Koans: Keys to a Greater Truth

Koans: Keys to a Greater Truth

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Ask a person “What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word, ‘Zen?'” Most people will respond with ideas about an imperturbable state of calm. However, if you ask them about the second thing, they may reply,” Isn’t it the sound of one hand clapping or something?” This person is remembering part of a Zen koan. Furthermore, they’re actually probably a little closer to the heart of Zen with this answer. This week at Barn Life Recovery, we are working with koans. These tools can grant us a greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. But what exactly are koans? And how can they help us?

Empty Your Cup

A famous master, Lao-tzu, once said, “Understanding only goes as far as that which it can understand.” Put another way “Ya don’t know what ya don’t know.” As soon as we think we know something, then we become rigid and unresponsive. You know the famous phrase: “For the beginner, there are many possibilities, but for the expert, there are few.” Maintaining a mind of “not knowing” allows us to respond to situations with openness, freshness, and joy. This is where koans come in. Koans – sometimes called spiritual puzzles – pose questions or situations we can’t answer or understand using logic, and thus force us to go beyond the mind. Koans can be stories, poems or phrases. They convey a direct feeling rather than an intellectual idea.

Working With Koans

In practice, a student is assigned a koan by a teacher or master. The teacher will ask, “What is the color of wind?” or “What is your original face before you were born?” The student is then expected to “live with” and meditate upon the question for some time before returning with the “answer.” If these questions sound like nonsense to you, you’re partially right. Remember, koans work to push us beyond logic toward a realm of feeling and intuition. William Blake was working with koans when he wrote about the Sick Rose, as was Denis Johnson in his stories about fringe characters in the Midwest. This week, we are assigning koans to our clients and seeing what they come up with. The beauty of this technique is that the interpretations are endless and we are ready to uncover truth around every corner.

Barn Life Recovery is the first treatment center in the state of California licensed to treat mental illness on an outpatient community-based level. If you are feeling depressed, anxious, or just plain overwhelmed, please consider giving us a call. Our admissions specialists are standing by to offer a free consultation. Learn to love life again.

The Choice to Make Your Way

The Choice to Make Your Way

A Common Mistake

Gong Fu or Kung Fu (功夫) literally means “energy/hard work, time/patience.” It is commonly misunderstood to mean a particular style of martial art, but it actually refers to anything that takes a large amount of time, patience, and energy to accomplish. For example, if someone is learning to play the piano that is their kung fu because it will require a lot of time and energy to become proficient in that art. The concept of kung fu applies to the martial arts as well, but in the West, we tend to assume it is exclusively a martial arts term or a particular style of martial arts and it is not.
“That’s really interesting, Mathew, but what’s the point? What are you trying to tell us?” you’re probably saying right about now. And I’m glad you asked.

The World Is But A Canvas…

What I’m trying to say is, “Make your way.” Please notice how I did not say discover your way or find your way or seek your way. I said: make your way. Make it. Create it. This world seems to take equal parts pleasure in creating and destroying. For something new to emerge, something else needs to evaporate. Appearing and disappearing. So to create this new path in which you will travel with contentment and satisfaction you must first dismantle your old way of living. Only makes sense. We can’t walk two paths at the same time. Time, as most of us perceive it, is moving constantly in a singular direction. Living a life walking two different paths would necessitate 2 of you. Psychologically this happens in the form of a mental split. The psyche either stands at the crossroads unwilling to choose a course or it desires to choose both courses at the same time. Both choices usher in a litany of material impossibilities. However, from a thinking perspective, we are literally stuck – out of synch.

Contentment In All Of This

This is the important part. Either path is the same. The path makes no difference nor cares to label itself one way or the other. By my choice and my willingness to move forward singularly and assuredly, that path is mine alone and it is ever-evolving and growing grander and richer and more satisfying with each step we move forward. Every path is filled with pain and pleasure and ups and downs and there is contentment in all of this when enlightenment strikes you. It seems to favor decisively moving singular targets that walk decisively singular paths. Blah blah blah. So what does that mean or prove?

The Flutter Of A Butterfly’s Wing

Understanding what was just explained is not enough. Believing it to be true is not enough either. Although it does shorten the process slightly. Practicing as if it were true seems to be the action that gets the wheels turning. In other words, behaving as if it were true. It is empowering to practice as if you could dramatically alter the course of your life with a mere one step in a particular direction. Any direction. You can live any life you can imagine, or at higher levels, I suspect, live an unimaginable life. No need to plan out each step. Just keep moving forward.

The World Moves Either Way

A Chinese sifu once said that if you are not moving forward, you are moving backward. The idea that you can stand static still and neither move up or down is really a slower version of moving backward. Getting stuck mentally or emotionally in the past whilst your physical body moves uncompromisingly forward in time causes an existential paradox. Do you realize how much mental strain and internal resources it takes to keep you running counter to the flow of the entire universe? Either you choose one or not choose one. Either way, you made a choice. Decisions made by indecision are still, guess what, decisions. Good and bad are only labels we apply to things based on our preferences, agendas and points of interest. The words themselves mean nothing. They are a choice you decide to apply to situations, people, places or things that you believe do you harm or at the very least, not in line with your preference.

 

Inner Truth: Unconcealing Ourselves

Inner Truth: Unconcealing Ourselves

Hiding Nothing

There are too many good quotes about truth to share in a timely fashion. However, two of my favorites are:

“There are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth.” – Robert Evans, filmmaker

“Three things shine before the world and cannot be hidden. They are the moon, the sun, and the truth.” – usually attributed to the Buddha in a paraphrased version

The sort of “truth” we will be exploring this week will pertain to inner truth. The truth about who you are and how you shape your reality based on this inner truth. The Greek word for “truth” is aletheia. This word means literally to “un-hide” or “hiding nothing.” It conveys the thought that truth is always there, always open and available for all to see, with nothing being hidden or obscured.

Chung Fu: Three Images of Inner Truth

In Chinese philosophy “Chung Fu” or Inner Truth relates to three different images or ideas. One is the wind blowing over the lake stirring the surface. When the wind disrupts the surface of the water, we see ripples. These ripples are a physical manifestation of the wind’s effect on the water. This unsettled water expresses the visible effects of the invisible. Inner truth is like the wind in this example. What we feel to be our truth will manifest itself in the “agreed upon” real world.

Over-Brooding and Under-Brooding

The second image is of a baby bird being held down by its mother’s foot. This expresses the idea of brooding. Brooding in this sense means how a mother bird cares over her young. Some mama birds over-brood their babies and the hatchling grows too large for the nest and falls out before learning to fly. On the other hand, under-brood and you miss the hints and clues. Correct brooding means actively listening to what another person is expressing. In fact, paying close attention to something or someone is how one broods. The baby chick will give the signals, while the mother only needs to have the desire to be aware. In order to care for the flightless hatchling, the mother listens closely and reads the signs honestly.

Opening Your Heart

The third idea is listening to others. This last image offers clear instructions on how to practice inner truth. Receiving what others say and do with an open heart. Attacking people with YOUR preconceived plans and opinions is never the path to inner truth. Only by paying close attention to the stirrings of others can you find open-heartedness. An open heart allows inner truth to penetrate just like light and heat warm an egg and “quickens” it into a living thing. That empty space in the egg is key. Inner truth is also an empty space in you that fills with interest and compassion in others. Furthermore, the source of a person’s strength lies not in herself but in her relation of that self to other people.

The Fragrance of Orchids

Remember the three sides to every story quote? “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth.” Well, there is more to that quote that always gets left out for some reason. The next two sentences read, “And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently.”

Life leads the thoughtful man on a path of many windings.
Now the course is checked, now it runs straight again.
Here winged thoughts may pour freely forth in words,
There the heavy burden of knowledge must be shut away in silence.
But when two people are at one in their inmost hearts,
They shatter even the strength of iron or of bronze.
And when two people understand each other in their inmost hearts,
Their words are sweet and strong, like the fragrance of orchids.

Ta Chuan

Judgment: The Consequences of Knowing

Judgment: The Consequences of Knowing

From Unknowing to Knowing

If “unknowing” leads us to non-judgment, then “knowing” leads us to judgment. If we think we know something, we start judging everything and everyone around us in the light of our “knowing.” Our “knowing” or “certainty” coupled with the inevitable judging that goes with them always leads to suffering. The Buddha said that “a day spent judging another is a painful day. A day spent judging yourself is a painful day.” Conversely, time spent unknowing, in non-judgment, may lead to a cessation of suffering.

Judgment Closes Doors

Knowing may involve an opening up to new possibility, but more often knowing takes the form of a certainty that closes doors and makes our world smaller rather than larger. What is a judgment that always accompanies certainty? It is a decision we make about the inherent nature or quality of communication, a thing, or a person. It is a decision of right or wrong, bad or good. An assumption. Judgment always has, or is part of, some agenda. What if we were able to drop all of that, and let things be as they are? What then?

Criticism = Judgment + Demand

Probably one of the most personally corrosive things to emerge from a state of knowing and its judgments is criticism. What is criticism? Well, it is an essentially emotional statement that contains a judgment and a demand. All criticism is made of these two things, although often the judgment and demand are camouflaged in some way. It’s also worth remembering that self-criticism, while occasionally useful, is more often as corrosive to our progress and growth as any criticism we might make of another person.

Converting Criticism into Effective Communication

A plain, albeit relatively mild, criticism might sound like this:

“I really wish you would wash the dishes every day. You are such a slob for not doing it!”

The demand: wash the dishes. The judgment: you’re a slob. Simple enough. Think about how it works as effective communication, though. Not well, most of the time. Inevitably the object of this communication will become defensive, even hostile and my criticism of them will not only be an abject failure in achieving my goal – consistent washing of the dishes – it will likely make things worse between us. A better way: dispense with the criticism and do something different. More effective communication might be: “When you don’t wash the dishes I feel angry, sad and dismissed.” I talk about myself, not about the potential object of my criticism. This seems simple enough but it can also be quite powerful in getting my partner, say, to actually listen to what I’m saying, and is less likely to provoke defensiveness or a fight.

Some Homework

So how do we experience our “knowings” and the judgments that follow from them? Is judging pleasant or unpleasant? How does constantly judging everything and everyone help or hurt us? M. Scott Peck once observed that “The quality of our judgments determines the quality of our lives.” While this is true, it’s crucial that we are all deeply aware of our inner experience driving our judgments and how we can communicate our judgments in a way that they can actually be heard and considered seriously. This week, explore judgment in all its manifestations and what it might be like to judge less and observe more, including judging ourselves. Does more judgment really result in more suffering? Is the converse true? Consider if judgment and criticism make us more distant from other people, more alone, or if less judgment and criticism bring us closer to others and to ourselves.

The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing

“Not-Knowing” Vs. Certainty

The concept or idea of “not-knowing” has a long history in spiritual teaching, going back thousands of years. In fact, Buddhism, Taoism, Neoplatonism and the mystic or esoteric teachings of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam all consider the state of “not-knowing” as crucially important to a useful spiritual practice. Of course there are versions of all these religions that value and idealize “certainty” or “knowing” very highly, perhaps higher than anything else – evangelical Christianity and certain sects of Islam come to mind, and there are others – as a way of understanding existence to the point of violently imposing that understanding upon others. In these understandings or epistemologies, “certainty” becomes a method of domination.  Furthermore, certainty also becomes a version of hubris. The ancient Greeks were well aware of the dangers of hubris, going back over 2500 years.

An Empty Cup

Conversely, esoteric teachings of these same major religious traditions hold not-knowing or unknowing very highly.  A useful entrance into this notion comes from Zen Buddhism.  A famous Koan tells of a wandering Student who encounters a spiritual Master in the woods.  The following conversation ensues:

Master:   “Where are you going?”
Student:  “My pilgrimage is aimless.”
Master:  “What is the substance or matter of your pilgrimage, what do you seek?”
Student:  “I don’t know.”
Master:  “Ah.  Not-knowing is most intimate.”

Unknowing Is Just Right

Marc Lesser gives an excellent interpretation of this Koan:

The response, “I don’t know” feels radically honest. What do we really know about ourselves, our experience, our world? He’s not trying to say something wise or impressive. Maybe he expects some guidance or advice.

Instead, he receives a gift: “Not knowing is most intimate.” Not knowing is just right. Perhaps what he was looking for, he had all along, only he didn’t know it.

The word intimacy in the Zen world is a way of speaking about awakening or enlightenment. I much prefer the word intimacy. Awakening and enlightenment imply some special state of mind, some kind of mystical experience, far removed from our day-to-day lives. We might think that awakening or enlightenment will somehow remove us from our daily struggles and problems. Intimacy brings us closer, to ourselves, to others, to our problems.

Knowing can be an obstacle, can even be our enemy. Our knowing can limit our vision. Much like the famous illusion/image of a woman’s face – that some people see as an old woman, other’s see as a young woman. We think we know … How can others see something so different? Isn’t this how much of life is?

This moment – this person, this illness, this opportunity, this pain or beauty – what is it? … How can we not be caught or limited by what we think we know?

With not knowing, I am open, ready, willing to learn, to be surprised. I can see and hear others beyond my own ideas. Though my experience and knowledge are important, they can get in the way. When I let go of my own ideas, I can be present, humble. When I am humble, I am not afraid. I can enter this moment, engaged, moved, open – intimate.

A Lovely Paradox

Additionally, an example comes from esoteric teachings of early Christian mystics.  The article in Wikipedia about this 14th-century anonymous text is worth reading:

The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowing) is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work suggests that the way to know God is to abandon consideration of God’s particular activities and attributes, and be courageous enough to surrender one’s mind and ego to the realm of “unknowing”, at which point one may begin to glimpse the nature of God.

There is a lovely paradox at the heart of this text:  only by entering a state of unknowing can we begin to know God, however you may conceive that vision.

Putting It Into Practice

So, this week, consider all that ways that unknowing might be useful to us. How might unknowing inform the decisions we make about the course of our lives?  How might unknowing be a place to begin a process of developing greater awareness of reality and all that is contained there?  Unknowing leaves all doors open, all options available.  Certainty closes doors and limits our perspective. Notice also how Not-knowing and Acceptance intertwine with each other.  Only through a process of acceptance may I enter the Cloud of Unknowing and from there begin to dispel that cloud and allow awareness to build into my perceptions.

Acceptance

Acceptance

Training Ourselves to Accept What Is

Acceptance is a simple enough idea but can be a challenge to master in practice. This week, we consider just what it means to accept, and how we might train ourselves to accept what is. Buddhism (and certain other spiritual practices) teach that if we do not accept what IS in our life now, we suffer. Another way to think about this is that when we suffer, we are, in essence, resisting what is in our life now. So in this formulation, all suffering results from some form of inner or outer resistance to what is.

The Serenity Prayer

The Serenity Prayer is yet another clear statement of this idea:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It is in the serenity of acceptance that we find both the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. That wisdom eludes us without the serenity of acceptance.

Acceptance Vs. Resistance

Similarly, another way to think about acceptance and resistance is to imagine that we have arrived at a place and time in our lives when we are, in some sense, lost. Resistance to what is in our lives now is a form of being lost. Imagine being lost in the physical world. If I struggle against such a fact, if I am, say, lost in deep woods, I may never come out again. But if I sit quietly, and accept that I am truly lost, I may begin to see things differently. Once I stop resisting that I am lost, I may begin to see ways to become “un-lost.” I may see a path through the underbrush.  I may hear sounds that lead me to safety.  I may discover a great deal once I have accepted that I am lost and that struggling against that fact is useless.

A State of Openness and Receptiveness

Acceptance is thus not at all simply giving up to what is.  Rather, it is a state of openness and receptiveness to what is happening to me now, and also a receptiveness and openness to what might be immanent – but not now obvious – in my current life-situation.  Once we reach acceptance, the static of resistance fades and we can see and hear more clearly.  We are also more likely to find inner peace more consistently if we can accept what is. So this week, where and what is our resistance? How does it manifest in our lives? What are we resisting now? What would it be like to accept what is instead of resisting it?