Sunday, September 15, 2013

Living Without Illusions

Elihu Genmyo Smith

Experiencing life is joyous – and we often miss experiencing life, are not present except through a fog and filter of illusions.

An antidote to this tendency of missing life is practice. As Joko Beck said, “Practice is simply living our life without illusions that harm us and harm others. Sitting is probably the most basic part of our process.”

Unfortunately, our illusions often seem true and natural for us. We are not able or willing to be spacious and still - as our life is. Instead, we limit our life through our illusions, and then, as a result of the strongly held beliefs and habits, do all sorts of things that harm us and others; because of strongly held and strongly insisted upon illusions we treat our self and others in ways that cause stress and suffering.

One of the most valuable and fundamental aspects of sitting zen, zazen, is being present, being still - being who we are. In sitting we have the support of all the aspects of being human, of physical-mental processes, to touch, be the intimacy that we are, be the stillness that we are. That is why sitting is a basic and fundamental aspect of our practice. Zazen is manifesting this very intimacy we are.

It is not a matter of stillness as opposed to movement. As we discover in sitting, being still is embracing and being intimate as a universe that is always ongoing change; just this moment. Usually in daily life we are caught-up in all sorts of movements, mental, physical, emotional, conceptual, and so forth. When I use words like “stillness” or “being present” we might think of that as something other than, different from and even in opposition to the rest of our life. It is not. Nevertheless, without zazen it is most difficult, it is rare, to not be caught up in our illusions and attachments about this life, and therefore harm our self and others.

Stillness and movement are analogous to (though not the same as) the terms form and emptiness, form and spaciousness. Stillness is touching, sensing, experiencing the spaciousness of this moment life. Spaciousness has “room” for all sorts of arising-passing - because this arising is not other than spaciousness - and spaciousness is not hindered by arising-passing, arising-passing not hindered by spaciousness. In this vast sky, clouds come and go.

Often we forget or don’t experience the stillness and spaciousness of our life; therefor in practice, in sitting, one important aspect is resting as the present moment, body-mind being still. Of course, being bodily still, body-mind still, we might get to notice how much we don’t want to be still; “want” not in the sense of conscious choices but how much habits of agitation or chatter, whether physical, mental or emotions, how much those habits almost “go of themselves” and we buy into them and follow them. We almost believe that the habits are who and what we are. In sitting upright we sometimes discover that mouth is moving, body is moving, fingers are wiggling, there is holding tension and tightness or mind is moving, that we are thinking about Harry, Mike or Mary and so forth.

Being stillness, being present, being spacious, allows arising-passing - we allow arising-passing, we can allow chatter, emotional-physical. We can be present in the midst of all sorts of “past” and “future” chattering about, moving about, even notice how strong and seemingly natural the “latching onto” and clinging to ongoing movement is. Being present, still, we don’t have to latch onto this moment, don’t have to fear, don’t have to be angry, be greedy - and we get to notice the greed, anger and other habits and even how we latch onto them.

I recently read of a scientific discovery related to one of those “spooky” processes called quantum tunneling. In the clouds of interstellar gas and space, the rules that we think apply to chemical and molecular bonds, that of allowing some forms of bonding and making other forms unlikely or impossible, seem to not apply. “Normally” certain molecules can’t combine with each other because there is not enough “energy” to break the existing bonds of molecules and atoms to create new and different molecules and substances. On Earth, we use high heat and chemical processes to break the bonds and create new combinations; each of us also does something similar when cooking. We heat different items together and they combine in ways different than when cold – which makes our wonderful meals and even simple drinks like coffee and tea.

For a long time, scientists have wondered about how this combining process can occur in space. They found these combined molecules and substances among interstellar gas clouds even though there isn’t enough heat for the chemical “breaking” and “bonding” to occur.

Scientist have now discovered that in the extremely low temperatures of interstellar gas clouds, it seems like the “deep freeze” slows down and stills the movement of the parts of the molecule to such an extent that they cease to “act” in the usual way of maintaining their molecular boundaries - but instead go beyond usual rules and limits, and do “quantum tunneling.”

Quantum tunneling means molecules and their constituent parts are able to jump across barriers of space that under “normal physics and chemistry rules” they couldn’t; in a sense they “tunnel” across comparatively (for them) large space and boundaries, and they appear where they “ought not to be able to appear” - forming atomic and molecular combinations that are otherwise highly unlikely; the molecules in cold deep space slow down so much that this seems to increases “their likelihood” of appearing on the other side of a barrier.

“Slowing them down widens the window of opportunity for quantum tunneling by a thousand or more, even though of course (we are)… just talking about nanoseconds but that is a long time compared to normal” molecular processes, says a scientist involved in the discoveries.

This “slowing down in deep space” is analogous to sitting. In sitting (zazen), and in practice, being present, experiencing life, we are “slowing down” in spaciousness, even though we may not be moving slower - and therefore, the almost automatic processes of habitual reactions and mind-body chatter are more accessible to us; in sitting through them we need not be driven by them.

We can tunnel “into” the present moment, in the midst of and across the boundaries of attachment and reactive habits, and therefore sense what needs to be done, what is skillful and appropriate. And we don’t “have to” hold onto the greed, anger, fear reactions. Reactive habits can appear and not be automatically latched onto, but instead can arise-pass. We are free this moment. And each moment is a moment where illusions don’t result in harm for us and others, where illusions don’t reinforce themselves. Illusions “become” all the more transparent - we see them as they are. Of themselves the illusions disappear; disappear not in the sense that they go away (except when they do) but that illusions become like windows that don’t hinder us from seeing the sunlight and world, that don’t hinder functioning.

Not holding to illusions, not hindered by them, is to have space for the illusions to arise-pass and yet to be able to say, “I don’t have to be concerned about this right now.” There are large portions of our life, whether sitting or doing other things, where we don’t have to be chattering about or react to the emotion-thoughts that come up of themselves, whether about yesterday, today or tomorrow. This is one aspect of being spacious and still; until there is something that needs our attention, emotions, thoughts and body mind states can appear-disappear but we don’t have to “attend” to them, we are not at the behest and control of the arising thoughts and habitual reactions. To attend skillfully and appropriately to what needs our attention at this moment is our practice; no longer being at the effect of emotion-thought-chatter, seeing this chatter as it is.

This doesn’t mean we try to stop thinking, emotions; we are the space in which they can appear and disappear. Appearing-disappearing is this moment - except we miss this when we believe that it is me, it is my thoughts, I am the thoughts and emotions – and I have to do something about them, agree or disagree, etc…

The value, strength, importance, of being still and being spacious is that we can make good use of our life and time together, make good use of our practice effort. Because often it truly takes a practice effort to be still - and zazen is this practice effort, zazen supports and enables this practice effort, zazen is manifesting our life. It truly takes a practice effort to go from holding onto a self-centered idea/reaction to opening up the clutching, opening up, if I use the word, the mistreating of our self or others. This allows us to be who we are; I will even say to be transformed – but actually there is no transformation because from the beginning we are nothing but spaciousness; movement is spaciousness, spaciousness is movement, the spaciousness of our life is stillness-movement. Be this zazen life that you are, the suchness that is our life.

© 2013 Elihu Genmyo Smith