The winter issue of Midwest Zen was published this week, and I have a short piece (“Do we really want to sit?“), about my own struggles with patience. I see this in many parts of my life, but in this essay I focused on two places: sitting meditation and running.
At times, I’ll find that that an activity like running is something that I experience negatively, as something uncomfortable. In those moments, I’ll either stop (and turn to another activity), or push through – forcing myself to continue. As part of my practice, I’ve tried to slow down, and to question the source of my impatience:
“I’ve asked myself, why do I have to force myself to run? And underneath that question I see an assumption that I have made, without even noticing it: that running is not enjoyable. At some level, I find running to be aversive, or a kind of chore. And so, I have to push myself to continue. Some days, perhaps this attitude is justified: I really am tired, and running is a struggle. But more often, this feeling arises for no specific reason. It is more of a habit, of approaching the experience of running from a negative frame of thinking, or a fearful, defensive mindset.”
And, of course, I’ve found that when I look closely at any uncomfortable sensations during meditation, I find a similar pattern. And I’ve asked myself: do I really want to meditate?
What I find is that much of my discomfort is driven by how I approach meditating, or running, or so many things in life. By changing my mindset, my entire experience can shift. It has been an important lesson for me, one that I’m grateful for. And, I hope these reflections might be of interest to others who face similar struggles.
Last fall, I found my way back to a more regular Zen practice. When we moved our family to a small, Midwestern town years ago, it was very difficult to find local groups to connect with, especially as we raised our young children. And so, for many years, I fell out of the habit of sitting at a Zen center. I sat by myself, and only rarely with others. Even when I did meditate with others, it was usually in a very informal space.
But, after the extreme disconnection during the height of the pandemic, I felt a strong yearning to connect with other practitioners. And, I found it to be an opportune moment, where my own children were a bit older, and it was easier for me to travel to a local zendo. And, many Zen centers had developed strong options for virtual attendance.
It had been years since I had been to a zendo, and from the first moment that I stepped across the threshold, I was grateful for the feeling of entering back into a community of practitioners. Bowing as I entered, and bowing to my cushion, I was also grateful to recognize the simple forms that provide structure to our practice. Settling back into chanting the four vows, bowing, and prostrations, I was somewhat surprised by the feelings of connection that came with these rituals. I found that I had come back to a kind of joy as I picked up the habits of the zendo once again.
I have been thinking more about these experiences, especially with how they contrast with the habits that often fill up our everyday life. Many times, when I notice that I have been drawn into a habit, these are occasions of inattention – distracted while I drive to store, ruminating on some minor issue while doing the dishes, daydreaming while mowing the lawn. As I look at these moments of everyday distraction, and those of great engagement in the zendo, I wonder what the space is that separates habit from ritual.
For a long time, I have been somewhat wary of falling into habitual behaviors. Many teachings warn us about falling into the trap of habitual behaviors, or describe how practice can be a path that frees us from dysfunctional, rigid patterns of thinking. I encountered some of these ideas when I read Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind when I was first learning about Zen:
A mind full of preconceived ideas, subjective intentions, or habits is not open to things as they are. That is why we practice zazen: to clear our mind of what is related to something else.
Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p. 88
… as long as you have some fixed idea or are caught by some habitual way of doing things, you cannot appreciate things in their true sense.
Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, p 112
These and other teachings shaped some of my early approach to Zen. For better or worse, I considered habitual behavior as a kind of trap, something to be avoided. Or, at least that practice involves substituting “bad” habits for better ones. Ritual, as an example of a repeated, patterned behavior, could be considered a habit. But, what is it that distinguishes rituals from the rest of our habits?
To feel for the gap between rituals and habitual behavior, it helps to look closely at what we mean by habit, which I approach from my perspective as a psychologist and neuroscientist. In our everyday use of the term, we are often pointing out a pattern of behavior (or thought) that is repeated, consistent, and perhaps difficult to change. This idea of habit is broadly similar to what I would mean by the term, when speaking as a psychologist. But, research on habits has tested and extended this definition, somewhat.
Habits are behaviors (or pattern behavior) that typically are learned slowly, over many over many repetitions. This learning process roughly involves monitoring the effects of our actions, and learning what we need to do in order to reach our typical goals. Habits are often tied to stimuli in our environment, such that we might develop a habit of always turning left as we leave our house (if our car or bicycle is usually located in that direction), or reaching directly to a specific button to turn off our alarm in the morning.
The key is that a habit represents the behavior (or sequence of behaviors) we have learned to do in a specific place or moment. When we engage in a habit, we can then perform these behaviors without needing to plan out our behavior beforehand, intentionally. Because of this, habits can be performed quickly at the opportune moment, with little planning, and initiated by triggered by cues around us as we work to reach our goals.
One weakness of habits, though, is that they are not very flexible: in order to respond rapidly and with little oversight, we give up the ability to modify our behavior if we encounter an obstacle, and they can be slow or difficult to change. In this sense, we can contrast habits with deliberative behavior – moments where we spend some time consciously considering our options to find the best one.
Our daily life usually represents a mixture of habits and deliberative behavior (and other kinds of behavior), but we will often use a habit for common, typical behaviors. Think, for instance, of making a drive to a well-known location, and how different this experience can be from driving to a new job, or from a new home.
Habits are with us in all parts of our daily life, though we may not even notice them until a change in the environment or our routine draws them out into the light of day. For example, when I started my job at a small college in Indiana, as our department’s behavioral neuroscientist, I inherited an aging animal research lab in the basement. The building had been built in the 1960s, and the research lab looked like it had never been updated (and still had its original lime green wall tile).
In one room, I found an enormous surgical light mounted to the ceiling, like something you might expect to see in an old movie (maybe a horror film involving dentistry). The device was in terrible condition, and I was never able to make good use of it. But, removing the light was a difficult prospect, and for perhaps a decade I simply ignored it. Or I tried to ignore it, but many times I walked accidentally into the heavy arm of the light – which floated just at about the level of my head.
The light fixture and I reached an uneasy truce over the years, but I never really appreciated how much it had affected me until it was finally gone. One summer day, after one final bruise to my temple, I gathered some tools and took the fixture down. Like many tasks that have been deferred too long, it was a wonderful relief to finally have the light removed, and to feel that the room was more open, and spacious.
But even though the light fixture was gone, I could still feel its weight in the air. Every time I walked through the center of that room, as I approached the empty space, I found myself involuntarily ducking under that space. It truly was a strange feeling, to watch myself dive under a phantom light fixture. I would laugh, and sometimes felt the need to explain myself to my students (some who had joined the lab after the light was gone).
Intellectually, I knew there was no obstruction there, of course. But, another part of me knew something else, something learned slowly with each time I had struck my head on the heavy counterweight. The past has its own weight, a kind gravity that draws us back to familiar paths.
This habit of mine, ducking under the light fixture, was a great help to me over the years, and saved me from a number of injuries. In the same way, all of our other habits, often operating invisibly, just out of sight, are a crucial part of our daily life. It took me some time to appreciate it, but our habits are a gift, the distillation of our experiences. They allow us to move easily through the common paths of our day, and can free up other parts of our minds. Far from being a hindrance, our lives would be very difficult without habits. In fact, in Parkinson’s disease, cells that release dopamine in the brain die off, which impairs the function of structures deep in the brain that are critical for the execution of habits. This can lead to a disruption in the learning or use of habits, making daily life more exhausting, and requiring greater attention to complete everyday behaviors.
If habits are a cornerstone of our daily life, then was I wrong to feel that habits could be harmful? In a sense, yes – habits are not harmful in themselves. Habits can offer us an opportunity to go on “autopilot” – where we find ourselves moving through the world, but with a sense of disengagement. We may be lost in thought, following a daydream or fantasy, or ruminating on the past. Moments when habits can guide our behavior smoothly are also ones where we can fall into a kind of slumber – disconnected from the world around us.
But, this does not have to be the case, and we can look to our experience in rituals for a clear example. As I returned to sitting more regularly last fall, it had been several years since I had visited a Zen center or zendo. I felt quite self-conscious at first, working to remember the simple forms for entering a zendo, taking my seat. But, those old habits came back, and slowly adapted to the specific forms of these new communities. Far from being moments of autopilot, of disconnection, I felt a deep sense of connection – to my body, the world around me, to the group. Especially after the disconnection of the pandemic years, I was so grateful for the experience of sitting again with a community – virtually and in person. These forms offer us – if we are open to it – an opportunity to experience a profound sense of absorption in the moment, and for me, a sense of gratitude and wonder. And in the rituals – all of the forms, chants, each careful behavior – I saw fingerprints of habitual behavior.
In the end, there is nothing special abou the habits that support the rituals of our practice – they are the same as the habits that support our daily life. Each offers us a moment in which we can fall into autopilot, and turn away from reality. And, both offer us an opportunity to cultivate presence, and experience directly our deep connection to all beings. Moments of connection may be more likely in the rituals of our practice, were we have made a commitment, the intention, to engage wholeheartedly. And, where we find the support of our practice community, taking strength from their intention.
