Letting Go of Thoughts

In our study group discussion on Saturday, reviewing the next passage from Kosho Uchiyama’s Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice, we were focusing on the idea of letting go of thoughts while practicing zazen.

Uchiyama differentiates between ideas or thoughts merely occurring and chasing after thoughts and thinking. He says that of course, since we are not rocks, we will have thoughts while we are sitting meditation. But the thoughts should just arise and then be let go. What is to be avoided is having a thought, grabbing on, and then running with it.

Everyone in the study group had had clear experiences of that grasping behavior, when, for instance, you figure out your budget while sitting zazen, or plan your entire day’s schedule while on the cushion, supposedly meditating. Uchiyama says, If a thought occurs during zazen and we proceed to chase after it, then we are thinking and not doing zazen.

Now, that feels a little harsh. You mean that 35 minutes on the zafu doesn’t even count, if your mind is racing around? Quite a few of us in the group felt pretty discouraged upon first hearing that proclamation.

Uchiyama says that the posture of zazen, the way we sit, quiets the excitability of the mind, and helps us let go of the grasping when thoughts do arise. But each of us knows that the posture alone does not accomplish that pure shikantaza (just sitting) state. Sometimes when I sit, I find myself writing an entire short story, regardless of the fact that my body is still. So that’s not zazen?

Thankfully, Uchiyama continues with this helpful note: So the essential point when doing zazen is to aim, full of life, at the posture of zazen with our flesh and bones while at the same time leaving everything up to the posture and letting go of thoughts. By aiming at the zazen posture and simultaneously opening the hand of thought, both body and mind do zazen in the proper spirit.

Ah, there’s the saving grace. It’s about aiming at the correct posture and aiming at releasing thoughts. It reminds me of the Buddhist precepts. They are not commandments, not Thou shalt nots. They are vows, directives, intentions. We understand that we will repeatedly violate all of them, some on a daily basis: harboring ill will, speaking badly of others, putting ourselves before others. The vow is about continuing to make that right effort, aiming towards upholding the precepts, even though we know we will break them.

And so it is with zazen. It is humanly impossible to not chase after a single thought during a full zazen period. The thoughts come up, and it is our mind’s nature to chase. The goal is to gently catch ourselves in the act, again and again, and once more turn our attention back to the body, back to the breath, back to the coming and going of thoughts with no attachment. I guess that’s why this is a life practice. There are no graduates.


Like Kids at Play

Today I attended class at Russian River Zendo, where a group of us are reading Kosho Uchiyama’s Opening the Hand of Thought, with Tony Patchell. In the section discussed this afternoon, Uchiyama is trying to define the undefinable: What is self? He argues that we are too used to viewing our self as just that conscious part of our being, our thoughts, our feelings. And yet what happens when we go to sleep? The thoughts and feelings are gone for those eight hours – but clearly, our self remains, because it is right there again when we wake up in the morning. So what exactly is that self?

Uchiyama believes human thought “cooks” everything up, removing it from what is raw and fresh, the direct experience of living fully present in the moment. We interpret; we generalize; we make associations to past experiences and those associations flavor the “now.” How to get around that?

He continues: In Zen, it is said that a person knows cold things and hot things only when she herself experiences them. Everything is taken in as the real life-experience of self. This means there is no true value in definitions of things, reports of other people, or so-called pure observation of things, from which the life-experience of one’s self is removed.

The lesson, which he drives home again and again, is that generalities and philosophies cannot serve us. It is only through direct experience, a complete understanding that the universe is me and I am the universe, that we can begin to approach true self.

Talk like this quickly becomes a bit of a mind-bender for me, especially since I am easily enticed by thought games. But then I luck out – chance encounters open new doors.

After the talk, I walked down the hill and to the Guerneville Park and Ride, where I had left my car. There was a van in the parking lot, with the words Segway of Healdsburg emblazoned on the side. For those of you who haven’t heard of a Segway yet: it’s a motorized “personal transport” device that looks like a one-person scooter on two wheels. The driver zips around at about 12 miles per hour, standing up. I had heard reports, but hadn’t actually seen one until today.

A half-dozen people were tooling around the parking lot on Segways, wearing bicycle helmets. They were just going around and around in circles. Most of them were older, as in grey-haired but not octogenarians. What was amazing, though, and what made me stop in my tracks, was their facial expressions. Every single one of them was grinning from ear to ear.

It was so clear, at a single glance, that these people were THERE. They were completely in the moment. And in those brief periods when they stopped concentrating on how the thing worked, and whether or not they were going to make the next turn, I could just imagine them returning to reflective thought for a second: Damn, I haven’t had this much fun since I was 10!

What it made me realize was that sometimes it takes a jolt, a Segway even, to wake us up. To remind ourselves that there is just this one wild and precious life, as poet Mary Oliver would say. I tend to forget that. I get caught up in my everyday routine, and then the thinking mind takes over, the planning, the worrying, the staging. Those bursts of newness can help shake us out of the rut.

I went skydiving once when I was in college. I’ve always wanted to go again. Words cannot express what it felt like, to dive out of an airplane in a solo jump. Falling through the sky, I had never felt so alive. Because it was, as Uchiyama said, that undefinable self, pure, raw, uncooked.

Having taken myself far too seriously for most of my life, the Segway lesson was clear: remember to play, kid. Remember to play.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved