Read “Erroneous Imaginations,” an excerpt from The Zen Way of Recovery

An excerpt from chapter 14 of Laura Burges’ new book, “The Zen Way of Recovery” — reviewed in the Summer 2023 issue of Buddhadharma.

Laura Burges
12 June 2023

This excerpt from chapter 14 of Laura Burges’ new book, The Zen Way of Recovery: An Illuminated Path Out of the Darkness of Addiction — reviewed in the Summer 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide — is provided courtesy of the publisher, Shambhala Publications. We thank Shambhala for sharing this with Buddhadharma‘s readers, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

Erroneous Imaginations

When erroneous imaginations cease, the acquiescent mind realizes itself.
—Tozan Ryokai, “Hokyo Zanmai” (“Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi”)

At Zen Center, we chant the “Hokyo Zanmai,” or “Song of the  Jewel Mirror Samadhi,” and it tells us that when erroneous imaginations cease, the acquiescent mind realizes itself. When we loosen the grip of our self-created suffering, our flowing, flexible, Big Mind is able to shine forth.

Perhaps our most pervasive erroneous imagination is, “I am  alone, a stranded individual in my own tiny boat.” Actually, we are  deeply connected to all things and all beings. The air we breathe is  given to us by the trees; the ground supports us; without the sun, we couldn’t exist for a single moment. Each person we encounter becomes part of our mind/body through the five senses that literally bring them inside us. Perhaps we would treat one another differently and would feel more at home in the world if we kept in mind the Buddha’s notion that each person we meet was our  mother in another lifetime.

An erroneous imagination that I entertained for years was the  idea that I could drink like other people. I did drink like other  people, but those other people were alcoholics. This erroneous  imagination, this idea that somehow, someday, I could learn  to control and enjoy drinking, took me to dark and dangerous places. Until I awakened to the truth that even one drink is too  many — and that a thousand aren’t enough — I was powerless over  alcohol and its consequences.

There is an ancient curse, often attributed to the Chinese but  more likely originating from England: “May you live in interesting times.” We are living in interesting times. Navigating a global  pandemic, witnessing the ravages of climate change, surrounded  by rampant Orwellian doublespeak, looking askance at the deep  divisions and rancor in our communities. Around the world there are mass migrations, ongoing wars, shortages of clean water and  air, people living in terrible poverty. A startling example of our  interconnection with one another is the way in which a pandemic  can travel quickly around the world from being to being. This is a  time of not knowing what is going to happen next, and this kind  of uncertainty can draw us into a constant state of unease. Our imagination can lead us to fearful places. As I heard someone in a  meeting say, “My mind is a dangerous neighborhood.”

Fear is often an erroneous imagination. When we fear the  future, our imagination can run away with us, conjuring up every  possible worst-case scenario. We can also fear the past in the  form of regret, thinking that we can never undo the harm we have  done, that we have warped our lives. We fear that we have created problems in the past that we can’t begin to unravel. We create  a whole reality about the future or past and then forget that we  made it all up. We can forget to notice that not all the disasters we  imagine come to pass. A tremendous amount of our energy and  awareness can go into these kinds of imaginings. When we are  trapped in this fearful state of mind, we don’t notice that we have abandoned the present moment.

We can have the same response to both imagined danger and  real danger. Physiologically, we shut down when we are in fear; our vision becomes narrow, our breath quick, our palms sweaty,  our choices limited. Our awareness becomes similar to looking  through the wrong end of a telescope, and we no longer have the  full range of our consciousness at our disposal. Distracted by fear,  we are no longer here. This morass tends to lessen the time, ability, and energy we might have turned toward doing something to  help the world and other people.

I’ve heard people in recovery characterize fear as “False Evidence Appearing Real,” another way of citing erroneous imaginations. Now we can step back a bit and watch fear arise, just as we  watch our breath. We can say, “Oh, there you are, my old friend fear.”  We can look down and see our feet on the ground, look around at the world that surrounds us, and say to ourselves, “Right now, I’m  okay.” Practice enables us to cultivate an open, flexible, responsive  mind, the acquiescent mind of the “Hokyo Zanmai.”

