure it all out. We want to know the secrets of the universe. When we do all that, the fire stays banked; it’s not getting any oxygen. Then we wonder why we’re sick, mentally and physically. The burning is so clogged, there’s nothing but debris coming off. And that debris doesn’t just dirty us; it dirties everything. So it’s important to sit every day; otherwise the understanding of the burning process gets so dim and cloudy that the fires stay banked. We have to sit every day. Even ten minutes is better than not sitting at all. Sesshins are also essential for serious students; daily sitting may keep a low-grade fire burning, but usually it doesn’t burst into a full blaze.
I can remember when I used to daydream literally four or five hours at a time. And now—sadly I see so many people dreaming their lives away. Sometimes a man or a woman dreams of an ideal partner; they dream and they dream. But when we live life in dreams and hopes, then what life can offer, that man or woman sitting right next to us—ordinary, unglamorous—the wonder of that life escapes us because we are hoping for something special, for some ideal. And what Dogen Zenji is telling us is that real practice has nothing to do with that.
We’re saying, once again, that zazen, sitting, is enlightenment. Why? Because second after second as we sit, that’s it. Actually, all of us are constantly preparing food for others. This “food” can be typing; it can be doing math or physics; it can be taking care of our children. But do we live our life with that attitude of appreciation for our work? Or are we always hoping, “Oh, somewhere there’s got to be more than this”? Yes, we’re all hoping. Not only do we hope, but we really give our life to this hope, to these vain thoughts and fantasies. And when they don’t “produce” for us, we’re anxious, even desperate.
We spend a lot of time looking for something called the truth. And there is no such thing, except in each second, each activity of our life. Nothing is wrong with dreams and fantasies. Just don’t hold on to them; see their unreality and turn away. Stay with the only thing that’s real: the experiencing of breath and the body and the environment.
At any point in this talk, for instance, if I stop right now, where are the words I’ve already said? They just don’t exist. If I stop at any later point in the talk, where are the words that have been said up to that point? They don’t exist. And when the talk’s over, where is the talk? There is no talk. All that’s left are memory traces in our brains. And this memory, whatever it is, is fragmentary and incomplete; we remember only parts of any actual experience. The same thing could be said for a concert—in fact we can say the same thing about our whole day, and our whole life. At this very point in time, where is our past life? It doesn’t exist.
As we sit having our lunch, where is that breakfast quarrel? Where is it? “The mind of the past is ungraspable.” Where is it? The dinner, when we’re going to really fix all this up (to our satisfaction, of course), where is it? “The mind of the future is ungraspable.” It doesn’t exist.
What does exist? What’s real? There is just my upset right now, at lunch. My story describing what happened at breakfast is not what happened. It’s my story. What is real is the headache, the fluttering in my tummy. And my chattering is a manifestation of that physical energy. Outside of the physical experience, there is nothing else that’s real. And I don’t know if that’s real, but that’s all we can say about it.
Now just one thing and one thing alone creates this hostile world, and that is our thoughts—our pictures and our fantasies. They create a world of time and space and suffering. And yet, if we try to find the past and the future that our thoughts dwell upon, we find it is impossible—they are ungraspable.
We never grow by dreaming about a future wonderful state or by remembering past feats. We grow by being where we are and experiencing what our life is right now. We must experience our anger, our sorrow, our failure, our apprehension; they can all be our teachers, when we do not separate ourselves from them. When we escape from what is given, we cannot learn, we cannot grow. That’s not hard to understand, just hard to do. Those who persist, however, will be those who will grow in understanding and compassion. How long is such practice required? Forever.
Each moment, as it is, is complete and full in itself. Seeing this, no matter what arises in each moment, we can let it be. Right now, what is your moment? Happiness? Anxiety? Pleasure? Discouragement? Up and down we go, but each moment is exactly what each moment is. Our practice, our aspiration, is to be that moment and let it be what it is. If you are afraid, just be fear, and right there you are fearless.
If we practice with the aspiration just to be the present moment, our lives will gradually transform and grow wonderfully. At various times we’ll have sudden insights; but what’s most important is just to practice moment by moment by moment with deep aspiration.
When we are willing just to be here, exactly as we are, life is always OK: feeling good is OK, feeling bad is OK; if things go well it’s OK, if things go badly it’s OK. But when you’re tired after work, that’s the tired Buddha; when your legs hurt during zazen, that’s the hurting Buddha; when you’re disappointed with some aspect of yourself, that’s the disappointed Buddha. That’s it!
Dogen Zenji said, “This is the Truth. Do not search for the Truth anywhere else. Where can you search?” There is no paradise lost, none to be regained. Why? Because you cannot avoid this moment. You may not be awake to it, but it is always here. You cannot avoid paradise. You can only avoid seeing it. Wisdom is to see that there is nothing to search for. If you live with a difficult person, that’s nirvana. Perfect. If you’re miserable, that’s it. And I’m not saying to be passive, not to take action; then you would be trying to hold nirvana as a fixed state. It’s never fixed, but always changing. There is no implication of “doing nothing.” But deeds done that are born of this understanding are free of anger and judgment. No expectation, just pure and compassionate action.
As Dogen says, “This is the Truth. Do not search for the Truth anywhere else.” Why? Why can’t we search for it somewhere else? There’s no place else to search because there is nothing that ever happens except when? Right here. Right now. And it is our very nature, enlightenment itself. Can we wake up and look?
The point we need to understand is whenever we begin to be upset (angry, irritated, resentful, jealous), we need to know we’re upset. Many people don’t even know this when it happens. So, be aware that upset is taking place. When we do zazen and begin to know our minds and our reactions, we begin to be aware that yes, we are upset. We have once again to be what we basically are, which is seeing, touching, hearing, smelling; we have to experience whatever our life is, right this second. If we’re upset we have to experience being upset. If we’re frightened, we have to experience being frightened. If we’re jealous we have to experience being jealous. And such experiencing is physical; it has nothing to do with the thoughts going on about the upset.
By not just understanding it, but by doing it is what Zen practice is. The reason it’s difficult is that we don’t want to do it. We know we don’t want to do it. We want to escape from it. If I feel that I’ve been hurt by you, I want to stay with my thoughts about the hurt. I want to increase my separation; it feels good to be consumed by those fiery, self-righteous thoughts. By thinking, I try to avoid feeling the pain. The more sophisticated my practice becomes, the more quickly I see this trap and return to experiencing the pain. And where I might once have stayed upset for two years, the upset shrinks to two months, two weeks, two minutes. Eventually I can experience an upset as it happens and stay right on the razor’s edge.
The main cause for the barrier, and the main reason we fail to see that which is already so, is our fear of being hurt by that which seems separate from us. If we look back on our lives we can make a list of people or events who have hurt us. We all have our list. Out of that long list of hurts we develop a conditioned way of looking at life: we learn patterns of avoidance; we have judgments and opinions about anything and anyone that we fear might hurt us.
What really counts is the practice that we have to go through moment by moment with that which seems to hurt us, or threaten us, or displease us—whether it’s difficulty with our co-workers, or our family, or our partners, anyone. Unless in our practice we’ve reached the point in our practice where we react very little, an enlightenment experience is largely useless.
The barrier of emotion-thought often takes the form of a vacillation between two poles. The one pole is conformity: sacrificing to the gods, sacrificing ourselves, pleasing life, pleasing others, being good, trying to be an ideal person, stifling what is true for us at any given moment. This is the person who tries to be good, who tries to practice hard, who tries to be enlightened, who tries, tries, tries. But if we practice with intelligence we begin to sense the conforming style we’ve been immersed in and then we tend to swing to the opposite pole, to another kind of slavery: rebellion or nonconformity. People then insist, “No one can tell me what to do! I need my own space, and I want everyone to stay out of it!”
Both states are slavery, however; we are still reacting to life. Either we conform to it or we rebel against it. People and the gods are still separate. We all swing between these two stages. What is the resolution? What resolves that continual battle within ourselves? What brings us and the gods together? Until we understand the riddle we’re caught in it. The first thing to see is what we’re doing. And when we sit that will reveal itself.
We begin to see that we swing between these thoughts, back and forth, back and forth. In this whole back-and-forth process, there’s nothing but separation. How do we resolve it? We resolve it by experiencing that which we don’t want to experience. We need to experience nonverbally the uncomfortableness, the anger, the fear that is sitting beneath this vacillation between the two poles. That’s true zazen, true prayer, true religious practice.
What does it mean to shatter our usual way of seeing our life? My ordinary experience of life is centered around myself. After all, I am experiencing these ongoing impressions—I can’t have your experience of your life, I always have my own. And what inevitably happens is that I come to believe that there is an “I” central to my life, since the experiences of my life seem to be centered around “I.” “I” see, “I” hear, “I” feel, “I” think, “I” have this opinion. We rarely question this “I.” Now in the enlightened state there is no “I”; there is simply life itself, a pulsation of timeless energy whose very nature includes—or is—everything.
The process of practice is to begin to see why we do not realize our true nature: it is always our exclusive identification with our own mind and body, the “I.” To realize our natural state of enlightenment we must see this error and shatter it. The path of practice is deliberately to go against the ordinary self-absorbed way of life.
The first stage of practice is to see that my life is totally centered around myself: “Yes, I do have these self-centered opinions, I do have these self-centered thoughts, I do have these self-centered emotions…. I, I, I, I, I have all these from morning until night.” Just this awareness is in itself a great step.
Then the next stage (and these stages may take years) is to observe what we do with all these thoughts, fantasies, and emotions, which usually is to cling to them, to cherish them, to believe that we would be miserable and lost without them. “Without that person I will be lost; unless this situation goes my way I can’t make it.” If we require that life be a certain way, inevitably we suffer—since life is always the way it is, and not always fair, not always pleasant. Life is not particularly the way we want it to be, it is just the way it is. And that need not prevent our enjoyment of it, our appreciation, our gratitude.
Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck [PDF 230 pp.]: