Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Deeper Vision for Long-Term Mindfulness Practice (Part 1): The Mindful Ideal

"I used to think that meditation practice was so powerful in itself and so healing that as long as you did it at all, you would see growth and change. But time has taught me that some kind of personal vision is also necessary. Perhaps it could be a vision of what or who you might be if you were to let go of the fetters of your own mind and the limitations of your own body. This image or ideal will help carry you through the inevitable periods of low motivation and give continuity to your practice." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p80.
"...we should take as our ideal in our everyday behavior Sōsan’s line, “The Great Way is being naturally at ease within ourselves.” - Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen,  Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p285.
"The ideal that you are striving for is to experience each mental state fully, exactly the way it is, adding nothing to it and not missing any part of it."  - Mindfulness in Plain English (2002), p131.
A Chinese Song Dynasty wooden statue of a Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, writes the following about mindfulness practice in his book The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p181:
"...the real work of mindfulness actually starts with life itself, with all its twists and turns, in all its guises and disguises. This is especially so when life is particularly difficult, when it is hard going, when the mind is all over the place. At such times we most need the stability, the clarity, and the insight that mindfulness offers."
Keeping a mindfulness practice going beyond its novelty period - when one has benefitted from the practice and feels (potentially temporarily) better about life than before, requires something more than just curiosity and enthusiasm for exotic eastern practices. As Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), a personal vision becomes necessary, p80:
"... to achieve peace of mind, people have to kindle a vision of what they really want for themselves and keep that vision alive in the face of inner and outer hardships, obstacles, and setbacks. [...] For some that vision might be one of vibrancy and health, for others it might be one of relaxation or kindness or peacefulness or harmony or wisdom. Your vision should be what is most important to you, what you believe is most fundamental to your ability to be your best self, to be at peace with yourself, to be whole." 


This vision is presented by the author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) as being explicitly about relieving all suffering in the world, p37:
"... keep in mind the original purpose and vision of mindfulness as a way of relieving all suffering, both yours and others, and developing a greater sense of compassion. Such a large and positive vision enlarges the practice of mindfulness for those who share those possibilities."
This is nothing new, for it is the Mahayana Buddhist tradition which most greatly influenced Kabat-Zinn's own personal mindfulness practice - a tradition which holds the Bodhisattva; practicing for the benefit of all sentient beings, as the ideal for the mindfulness practitioner. As Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (2008), p16:
"The ideal put forth by the Mahayanists was that of the bodhisattva, who practiced and taught for the benefit of everyone."
This ideal is an important feature of Mahayana Buddhism that is not shared by other schools. It offers the possibility of deeper practice and rewards for everyone - not just monks. The history of the emergence of such an ideal is mentioned briefly in Meditation for Dummies (2006) as follows, p50:
"...another major current emerged that preached the ideal of the bodhisattva — the person who dedicates his or her life to liberating others. Known as the Mahayana (“the great vehicle”), this second major branch of Buddhism was more egalitarian and offered the possibility of enlightenment to everyone, whether lay or monastic. From India, wandering monks and scholars transported Mahayana Buddhism over the Himalayas (the “roof of the world”) to China and Tibet. There it mingled with indigenous spiritual teachings, set down roots, and evolved into a number of different traditions and schools, most notably Ch’an (Zen in Japanese) and Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhism..."
Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattvas.
To place one's trust in an ideal state is fundamental for prolonged mindfulness practice, otherwise there is no framework to build the necessary discipline around. Kabat-Zinn emphasises this point in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p58:
"...if we trust ourselves, or another, or we place our trust in a process or an ideal, we can find a powerful stabilizing element embracing security, balance, and openness within the trusting which, in some way, if not based on naivete, intuitively guides us and protects us from harm or self-destruction. The feeling state of trust is important to cultivate in mindfulness practice, for if we do not trust in our ability to observe, to be open and attentive, to reflect upon experience, to grow and learn from observing and attending, to know something deeply, we will hardly persevere in cultivating any of these abilities, and so they will only wither or lie dormant."
Unfortunately, however, simply trusting in and aiming for this ideal is just the beginning of the daunting journey. The ideal of a Sage, Buddha, or Bodhisattva famously exists beyond merely manipulating philosophical concepts. Ideals themselves ideally need to be dropped, along with all other conceptual absolutes the mind attaches itself to. Kabat-Zinn mentions this in Coming To Our Senses (2006), in the chapter titled: Any Ideal of Practice Is Just Another Fabrication, p467:
"It is all too easy to idealize the notion of practice, or our own practice, or fall into notions of attainment and special states of mind, and then stay stuck in our ideas and ideals of practice for years without seeing that they are themselves fabrications; big ones."


This stance is supported by Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), where he says that chasing ideals wastes time that should be put into the practice of dropping such things as ideals in the here-and-now, p71-72:
"When you are idealistic, you have some gaining idea within yourself; by the time you attain your ideal or goal, your gaining idea will create another ideal. So as long as your practice is based on a gaining idea, and you practice zazen [seated meditation] in an idealistic way, you will have no time actually to attain your ideal.... Because your attainment is always ahead, you will always be sacrificing yourself now for some ideal in the future. You end up with nothing. This is absurd; it is not adequate practice at all."
Ideals can bring one to practice, but when one practices one drops everything and just watches, lest one imprisons one's mind with concepts. These restrictions on our existential freedom that taking on an ideal can impose is also illustrated by American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, in Everyday Zen (1997), p146:
"Changing the pictures on the wall from greed, anger, and ignorance into ideals (that we should not be greedy, angry, or ignorant) improves the decoration, perhaps—but leaves us without freedom."
We can end up replacing one set of suffocating values for another in the illusion that we are improving our lives. The seriousness of this situation is further made made clear by Joko Beck in Everyday Zen, p139:
"When we are attached to the way we think we should be or the way we think anyone else should be, we can have very little appreciation of life as it is. Practice must shatter our false ideals. [...] We’re deadened by the ideals of how we think we should be and the way we think everybody else should be. It’s a disaster. And the reason we don’t understand that it’s a disaster is because the dream can be very comfortable, very seductive. Ordinarily we think a disaster is an event like the sinking of the Titanic. But when we are lost in our ideals and our fantasies, pleasurable as they may be, this is a disaster. We die."

Breaking Free  by Zenos Frudakis
The method to negotiate this dangerous situation, Joko Beck says in Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), is, as ever with mindful practice, to work with it, p62:
"...we can make anything into an ideal to pursue. If we do this, however, we quickly encounter our own resistance—which gives us something to work with. It’s all grist for the mill."
Ideals themselves become 'processed' by our mindfulness practice in the same way all other attachments do - as long as one practices correctly of course and does not try to control proceedings by emulating an ideal. As Shunryu Suzuki says in Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (1999), p167:
"Don’t sacrifice actual practice for idealistic practice; trying to attain some kind of perfection, or trying to find the traditional understanding..."
Instead of being followed and clung to, ideals are to be embodied in an open and free state of awareness, as Kabat-Zinn writes in Wherever You Go, There You Are, p218:
"Only mindfulness of our own clinging and rejecting, and a willingness to grapple with these mind states, however painful the encounter, can free us from this circle of suffering. Without a daily embodiment in practice, lofty ideals tend to succumb to self-interest."
Constantly watching for the emergence of self-interest lies at the core of Zen practice. Shunryu Suzuki states in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, that the practice of emulating lofty and holy ideals - replacing one contrived self with another - was rife and seen as a kind of Buddhist practice before the teachings attributed to the first patriarch of Zen; Bodhidharma, arrived in China, p101:
"Before Bodhidharma, the study of Buddha's teaching resulted in a deep and lofty philosophy of Buddhism, and people tried to attain its high ideals. This is a mistake. Bodhidharma discovered that it was a mistake to create some lofty or deep idea and then try to attain it by the practice of zazen [seated mindfulness meditation]. If that is our zazen, it is nothing different from our usual activity, or monkey mind. It looks like a very good, a very lofty and holy activity, but actually there is no difference between it and our monkey mind. That is the point that Bodhidharma emphasized."
Ink Painting of Bodhidharma.
The Buddha, before his enlightenment, was apparently more interested in the path to Buddhahood, not in how to emulate a Buddha, but in how to allow Buddha to manifest on it's own. Suzuki references this fact by using an interest in discovering how to make perfect bread as a metaphor, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, p56-57:
"The enlightened person is some perfect, desirable character, for himself and for others. Buddha wanted to find out how human beings develop this ideal character—how various sages in the past became sages. In order to find out how dough became perfect bread, he made it over and over again, until he became quite successful. That was his practice.
In some sense we should be idealistic; at least we should be interested in making bread which tastes and looks good! Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread. There is no secret in our way. Just to practice zazen [seated meditation] and put ourselves into the oven is our way."
And so, as one's practice deepens, this sense of 'being baked' - soaked in something tangible yet indescribable becomes apparent, and experiences of striving to be some ideal can  become part of the scenery as one enjoys the ride in effortless existence. Kabat-Zinn draws attention to this dimension in Coming To Our Senses, p67:
"...striving can rapidly become counterproductive. Keeping this in mind, we will be more inclined to remember to be kind and gentle with ourselves, relaxed, accepting, and clear even in the face of turmoil in the mind or in the world. We will be less inclined to idealize our practice or get lost in "gaining fantasies" of where it will take us if we "do it right". We will be less entrained into the contortions of our own reactivity, more likely to let go and be able to rest effortlessly in non-doing, in non-striving, in our original beginner's mind, in the natural radiance of the mind's infinite spacious, compassionate, interconnected availability..."

Even when one notices one's practice becoming more effortless and joyful, however, the potential to add one's gains to one's view of self; thus feeding an idealistic self-view, always lurks, and so one must always be on one's guard - always aware. Charlotte Joko Beck writes of this in Everyday Zen, p142:
"...recognize any idealistic thoughts you add on to what you do. If someone’s dying of hunger in the front yard, we certainly don’t question what to do. We go and get some food. But then we may notice how nice we are to do this. That’s what we add; that’s the superstructure. There’s the action itself, and then there’s the superstructure. By all means, do. The most efficient way to wear out the superstructure is to keep doing all the nonsense that we’re always doing, but to do it with as much awareness as we can possibly muster. Then we see more."
This necessity for round-the-clock awareness of being as the counter-measure to becoming trapped in idealism is also emphasised by Kabat-Zinn in The Mindful Way Through Depression, p150:
"Mindful awareness and learning to be with unpleasant feelings are not about striving for some ideal of happiness in the face of the difficult - that would be just another goal we are fixating on. Rather, it is as if we are bathing the difficult situation, and even our aversion to it, in an open, compassionate, and accepting awareness, just like a mother embracing a suffering child. We can take this stance not only toward physical discomfort but also toward emotional discomfort."
Bodhisattva GuanYin Statue.
When we catch ourselves being idealistic in this way and we compassionately drop our conceptualizing, we then make true progress with our practice. Joko Beck writes of this in Everyday Zen, p147:
"When we back away from our ideals and investigate them by being the witness, then we back into what we are, which is the intelligence of life itself."
This is the ideal way to practice - to bathe all experience in intelligence - in compassion, and then suddenly the ideal state of existence may spontaneously arise. Joko Beck says in the same book that this compassionate approach is not an ideal - it is something beyond concepts, p92:
"Compassion is not an idea or an ideal, it is a formless but all-powerful space that grows in zazen [seated mindfulness meditation]."
This all-powerful nature is something the Daoist Sage LaoZi (~5th Century BC) would have agreed with, as he states in his famous book the Dao De Jing (Translated by Red Pine), Verse 67.5:
"Compassion wins every battle and outlasts every attack, what Heaven creates let compassion protect"

Daoists enjoying nature.
There are even rigorous scientific studies indicating how the role of an ideal appears to affect the happiness levels of individuals in societies, and this will be discussed in Part 2.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post. I really enjoyed it. I think, in some way, it's just what I needed at this time. I especially liked Suzuki's 'baking bread'. I feel like I've been trying on a lot of recipes and temperature settings.. and some have a "gaining idea" ingredient that I'll now be on the lookout for.

    Thanks again.