An excerpt from Moonlight Leaning Against an Old Rail Fence: Approaching the Dharma as Poetry
It is the beauty of just sitting
that the great sorrow, the great failure
that breaks and illuminates our lives,
stretches before us like a lover waiting to be
made love to, or like one of the great cats,
whose purr sounds like a rumble from the heart
of the world and says, “Dance with us.”
And the great failure burns with the fire of
ecstatic being, and the rains come
from over the mesa, across infinite space.
Commentary: Just Sitting
Just sitting – zazen – is the essential zen practice. And with this title this should be the shortest commentary in the book. But on the occasion of this poem, I had sat down very heavy-hearted, with an unspecific sense of sadness, failure, and separation. I found myself simply remaining present for the sensations, and even embracing them with relish, you might say, as if sitting down to a great feast. So here begins a long exploration of what is ultimately about just being here, albeit with welcoming awareness. Sitting is not a rarified practice, but a way of being present for what is. And, as I said earlier, when we embrace reality with empty arms, then reality embraces back.
The mind-body is subject to a wide spread of mental/emotional states and energies. The mind conventionally associates these states with the idea that we are feeling more or less “good” or “bad.” Right at the middle of this scale of states we may have the state of either “I’m feeling okay” or “I’m feeling a little off.” Along the okay scale we may progress to “I’m feeling really good,” or even to “transcendently blissful.” On the “off” side of the scale we may discern the sensations of minor or acute discomfort, disturbance, worry, and profound unhappiness or despair. We may feel simple well-being, harmony, completeness; or we may feel that a general fault line is running through – and has been running through – our lives.
We further attach a panoply of mental stories to these states that either assign causes for these states or consequences of these states; and that furthermore evaluate, praise, or blame external circumstances or ourselves. The simple and intimate awareness of the state itself is immediately lost in, or confused with, the story; and that story consequently defines our experience or our identity. These states are naturally so powerfully engaging of the mind that it is normally difficult not to define ourselves through them – and through the stories we create around them – and to thus further stimulate these energy states accordingly.
Emotions arise out of a deep fund of life energy; and these energies and emotions are a vital part of our biology and an expression of organic needs. They may direct the organism to certain kinds of activity, whether ultimately functional or dysfunctional. We have the brain/body capacity to naturally resolve these fluid emotional states and to bring them into integrated harmony with the life of the body; but the skills required to integrate these states go largely untaught, so instead we create stories around these states that give them a life of their own.
When we attach stories to our ordinary and changing states, projecting causes, effects and judgments – and when we then evolve coping strategies based on these stories – we begin to manufacture a powerful virtual reality. We could call it a dream world. This dream world, or waking trance, which we chronically inhabit is characterized by an interweaving of subjective energy states and projected realities. These develop their own causal logic of events and experiences that perpetuate one another into a personal history without any insight into its manufactured quality; and with no awakeness to the spaciousness of our fundamental and all-pervading “empty essence” or to the unconditioned nature of our conscious being
We may be conscious of our feeling states; or we may only be aware of them as a triggering sensation, labeled and subsumed in the life of the story. Inevitably, new stories and new feeling states arise based on nothing more than old stories. This is one way of speaking of samsara, the wheel of illusory or relativistic existence in which we futilely try to relieve our deep and underlying discomfort through strategies of grasping or resistance within the terms of the dream. All of which further animates the dream.
How do these stories work in our life? In a sense, our simplest stories are our abbreviated and literal representations, i.e., our names for things. When I look at what we normally think of as a chair and think “chair,” I have already organized the data of my experience into a package or instant story – a short-hand, we might say – that bypasses any need to actually experience “this chair.” Practically speaking, in an everyday sense, it is not really necessary for me to experience everything about this chair in all its dimensions. I do not need to perceive, as William Blake would say, that it is “infinite.” I do not need to see “the whole world there,” or all that has contributed to its being here, humanly or metaphysically. I only need to know where to sit. The mind is designed to offer us these practical shortcuts, even though a lot of dimension or information gets lost along the way. But as we routinely apply the same story-making shortcut to everything – including to one another, and even to ourselves and to our own feelings – we reduce the rich, infinite, open-ended interrelational world to our simple representations. The Infinite, the divine and open-ended aspect of being, itself becomes a story – or a doctrine. If we believe any story or perception is “fundamental truth” rather than relative or creative truth, we become fundamentalists of reality.
Beyond our simple naming or labeling, the process of story-making is operating in every aspect of our lives. We might say that any way that we structure reality, any way that we organize the data of our personal experience and give it meaning, is a story. And that story always ties into an earlier story. I like the use of the word “story” because it reminds us that the way the mind continually structures reality is creative, but not absolute. This is our natural and purposeful human capacity; and this in itself is not the problem. The problem arises within the virtual mental terrain in which we impute narrowly conceived meanings and then live within the confines of these meanings, identifying with them as if they were absolute; as if they were, ipso facto, reality. As if they were more real and more important than our aware being itself.
By assigning absolute reality to what is only representative or virtual reality, our awareness, availability, and flexible responsiveness to the infinite, or undefined, play of reality is restricted. As such, we sacrifice the free and open quality of our awareness, which is now captivated, or entranced, by its own interpretative activity. And, when we use our story-telling capacity to fixate, reinforce, or literalize our own self-involved reality, drama, or picture of the world, we collapse the space in which we can feel, apprehend, and engage experience. We collapse the space in which we can perceive anew, learn, and grow. We collapse the space in which we can collaborate with that which truly supports our lives together. This collapse of the basic space of our existence is the routine basis for our delusion and suffering.
Beyond our names or labels for things and for one another are our beliefs about those things; and beyond our beliefs are our opinions and judgments based on our beliefs – and further historical projections about causes or consequences of what we believe or judge – and appropriate strategies of attack or defense, run to, run at, or run away from. All of that is in the realm of projective story. This realm of story also extends to – or perhaps begins with – our stories about our own feeling sensations, the stories that I attach to good and bad feeling states instead of simply opening my awareness to them. For every human being is, after all, a person with feelings and stories about those feelings – including guilt and blame stories. And so “reality” is constructed.
Our projective story-making capacity is thus intrinsic to our mental functioning; but it is also called into service and easily fixated in response to primal or early childhood experiences of overwhelming or compelling feelings that we were naturally unequipped to handle without attaching a story to them. And this relatively primitive and unreliable mechanism for making sense of our world is still operating. These stories accumulate with each developmental stage. Unless a “greater story” or a liberating experience “initiates” me out of them, I will shrink all experience to the size of my previous childhood story.
What if I permitted myself – in the spirit of my contemplative sitting practice, and in the spirit of this poem – to no longer be governed by the structures of childhood overwhelm, dropped my stories, and used my capacity to “listen” to the world in order to listen again to my own feeling states? To relax in their presence, as Longchenpa would say, before karma is formed. What is the original unconditioned experience coiled within my own emotional sensations if I don’t routinely trigger my own meanings and reactions; if I allow my feelings to uncoil energetically in awareness? If I do not act out, dismiss, or withdraw from shame or heartache or anger with the use of words and the stories that go with these words, what is the space that will open for me? Will it open to love or will it stay contracted to “poor me” or “terrible you”?
Understand that states of mind and emotion are occasional, responsive, and insubstantial. Like writing on water, they naturally resolve back to their unconditioned and fluid state. Our stories about those states, however – how “lonely” or “separate” or “unworthy” or “superior” or “mistreated” I am – serve to lock in those states as part of the repertoire of our identity and continue to regenerate them. Therefore, our intrinsic wakefulness, our free awareness or free attention, which in the absence of projection is richly inclusive and multidimensional, has been captivated by these states and identified with limiting structures of the mind – one-sided and one-dimensional representations of reality – and our consciousness dwells within this increasingly elaborated projective world (just as in a dream world), governed by the laws of our conditioning and maintained by projection. You can see that the reversal of this process would be radically liberating.