There may be moments of mindlessness in the zendo, of course, where we fall into a habit mindlessly. But, our practice is to be aware, and to come back to this moment each time. As we bring that intention to our daily life, we can also engage more mindfully at times when our behavior is guided by habits. Driving to work, or washing the dishes, our intention to engage wholeheartedly can give each habit the depth of a ritual.
Shunryu Suzuki. (1970). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Weatherhill, New York, NY.
Many of us come to our meditation practice with the hope that we can improve ourselves, that we can become our best self. This is a natural, normal place to begin. But, in Zen Buddhism, we often encounter teachings that ask us to examine our motivation for our practice very closely, lest it lead us to greater suffering.
For instance, consider the First Noble truth in Buddhism, that that human life is characterized by duhkha (often translated as suffering, but dissatisfaction is closer). Steve Hagan, in “Buddhism Plain and Simple” explains that our suffering has three major sources. We cannot avoid pain (physical and mental). Change is core part of our experience (so pleasure is fleeting). And, if we identify our life with our self (our existence as a separate being, one thread of identity that traces its way from birth to death), then we can suffer greatly as we worry about when that thread will be broken.
If we do not understand the causes of duhkha, or dissatisfaction, in a deep way, then our approach to our meditation practice may just continue our attempts to avoid pain, to resist change, and to turn away from the knowledge that our lives will end someday. Instead of working towards freeing ourselves from duhkha, our practice could end up being cosmetic, something closer to spiritual plastic surgery.
And in fact, the comparison to surgery seems appropriate here. In medicine, we have made great strides in our ability to heal the body, and repair injury. But, at our local dermatologist’s office this week, I was struck by the number of advertisements for purely cosmetic treatments. Rather than focusing on treating a medical condition, or conditions such as acne, the focus felt to be on fighting against the inevitable decline of our bodies. Or, helping us meet some standard of beauty that we felt we have fallen short of.
And, this seemed like just more duhkha – any benefits we might obtain will fundamentally be unfulfilling, if we do not realize that we cannot stop aging entirely, or that there are limits to how much we can modify our bodies.
In our lifetimes, we are going to see more of these kinds of advertisements, and we will see more that reach past our external appearance to try and shape our minds as well. Even today, our ability to repair the nervous system is improving, and cochlear implants for individuals with hearing loss are a good example. More interventions are on the horizon (for individuals with vision loss, or paralysis, for example).
And, there is considerable promise to intervene far beyond sensation (hearing, vision) and movement (paralysis). You may have seen a story recently, about a case where direct brain stimulation was used to help a young woman who had a long history of treatment-resistant major depression (for a good summary, see this summary by Dr. Francis Collins).
This case is remarkable, and one that will be very important as we work to create new, and more effective, options for mental health treatment.
Some of these treatments will change our lives for the better, as reconstructive surgery has done. But, following closely behind that work will be those companies that want to sell us all manner of neuroscience enhancements – perhaps as a kind of cosmetic surgery for the brain.
Recently, I listened to an episode of Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain, that captured this tension – our interest in using new technology to improve our daily lives, and be more effective. In the second half of the episode, Vedantam visits George Mason University, to learn about research using transcranial direct current stimulation (dTCS) to help regular people improve their ability to focus their attention after being distracted. In the piece, he describes the allure of this kind of neurostimulation in a way that seems very familiar:
… the idea of running an electrical current through my head is not exactly appealing. But the possibility that I could juggle the many demands on my time? That’s irresistible.
In recent years, many groups have been studying the effectiveness of tDCS to influence our cognition and emotion. The basic technique is quite simple and essentially uses a battery to send a very weak current through the brain.
While research like that described in the episode have shown that tDCS has some potential to improve some cognitive skills, Dr. Melissa Scheldrup (who was a graduate student at the time), expressed hesitation about using the technology casually:
I personally don’t think that tDCS should be used in somebody’s everyday life. It should be used as a tool to look at the underlying physiological process. So, I don’t think that everybody should have a helmet that has this… it’s like cheating.
While I personally am not as worried about this technology becoming a type of cheating, I do have concerns about adopting this technology to help us be better workers. I worry that this may just be a shortcut, that stops us from looking more deeply at why we feel we need to be better workers.
But, many companies are pressing forward with technology aimed at neuroenhancement. For instance, I recently came across an article from the Huffington Post from back in 2015. The story was about a device produced by the company Thync to help us decrease anxiety using transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) of the vagus nerve. The first line was interesting: “What if you could zap your brain into a state of calm or energy with only the push of a button?”
Indeed, what if we could?
Thync’s stimulator was based on at least one interesting research study (published in 2015 in Scientific Reports), but their early consumer devices never really caught on.
Today, Thync seem to be marketing some new products, like one that they call the “FeelZing” energy patch. An ad on their site promises “Energy and focus boost for 4 hours,” and “Reduced mental fatigue,” where a dose of electrical stimulation can give you a boost without needing to use caffeine or other stimulants. Images in their promotional video show a person apparently in seated meditation. The narrative appears to imply that the FeelZing gives the benefits of meditation (energy? focusing?) without needing to resort to caffeine or stimulants.
Personally, I find this work, to apply research findings to better our lives, to be very interesting. And, to also be fundamentally flawed if we use them in isolation. It feels that some of this work is focused on treating the symptoms of our dissatisfaction, rather than the root cause of the disease of suffering. To really benefit from any of these technologies, we need to look at the root of our suffering. Otherwise, we may just be leaning more heavily into duhkha.
And here, I think that some advice on Zen practice may be helpful. While there is no perfect way for us to ensure that our meditation practice is not just more duhkha, I have appreciated advice from Zen teachers such as Dainin Katagiri. Of zazen (the practice of seated meditation), Katagiri said that “Some Zen teachers tell us how helpful it is for us to do zazen… But I said just the opposite: zazen is useless” (Dainin Katagiri, “Returning to Silence”).
Meditation is useless? This may seem like a contradiction, to recommend that we pursue a useless practice. But, the important point is that when our meditation practice is motivated by what we expect to “get” out of it (the benefits), then this can be an obstacle to ending suffering.
In a similar vein, Charlotte Joko Beck advised us that the fruits of a meditation practice may not be those we expected when we first sat down:
What we get out of practice is being more awake. Being more alive. Knowing our mischievous tendencies so well that we don’t need to visit them on others. We learn that it’s never okay to yell at somebody just because we feel upset. Practice helps us realize where our life is stagnant.
What I have appreciated about these approaches to Zen practice is the call to be aware, as much as we can, of when our motivations are driven by duhkha. And, to still act (to continue meditating, to continue to learn about our bodies and the brain). Katagiri pointed out to how we can work to transform our “thirsting desire” – our ambition, our craving to get what we want – into something that benefits all beings:
According to the story of Zen Master Rinzai’s life, he planted pine trees at the temple for two reasons: one was to make the scenery of the temple more beautiful, and the other was so they would be there for future generations. His activity was based on human thirsting desire, but his purpose was vast, extending in the universe. If you use thirsting desire in a selfish way it is really dangerous, but if you use thirsting desire for the benefit of others, your purpose, your hope extends far.
Dainan Katagiri, “Returning to Silence”
Our desire for pleasure, for power, and to hold off the inherent transiency of life can all lead to suffering. But, if we “know that thirsting desire is something that can be used for all sentient beings”, as Katagiri said, then we can transform that desire and through it, the world.
If we understand these points, then I think that the fruits of our meditation practice, and from our use of new technologies will lead us to our best self. And, that best self happens to be one that has let go of all of our gaining ideas.
This view of our lives is something that I have found very useful, in helping me explain what we are, and the arc that our lives follow. These metaphors have also given me comfort in my life. But, it would wrong to say that they have removed the sting of death and suffering. And, I have recently found myself worrying that the views in my last essay could be seen as cold, and indifferent when we come to the end of a life.
The very day after I published that last essay, I received a call from a close family member. They had just received some troubling medical news. While not conclusive, a scan had potentially revealed a very serious illness. The month that followed since has been a limbo as we have all waited for more information. And now, once additional tests have confirmed our original fears, we are shifting into trying to learn more about what options might be available.
I would love to be able to tell you that through all of this, that I found myself perfectly prepared for this moment by my meditation practice, by my faith. To be able to tell you that I have handled it calmly, and offered comfort to my relative and their family. To their young child. To my own spouse and children. But, to be completely honest, while I have been able to be present for my family, I have also struggled in deep way ever since I received that call.
I’ve cried more in the past month than probably in all of the past decade. With my spouse, on the phone with my family, alone in my car, in my office. For most of an entire month, this has been with me. In a constant, almost physical way that I am really not used to. Like carrying a heavy stone.
But, if endings are natural, and each life comes to a close when conditions change, then why do we lament the loss of a life? Is our anxiety about loss, or our grief, wrong in some sense?
Feeling stuck in this contradiction, I have thought of a poem by Issa many times over the past several weeks:
The world is a dew drop, Yes, the world is a dew drop, And yet, and yet . . .
Our life as a conscious being, as a single person, is like a whirlpool that depends on the flow of the river and the rocks along the river bed. Our life is like a clear, bright note, trembling in the air, rising as our breath flows across a flute. Each whirlpool will subside. No song carries on forever. It is natural for each to come to an end.
And yet, and yet, it is also natural that we lament: each life is a precious treasure. The grief we feel is an important part of how we honor those lives, and our commitment to the wellbeing of all beings.
In his book, “Buddhism Plain and Simple,” Steve Hagan shared his reflections on the pain of losing a close friend suddenly. And, he pointed to how we must acknowledge that endings, that change, are fundamental to life: “This is human life. We cannot lose sight of it. Weeds will flourish, though we hate them and wish them gone; flowers will fall, though we love them and long for them to remain.“
I have been deeply impacted by the teachings of Hagan and other Zen teachers who have not called on us to reject our grief. Rather, they have drawn us back to look more closely at how endings are inextricable from beginnings. And, while we will grieve, we can also see that in a deep, crucial sense, nothing is created in birth or lost in death.
As he reflected on a waterfall he saw in Yosemite National Park, Shunryu Suzuki captured this view well when he said,
… the water does not come down in as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams. From a distance, it looks like a curtain. And I thought it must be a very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain… And it seems to me that our human life may be like this. We have many difficult experiences in our life. But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river.
Zen practice, similar to a number of other meditation traditions, tries to help us look past our self, and to loosen the hold of our individual ego on how we see our life. But, the goal is not nihilistic, but rather to help us make a deep shift in perspective. Each drop in a waterfall emerges from the same river at the top, and all will merge again at the bottom.
Hagan, as he considered our desire to prevent or avoid the changes that we don’t want in our lives (loss, death), also pointed back to how the contingency of life is an important part of why it is precious. Considering how we regret seeing the flowers wilt and fade, he wrote:
One solution to this problem is to ignore the real rose and substitute a plastic one, one that never dies (and never lives). But is a plastic rose what we want? No, of course not. We want the real rose. We want the one that dies. We want it because it dies, because it’s fleeting, because it fades. It’s this very quality that makes it precious.
This example that Hagan uses reminds me of many stories in science fiction about immortality. Many of which explore the promise of new technology to greatly extend the human lifespan. Or, to give our consciousness life in a new body (or perhaps in a computer simulation). Greg Egan’s book, “Permutation City,” is a good example, where Egan considers how humans might live if we could “upload” our consciousness to computer simulations.
What I love about Egan’s story is how much attention he gives to the problem that (really) long life, much less immortality, poses for us. How many of us would really be prepared to live for thousands, upon thousands, of years? Probably very few of us could, if we were to keep living in the ways that we do now. Egan thinks very carefully about this problem, and asks what a person would have to give up of themselves, how deeply they have to transform themselves, in order to truly be able to live indefinitely. His answer? Quite a bit, and that point has resonated with me.
Like Egan, I think that most of us are not really prepared (emotionally, psychologically) to live forever. But, many of us also find the end of a life of a loved one to come too soon, no matter how old a person is. Some of our fascination with immortality, I think, is more motivated by our fear of death, rather than a real desire to exist forever.
I remember talking with my children about some story or movie about immortality, and I said to them that most people were not really looking for immortality, saying something to the effect, “It’s not that people really want to live forever; they are mostly afraid of dying.”
An oversimplification, true. But, I think that for me, it captures an important part of how I feel. I don’t want to see the flowers wilt, or to lose the whirlpools. I don’t want the song to end. I know that they can’t go on forever, sure. I hope they will a little longer.
So, I personally have found this last month to be a difficult experience. There will be more tears in our future. And, that is ok. We don’t know how much time we have left together. But we can savor each moment. As Scott McCloud wrote in “The Sculptor,” (a graphic novel that is a beautiful meditation on death and the urge to leave a legacy):
“Every minute is an ocean… let them in… let them all in…”
For me, my practice has been a comfort in this time. It has given me a refuge that I treasure. But, it has not been some kind of emotional insulation. And, I wouldn’t want that: to avoid suffering by cutting off those feelings. Each life is a precious treasure, and I am grateful for the chance to enjoy this one, and that this practice has helped me to better be present for each minute of it.
In our meditation practice, we hope to better see clearly the true nature of reality. What is it that we see, as we turn our attention to look at our own self? One fundamental insight is that our sense of self, the solidity of “I”, is a kind of illusion.
A tree near our home is showing its age, its branches losing leaves and the center slipping into decay. From a single seed, it grew to towering heights, reaching for the sky as it stood tall over us for many years. And now, it has reached the end of its life. We naturally think of this tree as one living being, the same thing that has been with us since we moved into our home. But, what really remains of that tree, even now, that was there at the beginning?
I have often asked this same question of myself: what really remains, or persists, of my self across time? Day-to-day, and moment-to-moment, it is easy for us to feel that the thread of our identity is unbroken. Of course, I tell myself, I am the same person now (the same, unique individual), that I was an hour ago, or last week, last year. But, why am I right to feel so confident about this point? Consider longer windows of time: as I look back at photo of myself as a child, what really, deeply connects the person who smiled so long ago for the camera, to the person holding that photo today?
As living beings ourselves, each of us is composed of a rich tapestry of cells, from our skin, to our muscles, and the cells that organize and oversee the construction of our very bones. Our brains are no exception, and trillions of cells (called neurons) make up that intricate web in our heads. Each of our thoughts, feelings, memories depends on the activity and integrity of our neurons. The cells that make up us work together, forming a community of sorts. But, they are separate units, and fundamentally replaceable. We could swap out pretty much any cell in our body for a physically identical copy, and we have no reason to think that our body, or our experience, would be impacted.
Where then, is the “I” among all of the trillions of separate cells that form the community of my body? How is it that I persist from moment-to-moment, and day-to-day? Personally, I have found it useful, when thinking closely about our bodies and our selves, to see that what is critical is the pattern of activity that those cells, especially those in the brain, maintain over time.
When I was younger, and beginning to explore Zen, one metaphor that shaped how I understood my self came from a talk given by Charlotte Joko Beck (collected in her book Nothing Special: Living Zen).
We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life… Though for short periods it seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpools is just the river itself. The stability of a whirlpool is only temporary. The energy of the river forms living things – a human being, a cat or dog, trees and plants – then what held the whirlpool in place is itself altered, and the water passes on, perhaps to be caught again and turned for a moment into another whirlpool.
Charlotte Joko Beck, “Nothing Special: Living Zen“
The image of a whirlpool, something that we recognize is, at its very core, a transient process – ephemeral – was very useful. With living things, it can be easy to treat them as solid and firm, like the tree near my home. But, we ourselves are no less a dynamic process than is a whirlpool. Across our life, from conception, to birth, aging and death, our physical bodies play out as a dynamic structure of matter and energy. Even in adulthood, after our form has stabilized (for the most part!), we are constantly taking in physical matter (through food, drink, and even the very air we breath).
Beck used the metaphor of the whirlpool to explore the ways that we become defensive, protective, if we identify ourselves only on the basis of our temporary form.
We’d rather not think of our lives in this way, however. We don’t want to see ourselves as simply a temporary formation, a whirlpool in the river of life… We want to see ourselves as permanent and stable. Our whole energy goes into trying to protect our supposed separateness.
Charlotte Joko Beck, “Nothing Special: Living Zen”
In Beck’s talk, she considers how as becoming protective of our transient form, our whirlpool, can lead us to try to hold on to what comes through our whirlpool. Or, to try to erect barriers, turning ourselves into “stagnant pools.” She asks us to consider shifting our view, from identifying solely with our self as a separate being, and to turn our attention back to the ways in which we are deeply connected to everything (the river).
For me, the metaphor of the whirlpool has also been useful in other ways, to help me think about what we really are, in this world. We often treat living things (my self, my family, our pets, the tree outside of our home) as real things that have a stable existence. This attitude has value for us – it is fundamentally useful to us – and for our ability to function in the world. As social beings, the ability to take into account the history of another being in our interactions is key, helping us to know who is likely to be a source of support, or who might put their own desires above the needs of others.
But while it can be useful to think of living things as stable, and enduring, this firmness turns out to be an illusion. Much as whirlpools begin with gentle rotation, mature, and then fade, living things typically go through a rapid development of their physical form, reach some stability in adulthood, and experience a decline towards the ends of their life. Even if we look the same from one day to the next, we are fundamentally dynamic processes, changing in every moment.
Across this arc, what persists that could be a self? Physically, there is little to nothing left in terms of my actual body today that was with me when I was an infant. In many parts of our body, our cells age, die and are replaced with new cells. Even in those cells that persist (in our brains, for instance, many of our neurons will survive for most of our lives), proteins and other molecules are constantly being replaced. Through respiration, we let go of a part of ourselves, the carbon that has been bound to the oxygen we brought in: we shed something of ourselves with every breath.
In the same way that a whirlpool is a stable pattern, living beings are a stable structure, but not static: physical matter pours into them, and through them, with every breath, meal, and drink.
But, while living beings, ourselves included, are transient patterns of matter, could the stability of our identity be in the mental, rather than the physical, domain? If we look closely, we can see that this is probably not the case. Each thought, memory, emotion we have or experience depends on the activity of the brain. So, anything that appears to be stable in our mental experience is weaved from the activity of a body that is in constant flux.
To look at the relationship between our brains and our conscious experience, another piece that I have personally found meaningful is the short story, “Exhalation,” by Ted Chaing. In the story, Chaing’s unnamed narrator describes a strange world, where all of the inhabitants appear to be mechanical creatures, powered by compressed air. The people living in this world must refill their metal “lungs” regularly from a source of compressed air, some vast underground reservoir. If they fail to do so in time, and their lungs run out of air, they will go limp. Replacing their depleted lung with a full one will bring them back to life, but with all of their memories erased. Indeed, it is not clear if the dead who are revived in this way are able to function at all.
The narrator of the story describes his attempts to understand the workings of their own mechanical brains, and in that way understand the source of their memories. He doe this by examining his own brain in great detail. I won’t go into specifics (as I would not want to ruin the story for you, and I would highly recommend it!), but part of the key insight is that pressurized air is used to power a set of tiny switches (essentially air-based transistors), to accomplish the same kinds of computations that our own brains use.
This insight, seeing clearly the relationship of the air to the narrator’s own conscious experience, produced a profound shift in understanding of their own identity.
… I saw that air does not, as we had always assumed, simply provide power to the engine that realizes our thoughts. Air is in fact the very medium of our thoughts. All that we are is a pattern of air flow. My memories were inscribed, not as grooves on foil or even the position of switches, but as persistent currents of argon.
Ted Chiang, “Exhalation”
With the metaphor of the whirlpool that I described above, often I have thought of our whole bodies as whirlpools: intricate patterns of matter, spinning across the arc of our lives. But, when we focus on our mental experience, our thoughts, feelings, memories, I think that this view can be refined, and I have found the image that Chaing has crafted to be very helpful here.
If we (our conscious experience, our persistence as a person over time) are a whirlpool, then our bodies (including our brains), are the rocks and structure of the river bed, which steers the water of the river into the shape of a whirlpool. Just in the same way as the mechanical brains of the beings in Chaing’s story, where the air flowing from the lungs was harnessed as it flowed through them. Their thoughts were made from the air, but were also separate from it, in the same way that a whirlpool is made from water, but is a different kind of thing.
While we need to breathe to live, just as the narrator in Chaing’s story, the nature of our respective needs are different. For us, breath is critical to bring in fresh oxygen (so that we can make use of the energy that is stored in our cells) and to remove the waste products of respiration (such as carbon dioxide). The breath was the very energy that animated Chaing’s beings: all of their lives depended on the reservoir of pressurized air that powered their minds.
For humans, and most of the rest of the life on our planet, our energy doesn’t come from pressurized air, but instead from sunlight. The force that propels our limbs, drives our blood, and gives speed to our thoughts comes from our sun. That energy could have fallen simply onto the earth itself, warming the planet a bit more. But, some of it was captured by plants, and stored away until it could be released, slowly, and (in a sense) intentionally. In the same way that a windmill harnesses the force of the wind that would otherwise pass by, or a solar panel harnesses light, plants store the energy of sunlight in chemical form.
Every thing that we have done, each word we have spoken, each home we have built, each moment of delight we have felt, has been powered by the sun.
So, instead of air, “the very medium of our thoughts” is, fundamentally, sunlight. The power for our thoughts comes from the energy that has been stored from the sun. That energy powers the neurons of the brain. The activity of those neurons (in the electrical and chemical signals that neurons use to process information and communicate) leads to our conscious experience, the whirlpool that is our self.
Chaing ends the story ruminating on the deep connection of life to entropy: his narrator’s life plays out in the movement of the universe from order (pressurized air) to disorder (equilibrium, where there is no difference in pressure).
The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I am glad that it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.
Ted Chiang, “Exhalation“
But what about us? In an important sense, all of our motion (each movement, thought, memory) depends on a “breath” that was taken when our universe began in the Big Bang. Our existence depends on the creation of the stars, including our own sun. While in principle there are other sources of energy that we can harness, every food that we consume represents energy that was captured and stored from sunlight that fell on our planet.
Most of that light, a vast amount of it, races past our planet, out into the vastness of space. Perhaps some of that light will be detected someday, by some other civilization, and spur some impact there. But, the majority of it will never have a strong effect on the universe at large, or on sentient beings at all.
That tiny, tiny fraction that falls on Earth though? Living beings harness only a fraction of that light (our plants absorb a tiny slice of light, a small range of wavelengths), and that sliver of the bounty of our sun is enough to power the vast web diversity of life on our planet. Each and every thing that we do depends on using that energy. It is true that someday, our sun and the other stars will exhaust their reserves, and the universe will reach some new state (possibly to settle into its own quiet non-existence, perhaps to head to some new rebirth).