In the grip of fear, I can open to it, breathe into it, stay with it. We may feel guilt or shame about “negative” emotions such as fear and anger, but this just adds suffering to suffering. These emotions aren’t always negative. Fear can be an important protection from real dangers; anger can spur us to action against injustice. Dogen says, “Settle the self on the Self.” We can settle our small, frightened self on Big Mind, a deeper ground of being that  we sometimes glimpse in meditation or at unexpected moments  in our lives.

  • Here is a list of the five fears in Buddhist teachings:
  • Fear of loss of livelihood
  • Fear of loss of reputation
  • Fear of loss of life
  • Fear of unusual states of mind
  • Fear of speaking in front of an assembly

And, of course, fear of being stuck somewhere with nothing to  read.

Most people have probably been prey to these fears at times. They are particularly vivid for those of us in recovery, because  our livelihood, our reputation, our very lives were threatened  by the rash and self-destructive actions we took when under the  influence. Many of us spent years seeking unusual states of mind  because we weren’t comfortable with the ones we already had. We speak of having needed to take a drink, or a few, before a social event so we would have the courage to talk to other people. When I was drinking, I lived constantly with a feeling of impending  doom. Looking back, I know now what that feeling was. It was impending doom. Fear is a gift if it motivates us to seek sobriety.

One of the first Zen stories I heard was a story the Buddha  told of a man who is running across a field being chased by a tiger. Holding on to a vine, he swings himself over the edge of a cliff  and sees another tiger down below, licking its chops and waiting for him. Just then, a white mouse and a black mouse crawl out of a hole and start nibbling on the vine. He looks over and sees  a strawberry growing close by. He grasps it — and how sweet it tastes! This is a metaphor for life — fearful, tenuous, fraught with  difficulty and suffering, ultimately fatal, and . . . also sweet.

An antidote to erroneous imaginations, an antidote to paralyzing fear, is to remember the preciousness of having been born a human being and to understand impermanence.

Appreciating the Preciousness of Human Life

It is easy to appreciate our human lives if we narrowly escape  some accident or survive some traumatic event along with other  people. In recovery, we find other people who have faced and survived a life-threatening disease, and we share a joyful relief and camaraderie that we don’t necessarily find anywhere else. When we collectively go through a frightening episode, it can  bring out the inherent heroism and generosity of human beings. People seem a little kinder, a little more gracious than usual. Letting others into traffic, talking to strangers. We slow down a bit  because we experience more deeply the preciousness and revocability of human life.

Through Buddhism, we realize that it is a great privilege to be  born as a human being. We say, “This chance rarely occurs in any  lifetime,” the chance to practice the Way. To be born into a human body — rather than, say, a piece of moss on a rock — is a privilege  that we shouldn’t squander or take for granted.

Hakuin Zenji (1686–1769), our great Zen ancestor, said, “Having had the good fortune not only to have been born into this  world as a human being, but also to have encountered the teachings of the great Shakyamuni Buddha, how can we help but be overjoyed?”

During the everyday chores of life or in times of sickness or hardship, we can slip into negativity or self-pity and forget  that we have these problems because they go along with being a human being in a human body. If we were a piece of moss on  a rock, we wouldn’t have to take out the garbage or pay taxes, we  wouldn’t be subject to fear or anger, resentment or envy — but, as far as I know, we also wouldn’t be able to enjoy a sunset or fall in love.

Mindfulness awakens us to each moment, taking care of each  thing as it arises, washing a dish with the same care we would wash a baby, tearing lettuce for the salad as tenderly as we would touch a flower. If we approach our everyday activities in this way, we awaken to the unique beauty of each moment and remember how precious it is just to be born as human beings. We can give ourselves a break from worry if we come back to the present moment and savor it.

Recovery grants us the clarity and subtlety to be available for everyday life and to take joy in simple pleasures. Rather than  seeking extremity and taking risks, we can enjoy ordinary activities and find satisfaction with what is right in front of us. We can also marshal our talents, intelligence, and abilities to serve the world.

Understanding Impermanence

One of our erroneous imaginations is mistaking the impermanent for the permanent. Zazen is literally practice for understanding impermanence. As I watch my breath come and go and  watch feelings and thoughts come and go, I can see that even  a difficult emotion like fear is not solid or never-ending. Each  moment arises and passes away, as do all things. If I can surrender to this moment rather than living always in the past or future,  I can be more fully alive and more fully myself. We want to be present for this moment because this is it — this is life itself. This is easy to believe, easy to say, not always easy to do. Zazen can jog us out of old ways of being, old ways of thinking, old behaviors that don’t serve us today. If we practice regularly sitting down and following our breath and watching what  arises, we are more likely to carry that practice into our every day. We are more likely to notice when we are in the grip of erroneous  imaginations. Zazen helps us cultivate what Suzuki Roshi called  “beginner’s mind,” open to many possibilities. I can draw a wider  circle of compassion that includes myself and others rather than  being trapped in a narrow, selfish state of fear or hatred.

If we live in fear today, that will affect our future too, because  we are literally missing out on our lives and the possibilities and  potentialities that await us. In a real way, our actions today can  affect even our past, because one way to make positive use of our remorse is to put our own preoccupations aside and help others. We find that the things we did that we were ashamed of, when  shared with another, can help them identify with our story and  recognize that recovery is possible, even for the most damaged  and destitute.

In recovery, our fear of economic insecurity is healed by  becoming more employable, by taking better care of our finances, by avoiding unnecessary spending, by paying parking tickets when they happen, by saving for the future.

Our fear of people begins to dissipate when we take responsibility for ourselves, when we tell our story, engage in service,  and work with others. In recovery, I learn to “live and let live” as I  sit with a diverse group of people I might never have known otherwise. I don’t get up and leave a meeting because someone says  something I don’t like. I get there a little early, and I stay after to  offer fellowship to others. I “stay” — stay in the meeting, stay with  my feelings, stay with my fear and discomfort — knowing they  will dissipate, as will any craving that might take hold of me.

Reflections and Practices

Sit quietly in your zazen posture for a few minutes, coming back to your breath.

When fear arises, we can reflect on these questions:

  • Is this a reasonable fear, one I should listen to? When acting out in my disease, my judgment was impaired, and I  was vulnerable to dangerous situations. With the clarity  of sobriety, I am better able to assess a situation and  respond appropriately.
  • Is my imagination working overtime, conjuring up  dreadful possibilities that may never come to pass?
  • Am I too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, and is this affecting my thinking?
  • Am I telling myself things that aren’t true? “No one cares  about me. I have ruined my life forever. Nothing good  will ever happen for me . . .”
  • Am I projecting myself into a future problem that may never happen?
  • Is the fear I’m holding on to now actually some learned fear from the past that I am ready to discard? Am I applying an old fear to a completely new situation?
  • If I am afraid of financial insecurity, are there steps I can take in the present that may help my future situation?

If you find yourself spiraling into fear, anxiety, or negativity, you might bring to mind the phrase from the “Hokyo Zanmai”: When erroneous imaginations cease, the acquiescent mind realizes itself.

From The Zen Way of Recovery: An Illuminated Path Out of the Darkness of Addiction by Laura Burges © 2023 by Laura Burges. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

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Laura Burges

Laura Burges

Laura Burges, a lay entrusted dharma teacher in the Soto Zen tradition, lectures and leads retreats at practice centers in Northern California. She received monastic training at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. A teacher of children for 35 years, she now mentors other teachers and helps bring mindfulness practice into the elementary classroom. Burges co-founded the Sangha in Recovery Program at the San Francisco Zen Center and is the abiding teacher at Lenox House Meditation Group in Oakland. She is the author of The Zen Way of Recovery, Zen for Kids, and Buddhist Stories for Kids.