If I could simply open my awareness, without story, to my feeling states I could take responsibility for allowing the natural alchemy of their resolution, rather than projecting them outward into a samsaric realm in which no resolution is ever possible. Thus the Buddha taught that the reversal of this samsaric process occurs as we learn to dis-identify with these concentric rings of representation, and bring our free awareness back to itself. Specifically, we relax our strategies of desire and avoidance that are based on our interpretive stories about past, present, and future; secondly, we relax our opinions and judgments that are based on these interpretations; then we relax our very identification with our stories and interpretations; finally, we relax all our interpretive stories themselves and all interpretive activity about the way things are. We may gradually come back to the immediate sense data and feeling states, to the shades of experience of “I feel good” or “I feel bad.” We even drop the short story called “good” and “bad.” We become aware of the one who is simply present and experiencing, and then we also drop our ideas about that one.
As we surrender these successive rings of stories that had fully captivated our awareness, we begin to notice the capacity for simple, or naked, awareness itself. Awareness reawakens to awareness itself, that awareness in which all these phenomena arise, but which is no longer reduced or captivated by them. This free awareness now resumes its empty, open-dimensional quality. And this is experienced to be intrinsically fulfilling and revelatory. The heart is now free to function. History is disarmed. Compassion and wisdom blossom together. The cultivation or restoration of original wakefulness through the progressive release of identification with concepts and structures of thought is the meditational activity called in Sanskrit dhyan, which is the root of the Chinese ch’an and Japanese zen. As one Chinese ch’an master said, “The perfect way is not difficult for those not stuck on their own stories.”
Thus, as one learns to dis-identify with states of experience, and to deconstruct and dis-identify with all the associated stories and meanings, one is able to simply stay present for these states and look them right in the eyes, so to speak. The structures of the dream are dismantled to be used as raw materials for the blaze of consciousness. We begin to pay much less attention to “feeling good” or “feeling bad” or even to distinguishing between them, not from repression of feeling but from a growing equanimity of awareness. It’s all so much firewood for the light of consciousness.
This principle is illustrated in the Mahabharata, in the story of Sukhdev Muni, an earnest young seeker who is advised by his father, Ved Vyas, to go to King Janak, a great spiritual adept. Sukhdev is skeptical that a king, a worldly person, would have anything spiritual to offer him. His doubts are removed when, approaching the throne, he is welcomed by King Janak, who is sitting with one leg being massaged by a beautiful woman while his other leg is dangling in a vat of boiling oil.
Psychically it is a bit like that. The extremes of psychic comfort and pain are woven into our psyche; and, as we sit on our meditation cushion, it is our intrinsic wakefulness, distilled from identification with beingstates, that is able to stay present and welcome the infinite open quality of the present moment in the midst of all that is arising. It is this very process, in fact – the choice to do this – that continues to distill this original wakefulness from the trance of identification and imagery. It is this that leaves us free to shine as what we are, without contracting from “being,” without attachment or withdrawal, even in the face of feelings “I don’t want to feel.”
If we believe we can accomplish this detached awakeness by simply thinking about it or believing in it, it is a bit like thinking we can train for the Olympics simply by believing in them. The intention to remain awake must be accompanied by training in wakefulness as a ruling priority in our lives. Life itself, of course, is the ultimate training ground, the opportunity to choose again and again to return to fresh awareness in each moment of experience. Sitting meditation, however, is the gymnasium, or the field, where such training may be most deliberate and most supported. When we sit there is only our awareness, our experience, and our choice about how to relate to our experience. All the variables and distractions are simplified so that we may more easily observe the mind and its processes of identification and projection; and so that we may continue to practice choosing, instant by instant, whether to identify with the stories and structures of the mind or whether to abide simply in that awareness that is lovingly present.
As we do so, we are activating and creating new neural circuitry in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, that part of the brain that mediates pure choice and untrammeled awareness. The neural activity in the prefrontal lobes may become involved with the earlier instinctive conditioning of the primitive brain, the imagery and emotional attachments of the midbrain, or the rationalizations of the forebrain – or it is capable of simply remaining open to the immediate and unconditioned fields of awareness, empty of projections. As such – as we choose to do this – we are participating in “real time” in unfolding the evolutionary potential of our conscious being.
To repeat, from the point of view of our relative conditioning, all of our mental states and the experience of good or bad take on a substantial reality that brings a fixated quality to our experience that we use to define ourselves with. If, however, our awareness is not identified with these fixations, then all these changing states may simply be tasted as the varying flavors of reality. Hence, as I wrote in an earlier poem, “moods or their absence are the same wine.”
When I sit down to meditate in the morning I am often aware of energies along the “bad” to “good” scale, and pretty much take it to be the wine of the moment. Sometimes the weather of my consciousness is so relaxed and empty and spacious that sitting is just a matter of falling from emptiness into emptiness, with everything included in a big smile. One needn’t identify, or become entranced with, these pleasurable states which, though greatly comfortable and spacious, are not liberating in themselves. That is, they are not the point. In the context of meditation these easeful states are a fortuitous opportunity not for complacency, but for deepening our active surrender into the fire of awareness without self, a moment by moment opportunity to ante up everything – to remain homeless, so to speak – and thereby avoid the static satisfaction that zen would call the cave of demons.
Sometimes, however, I sit down in the morning with great discomfort. The stormy ocean currents of mind have tossed up any manner of troubling sensations to the surface, including profound grief about my life or about the nature of life itself. Or perhaps it is a deep vein of separation experienced as a fundamental sense of failure. This capacity to feel separation, sadness, or failure – this profound existential suffering – is fundamental to the human condition, although the relative events and moods of our lives may leave us more vulnerable or less vulnerable to this suffering, or more or less aware of it, at any given moment. And, of course, much of the agenda of our human activity is devoted to avoiding it or distracting ourselves from it.
But sometimes it is unavoidable. At a certain point in our practice there is no longer the least tendency to avoid this profound grief or suffering, nor to dramatize it, but only to welcome it into the fire of conscious being. We are now free to engage with love the depth, dimensions, and subtleties of our own feeling states. And as mature humans we are responsible for doing just that. Otherwise they will remain unconscious and unattended, and dramatized in our approach to others and in our approach to God. Put in other words, our unattended or resisted feeling states retain a solidity and a defining influence in our lives; whereas inspected and embraced they are – however daunting – mere shadows to disappear in the light of our love and consciousness, our true being.
Just sitting means just sitting as what we are, embracing and inhabiting all of it beyond light and shadow. Otherwise we are not just sitting, we are shrinking. And that shrinking, or contracting away from the fullness of being, gives rise to our endless round of “birth and death.” As we open our feeling attention and fully embrace our emotional substrates, and as we drop the more superficial labels or self stories, the undertones of the emotions may become increasingly primal: aloneness, abandonment, betrayal, failure, separateness; vulnerability and feeling endangered. The more primal the emotions become, the more powerfully transformative. This is because our willingness to simply stay present and take the time to fully embrace them in consciousness is tantamount to embracing and hence obviating the very underpinnings of our own mechanisms of fear and separation. As these emotional structures melt in our intimate embrace, the primordial and inherently ecstatic energy of being is freed to arise in its essential aspect.
The beauty of sitting, then, to come back to the poem, is that these states of being that normally captivate us – even the most profound states of separation, grief, or failure – those states that seem to “break” us, and yet, in so doing, are already beginning to illuminate our underlying truth or potentiality – stretch before our awareness as occasions for great intimacy. Not to be avoided nor to be identified with, but to be engaged with the relish of a waiting lover, with whom a transcendent communion is possible. Or like one of the great cats – these creatures of supreme fluency, grace, and power – and danger – whose growl, even whose purr, sounds like a rumble from the very heart of our created world, challenging us to join with the fluid dance of being, and to not fixate, objectify, or withhold ourselves.
Then that very core experience of separation or failure – now a lover inviting us to plunge – burns with the transforming fire of intimacy and surrender. And the great rain of ecstatic union arrives from beyond the reaches of the mind and its polarities, across infinite space.