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Thread: Focusing on Nothingness and Apatosauruses

  1. #1

    Focusing on Nothingness and Apatosauruses

    I found this entry on Brad Warner's Blog (Zen teacher) and wondered if anyone had any comments.



    Focusing on Nothingness and Apatosauruses


    'Here’s a variation on my most frequently asked question. It’s a pretty good version, so I’m answering it on the blog:

    “When sitting zazen, if thoughts come to you and you begin to focus on them instead of ‘nothingness’, how do you deal? Do you ever let thoughts take full shape and form or do you push them away before they have time to become concrete? Is it important to ever focus on these or to push them out quickly?”

    The problem here is the same problem everyone who has ever done meditation throughout history has had. The questioner is comparing her state while doing zazen with the image of the state she thinks she’s supposed to have, and she feels like her real state falls short of her ideal.

    Your real state will always fall short of your ideal.

    That is the nature of idealized states. It’s a trick your brain can do. It has great practical value. Our ancient ancestors looked at their efforts to try and kill apatosauruses by throwing rocks at them. They realized that wasn’t working and envisioned an idealized state wherein apatosauruses could be killed more quickly with less effort. They imagined an ideal apatosaurus killing weapon, perhaps pointy rocks attached to big sticks. And so the spear was born, and apatosaurus could be killed efficiently enough that the whole tribe could dine on apatosaurus burgers for months. Yay!*

    Meditation practitioners all have the same problem of trying to match up their their actual meditative state with their idealized meditative state. Sometimes they come up with clever solutions to make it seem like this idealized state actually comes about. They invent words to repeat to themselves, or light candles and stare at them, or think about funny questions, or concentrate their whole mind on their solar plexis, or make recordings of weird sounds to listen to, or wear silly sunglasses with colored lights attached… There are thousands of variations.

    They all do the same thing. They get certain people to feel like they’re a little closer to their idealized “meditative state” by temporarily tricking the thinking mind into believing it has achieved its goal. But what happens when you’ve achieved a goal? That process of creating idealizations kicks back in and creates a vision of an even better state it wants to get itself into. Then you’re right back where you started.

    What we’re trying to do in Zen practice is totally different. Nishijima Roshi used to say “dimensionally different” to try to emphasize just how different it was. It’s so different it might as well be in another dimension of reality altogether.'

    Continues at the link:

    http://hardcorezen.info/focusing-on-...osauruses/2895


  2. #2
    Forums Member John Marder's Avatar
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    I'm a bit confused. It seems that he is aspiring towards an idealised state where he isn't troubled by the thinking mind because otherwise he wouldn't need to adjust posture to remedy it.
    Perhaps it all comes back to suffering; if something makes you feel bad, like a whole head full of troubled thoughts, then of course you will want to change it. That was the starting point of Buddhism wasn't it?

  3. #3
    Quote Originally Posted by John Marder View Post
    I'm a bit confused. It seems that he is aspiring towards an idealised state where he isn't troubled by the thinking mind because otherwise he wouldn't need to adjust posture to remedy it.
    Perhaps it all comes back to suffering; if something makes you feel bad, like a whole head full of troubled thoughts, then of course you will want to change it. That was the starting point of Buddhism wasn't it?
    I have found that trying to change troubled thoughts increases my suffering. What works for me is observing the troubled thoughts, as David Attenborough observes a creature in the wild: he keeps still and quiet, so as not to scare the creature away. When I do that with thoughts, the thoughts stop fully occupying my mind, because they have to share it with the "observer". The suffering that comes with troubled thoughts fades away when that happens, I find.

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    Forums Member John Marder's Avatar
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    Thank you Snowmelt. Yes you are right. I suppose what I meant is that you would want to change the state whereby your are troubled by those thoughts. I was confused.
    I am interested in the I term 'nothingness' here. Is that supposed to mean no thoughts at all?
    I thought it meant 'emptiness' as used by Nagarjuna etc in the Mahayana teachings?. Though it is not a term I normally use.
    Apologies, my cutting and pasting technology seems to have attained a state of extinction, otherwise I would have re- quoted you as is the way we do things.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by John Marder View Post
    I suppose what I meant is that you would want to change the state whereby your are troubled by those thoughts.
    To me, wanting to change anything at all is the same as not allowing whatever process is occurring to proceed without interference. If we are troubled by thoughts, then let us not 'trouble' that trouble. Let us leave the trouble alone to behave according to its nature. As Ajahn Chah says, having an intention of any kind when one sits down to meditate interferes with the meditation. I think he says something like, when he sits down to meditate, he does nothing but sit. If any thought or feeling comes up in the mind or body, forming any intention about such phenomena is to lose our inner 'David Attenborough', that quality that does absolutely nothing but observe. We are truly leaving everything alone to function according to its nature. I have tried this. My earlier efforts at meditation were contaminated with intention, hope, and other things. I thought, wouldn't it be great if I became enlightened during this very meditation. Or I thought, I am going to focus very hard on the breath. Or I thought, I am going to force my thoughts to subside. Lately I have been sitting with the idea that, this is my time, when I do not have to do anything at all. Not form any intention, not have any hope or desire. Absolutely nothing. It is pleasant to sit like that.

    Quote Originally Posted by John Marder View Post
    I am interested in the I term 'nothingness' here. Is that supposed to mean no thoughts at all?
    I thought it meant 'emptiness' as used by Nagarjuna etc in the Mahayana teachings?. Though it is not a term I normally use.
    I do not know whether I fully understand emptiness. My current understanding is as follows. If we realise that the body is not-self and the thoughts and feelings are not-self, then our sense of who we are, our sense of self, changes. If we fully realise these things, then our sense of self becomes empty: we can't find any self at all. We realise that whatever we can detect has the quality of not belonging to a self. In my own case, I am less concerned than I used to be about painful thoughts and feelings, having realised to some extent that they are caused by things I cannot control and also conditioned by things I cannot control. They are caused and conditioned by things that are not-self. This has brought me some peace.
    Last edited by Snowmelt; 18 Jul 14 at 23:53.

  6. #6
    Forums Member John Marder's Avatar
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    having an intention of any kind when one sits down to meditate interferes with the meditation
    This is interesting. To me if I had no intention when I sit down to meditate, I wouldn't sit down to meditate. I would at worst, sit and watch daytime television and at best, spend my time creating benefit for others as best I could. Also, I don't really get the David Attenborough analogy as he has a very strong intention to observe those 'thoughts', albeit of course not to change them.
    It seems to me that I would need to make an enormous effort to not have an intention and that would involve having an enormous intention. I believe intention is part of what we are. Did the Buddha not talk of the importance of one's intent?
    Does nothingness mean emptiness?
    In my tradition the concept of emptiness is crucial and I understand it pretty much as you do Snowmelt.All phenomena, including ourselves of course arise from dependent origination as you say and therefore have no inherent existence of their own, hence they are empty. Is that the same as nothingness?

    They are caused and conditioned by things that are not-self. This has brought me some peace.
    . I agree, it helps me a lot too to realise that. However, not only are we not-self but we are also self aren't we, in an ephemeral dependently originated way. Therefore we are both self and not self in a world where everything both exists and doesn't exist. I shan't waffle on any more except to say that this observation of the 'middle way' is how I make sense of reality
    Last edited by John Marder; 19 Jul 14 at 00:48.

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    Forums Member John Marder's Avatar
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    Sorry Snowmelt that I reacted in such a 'closed mind' fashion to 'absence of intention'. I will give it due consideration. Many many thanks

  8. #8
    Hello, John. Well, it is true that Ajahn Brahm has said that one needs to very gently tilt the mind towards enlightenment, so that it isn't just standing still. So I guess there is an intention after all. Maybe those who say 'just sit' do so in response to young and eager monks who push very hard in their meditation, counter-productively.

  9. #9
    I have been thinking about this today, and of course I would not sit down to meditate without having a reason for doing so, which is to put an end to suffering, ultimately. But that feels different to me than a fierce determination to focus on the breath or suppress thoughts. I have come to the view that such things should be let be instead of subjected to intention. Intending to end suffering, when I sit down to meditate, or try to be mindfulness, is such a deliberately gentle intention that it may be hard to detect ... but of course the mind, I have come to understand, has many subtleties that are nonetheless powerful causes and conditioners. But letting go of things is still my understanding of how we reach inner peace.

    I am not expressing myself as clearly as I want to, but hopefully some of the above makes sense.

  10. #10
    Forums Member John Marder's Avatar
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    and of course I would not sit down to meditate without having a reason for doing so, which is to put an end to suffering, ultimately. But that feels different to me than a fierce determination to focus on the breath or suppress thoughts. I have come to the view that such things should be let be instead of subjected to intention.
    Thank you Snowmelt. That makes absolute sense to me. A little bit 'distantly watching' and a little bit 'taking appropriate action' sounds very sensible; a bit like living life generally. I always think that Buddhism should be common sense and nothing weird or unusual.
    My experience is that fierce determination and craving lead to suffering but strong inner resolve and sincere intent are definitely beneficial. Subtle differences!

    Many thanks

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