Kyosho was a young monk who came to study with Zen Master Gensha. Kyosho said, “I’ve come to you seeking the truth. Please tell me, where can I start to get into Zen?” Gensha answered, “Kyosho, do you hear the sound of the mountain stream?” “Yes, Master. I hear it.” “Enter Zen from there,” Gensha said.
Sometime later a lay zen student Kyo told the story to Master Ayn and asked him, ” Kyosho answered that he could hear the sound of the stream, so Gensha could instruct him to ‘Enter Zen from there’. But what if Kyosho had said he could not hear it, how would Master Gensha have instructed him?” Master Ayn called out, “Mister Kyo!” Kyo answered, “Yes, Master.” Ayn said, “Enter Zen from there!”
This story is easy to connect with, even on first reading. The idea of “living in the moment” is pretty popular and one way to understand this story is as an exhortation to live in this moment. The story can also be understood as meditation instruction. Whatever arises, abides, and passes away in awareness as you’re sitting, be with it completely. Don’t tune out! Another teaching the story offers is that Zen practice doesn’t require special circumstances or preparation. Maybe we think that we’ll get around to taking up meditation when circumstances are different or better. When our job is less demanding, when our relationship is more stable, and so on. But the story suggests that right now is a perfectly fine time, as good as any other, to wake up.
These are useful, encouraging ways to understand Gensha’s instruction. I’d like to suggest an additional angle on the story that I’ve found to be helpful in my own practice. Most of us are drawn to spiritual practice because we want to find happiness. We think the more we meditate, the happier we’ll become. That’s true over the long haul. But the reality on the ground (and on the cushion!) is that as our practice deepens, even as we are finding happiness, we encounter difficult personal, emotional material. And sometimes, we have a tendency to want to skip that part, to try to use meditation to “rise above” the tough emotional material, or to ignore it and say “it’s all good.”
But this is not really what we do in Zen practice. The name for this kind of effort to ignore the difficult material is “spiritual bypassing.” Dodging the ugly part sounds tempting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Until and unless we work through what’s at the root of our self-centered habits and delusions, they keep clouding our vision and tripping us up. Really, Zen practice is just the opposite. We don’t turn away from difficult material or try to rise above it, we turn toward it. We make space for it in awareness and, without judgment or impatience for some result, we investigate it. It took me a long time to learn this, mostly because I thought I was supposed to let go of everything, and when it came to painful material, letting go easily shifted to pushing away.
This aspect of practice can be a little tricky. The way we investigate is different from how challenging emotional material is addressed in therapy. In practice, what we do is simply watch and notice, as steadily, patiently, and compassionately as we can. We notice how our body feels. We notice the thoughts and feelings that arise. We let the difficult material be there. We let it be. And as to letting go, we do that too, but we let it go in its own time.
This is not to say there’s anything wrong with analysis, with thinking about what we encounter in zazen, or that this kind of awareness practice is a replacement for therapy or better than therapy for dealing with difficult or painful emotional material. Not at all. In fact, it’s essential to remember that zazen doesn’t take care of everything. Thinking, therapy and other analytical approaches can be enormously helpful, and are essential for some of us.
But practicing with strong feelings is different. And if we’re reasonably psychologically stable to begin with, we get great benefit from developing enough composure and concentration in practice to include and work with the arising of very challenging emotional material.
In my personal experience, I find paying attention to bodily feeling is helpful in identifying when unconscious delusions and deep feelings are being triggered. I’ve learned to keep a lookout for two kinds of bodily sensation, which I think of as haze and heat. The haze is a kind of numbness, maybe more mental than physical, in which I feel my IQ dropping and even notice that I’m not hearing things clearly. I’m tuning out, and when I notice I’m in a haze, it’s a signal to me that something’s up. The heat is when I get angry and defensive. Both the haze and the heat are usually signals that’s something’s afoot, that some unconscious delusion and deep material has been activated, and that I need to really pay attention.
I think it’s hard to say with precision or certainty exactly how practice “works” in relation to deeply engrained emotional patterns. My own experience is that two things happen over time. One is that as the painful feelings become more familiar, they cause fewer problems because we notice them sooner so we’re more alert to how they’re pulling us around. In other words, we don’t go numb or blind. The second thing that happens is a little more mysterious, and that is the dissolving or softening effect of sustained awareness itself on these difficult feelings. Maybe awareness is like sunshine, acting as a kind of disinfectant. I can’t say for sure. But it seems to work that way.
Returning to the teaching story of Gensha, being truly awake to the moment is not only about thoroughly enjoying the sound of the mountain stream, it’s also about being fully awake to suffering and difficulty, including our own. Whatever may be going on around us, we always have the opportunity to turn inward, meet ourselves, and enter practice there.