In this web-exclusive, Zen teacher Darlene Cohen explores meditation and the wisdom of the body.
Over many decades of Zen practice, I’ve come up with various theories of how practice actually works. At first, coming from an operant conditioning laboratory in Cambridge, MA, I kept looking for what could possibly be the reinforcement component of this strange behavior called zazen. It hurt, it made me restless, so why did I return to the zendo again and again? It must be biochemical, perhaps endorphin-producing, I hypothesized. My second theory was that it was just plain magical, beyond anything the limited human mind could grasp; I saw it as opening the very permeable human body and mind to mysterious universal forces. Next I became convinced that the whole point of practice was achieving a kind of sublime balance between polar opposites in every aspect of my life, embodying perfectly the middle way. Well into my second decade of sitting, it seemed obvious to me that I was mastering mind training, the yogic arts of concentration and focus. Now I’m back at magical again. I have no idea what’s happening and that’s good because probably if I did, I’d interfere with it. I do know that practice develops other parts of us besides our cognition.
When our teachers tell us to be mindful, what they’re asking us to be mindful of are our body sensations, our sense impressions, our thoughts and the myriad things, the stuff we perceive. There are countless timeless and boundless sensory experiences to be had, and they go on continuously without our conscious participation, while we focus instead on our labels for things and judgments of events. When we focus on our raw, unmediated experience, the floor doesn’t stay a flat, dependable surface; people don’t stay in our histories of them; your idea of yourself doesn’t describe how you feel right now. Meditation practice shifts you out of time and space-based reality into breath-based reality, present-moment reality, experience-based rather than concept-based, and brings you to NOW. What is NOW anyway but body sensations, sense impressions, thoughts, and phenomena?
We want this kind of richness and depth in our lives, but we’re terrified of it. All of our education has been to cultivate respect for and reliance on our reasoning brain, to plan for the future and avoid mistakes in the present that threaten that orderly future. We’re afraid to let go of our minds and rely on … WHAT? We resist such a frightening idea and prefer to turn our insights from meditation into another dogma, creating just another dead idea to hold onto, like the discarded dead ones we so bravely gave up in order to practice at all. Actually, if we allow it, practice helps us get comfortable with what is happening below board: the chaos of feeling, the riot of perceptions. Meditation fosters the stability that enables us to bring forward in trust a reality that we already know somehow, but is habitually overshadowed by our cravings and fears.
Students ask me about effort in practice, and are inevitably disappointed when I ask them to plow any new bounding energy they have from sitting back into plain old boring mindfulness. Noticing just this. It usually turns out they were hoping for some heroic assignment like cultivating single-pointed-ness or bending spoons, something like that. A resident student was assigned the task of washing the windows of the temple every day for over a week. Every day she washed clean windows over and over. Long gone was the satisfaction of rendering dirt-smeared glass clean and clear. Finally she came to me and complained that she was an energetic and talented person; she should be doing something with her talents, like working with poor people on the street just down from our temple. I told her until she could find the mind that did not consider this task boring, but simply what she was doing, she couldn’t help the people down the street. She would want results for her efforts: seeing them happy, getting them clean. It’s dangerous to go out on the street and “administer” to people. Besides burning out quickly, such a person projects separation between themselves and others that others can feel and usually distrust. This woman, indeed an “energetic and talented” practitioner, washed the windows with great heart.
I often counsel people who have chronic pain that won’t go away or people who have experienced catastrophe, for whom every idea and self-identity important to them was swept away by circumstances. To people for whom the past is painful and the future frightening, tapping into this wisdom beyond wisdom, this body apprehension of the present, is simply how to survive. When we have nothing left to hold onto, we must find comfort and support in the mundane details of our everyday lives. Except they’re not very mundane when you actually notice them. I’m taking about the consolation of spoons and the generosity of air-conditioners.
I know a practitioner who lost his ability to function in an accident while still a young man, just after earning his masters degree in engineering. He was never able to earn a living with his degree. For years all he could do was lie down. He even had prism glasses to enable him to see what we see while he was lying on the floor. He told me he had led about half his entire life on the floor. Eventually, through great healing effort, he started being able to go to a gym to strengthen his back muscles.
For months at this gym he has worked out alongside able-bodied, strong men in a macho atmosphere. This practitioner would be macho himself if he could. He comes from a family which values athletic prowess. It has been painful to him to be lesser than, ignored, and stared at the gym. But the reality of the situation is that ever since he started going there, he has always focused on the difference between these men and himself. They are strong; he is weak. They are fully functioning; he is handicapped. They are fulfilling their potential as “men;” he is inadequate.
But then one day for no reason at all, he slipped into what he and I call “the flow of the universe,”—reality based on breath rather than thought—and he suddenly saw himself and the others as “not two.” He was deeply nourished by this sudden disappearance of his usual perception of the difference between himself and the other men. No health, no sickness, no strength, no weakness. Just this: his physical activity and animal sense of other bodies. It thrilled him to his bones.
Then he went home and came into the usual tumultuous household, his two young daughters fighting and his wife yelling, all three of them arguing in the midst of their boisterous activities. Usually he tried to quiet them all whenever he came home so he could feel comfortable—people in pain are frequently quite disturbed by noise and chaos because they already have enough internal stimuli—but this time he just stood at the door and took them all in. He felt his way into their energy level and then entered his home, like a child enters an already skipping rope. Again he was deeply nourished and felt completely included. No high energy, no low energy, no tumult, no calm. Just this.
What kind of faith does it take to trust this moment enough to settle into it and forsake every other moment? For my friend, there was no longer any issue of adequacy, competence, or achievement. There was just entering the world as it is, with all its sprawling detail. And further, that much of this detail is inherently healing, supportive, therapeutic. Because I have continuous pain and its accompanying depletion of energy myself, I turn for solace to my body’s awareness of the textures and subtle vibrations of the things around me and the comfort of other bodies: bodies that are breathing, digesting, just as mine is. You often have no data on the people around you in a long sitting—their names, their jobs, whether they have children—but you know their footfall, their states of mind, their idiosyncratic ways of eating. We’re embedded in a universe so alive and dynamic, we actually need tremendous stability and extraordinary enthusiasm just to meet it. But it is here whether we meet it or not.
This kind of physical intimacy has become the basis of the teacher/student relationship for me. What kind of teaching and learning is going on when people spend body time together in the same room, cooking, reading, trimming candles? Every gesture—every movement of one body around another—takes on significance. Things can get pretty subtle. By the third day of sesshin, a student assigned to signal me with a bow when I offered incense merely raised his eyes from his clock and met the eyes I raised when I felt his gaze. It was enough. Fellow teachers laugh that my priest training program includes walks and canoe trips where I live, on the Russian River, reading Dogen on the beach, and even rafting on the notoriously challenging Salmon River, but I have found these activities develop mutual support, accountability, and an awareness of others’ well-being that are essential for a long-term life of service.
We can choose to take the body’s point of view for a few hours a day, a few days a week, a few months at a time, a year, or as a more or less permanent point of view for the rest of our life. I encourage everyone to try it as an experiment. At the very least we increase our mental agility by going back and forth from goal-directed thinking and decision-making to registering feelings and sensations form different parts of our body. When people feel settled in their bodies, they frequently experience a clarity and certainty that is very helpful in arranging the priorities of our ordinary lives. Through the course of our daily lives, we move our body anyway. We might as well learn to exploit this endless reminder that we are alive, we are pulsing with desire, we are permeated by others, and we carry the wisdom of the ages. Please settle into this wisdom and act from it.