But, just as each whirlpool will merge back into the river, the moment that our universe settles back into stillness will come when it will come. Well beyond the limit of our own lives, and very likely beyond that of our species. For us, the present is more properly our concern. If we can preserve our own planet, we can continue to nurture the miracle of our collective whirlpool, the communities of sentient beings that spring into existence on the Earth, and we can continue taking delight in existence and in this great exhalation of the universe.
After a run recently, we came across a small toad along our path. This little one seemed to have perfected just sitting: relaxed, unperturbed, but ready to act in a moment. I wish that I could say that I’ve mastered sitting in the same way!
While their posture is very different from that of sitting meditation, I do feel that toads are a wonderful model for the attitude we cultivate in our sitting meditation practice. At least outwardly, a toad appears to be still, but relaxed. But, they are perfectly attentive to everything around them, from the insects that will be their next meal to animals that will try to eat them.
And, of course, the annoying hiker who stops to try to take a photo.
While there are many approaches to meditation, those that I prefer remind me of the attitude of a toad: relaxed, still, but entirely alert. In a lot of ways, this attitude is similar to how I have approached my own practice, which has been most strongly shaped by shikantaza (just sitting) meditation in the Soto Zen tradition.
The Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura describes shikantaza in Mind and Zazen:
This is a really simple practice; we do nothing but sit in the zazen posture breathing easily, keeping the eyes open, staying awake, and letting go. That’s all we do in zazen; we do nothing else. Yet even if you try to sit just five minutes in this way you will find it really difficult.
This practice is very simple but simple does not necessarily mean easy. So whenever we become aware that we have deviated from that point of upright posture, deep breathing, keeping the eyes open without focusing, and letting go of whatever comes up, we try to return to that point. In whatever condition we find ourselves in, we just return to posture, breathing, waking up, and letting go. That is what we do in meditation.
The Zen teacher Dainin Katagiri gave similar advice:
When you are sitting in zazen, don’t think. Don’t use your frontal lobe. Your frontal lobe is sitting with you already, so don’t use it to think. This doesn’t mean to destroy thinking or to keep away from thinking. Just rest; don’t meddle with thinking.
Dainin Katagiri, “Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life“
What is the point of a practice like this? That is a complicated question (and teachers such as Dainin Katagiri have said that meditation is useless). But for me, I think that meditation is a key part of how I have tried to put my own life under a microscope, and to look carefully at everything we take for granted. This can help us loosen the grip of a strong emotion, it can help soften the boundaries that seem so rigid between ourselves and others. It can open up more space in our lives.
And, while I do believe the transformative potential of a mediation practice, if I am perfectly honest, I have often struggled with meditation! For much of my adult life, I have felt that I should meditate for a significant amount of time every day, but I have rarely achieved that for more than a few weeks at a time. It has frustrated me, because I do believe that meditation is an important part of my life, to turn my attention back on to itself, as much as I can.
When I saw that toad on the trail, it would be fair to say I envied that little one, to be able to sit so easily!
But truthfully, while I used to feel bad about how difficult it was for me to maintain a regular practice, more recently I have felt that meditation is (for me) similar to exercise (which I also have a conflicted relationship with). I don’t enjoy exercise (usually) in the moment, but I keep at it, because I feel that it is a critical part of my life.
Changing my attitude has been helpful, as I’ve been able to step back from being concerned that I am a fraud (someone who espouses an interest in meditation practice, but who doesn’t genuinely live it). And, I feel that my practice is richer today, for that.
This type of practice has long appealed to me, as it feels built on a premise that it is valuable to turn our attention to our experience, to the totality of life, as much as we can outside of our thinking about the world.
If you have any interest in exploring this style of Zen meditation, I would very much recommend reading as much as you can find. There are many wonderful books out there, and I have especially found it useful to explore collections of talks by Zen teachers. I would recommend Katagiri’s book, “Returning to Silence,” and another collection of his talks, “You Have to Say Something.” I have also found Charlotte Joko Beck to be very influential in my own practice, and would highly recommend her book “Everyday Zen.” And, I am also quite fond of Steve Hagen’s “Buddhism Plain and Simple.”
I think that these readings are a good place to start (but, I would also encourage you to reach out to a community of practitioners as well!). I personally have felt that it has been most beneficial to be part of a community (and have valued times when I lived near a Zen center).
But, I’ve also spent much of my life in locations where going to a center was not feasible. There are many excellent resources today, such as this post, How to do Zazen for the basics of sitting meditation and good visuals. I personally cannot sit in the full lotus position (and usually sit in something close to a quarter lotus pose =) )
Whether in books or through a community of practitioners, I think that you will be able to find many others who have used the opportunity of practice to look carefully at their own life. And, I hope that you too will take some time to just sit.