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Lions Roar : May 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2008 56 escape from the flames is another matter; that’s where continuing practice comes in. Once you are on the journey, practicing every day, these reasons will continue to be solid, but some stranger, larger change occurs—your reasons will alter. Reasons that get you out of the burning house all offer something positive. They offer a view about reality, saying things are thus. But those reasons probably won’t keep you practicing. What keeps you from rushing back into the burning house is the discoveries that you make. You become interested in your inner life, you notice the nature of the mind, and you start experiencing freedom. My personal version of the burn- ing house was this: I had a sense that there were many off-the-shelf solu- tions to being human. They were career paths or entertainments that were advertised as offering happi- ness. Trying to make them work without quite believing in them was its own little piece of hell. Meditation looked like something that might work; perhaps because it meant not doing things. That was enormously appealing. I was thrilled with the discovery that I could sit still, shut up, and be happy. Waving my arms about, reading the great texts, having long conversations about important matters—all these had not led to un- derstanding or happiness. Not doing those things seemed worth a shot. It Feels So Good When It Stops There can be a blessing over early stages of practice—life seems spacious, and very possible. You can hear sounds differently, as if a bird call is inside you or the wind in the trees is meant just for you. The idea of not doing is a crucial one, and when you get to it you have stepped outside the burning house. Not doing begins with the sense that the journey is enough right now and striving isn’t needed. Tasks that were boring drudgery, such as scrubbing pots, are suddenly interesting because you are not trying to hold off from them and your own mind has become interesting no matter what it is doing. Things start to flow, and it’s amazing how people who were irritating become less so as a result of your meditation. Moreover, you have a sense of being on the real jour- ney at last, which might bring tears to your eyes. It is as if after many lifetimes you have found a path. Practice Sets in like Weather When practice sets in, rather the way weather does, there can be a lot of boredom and feeling clueless, so that cluelessness or plain- ness is something that always needs to be taken into account. There is a strong temptation to make meditation into something good that you do, or something that makes you special. But to add striving and competence back into the equation means taking meditation back into the burning house. You are learning to ride the bicycle, and the harder you try the more you wobble. This period is a kind of purification, or initiation ordeal. One way to be during this part of the journey is not to know things, since anything you decide that you know will put you off balance. During this time, as well as experiencing struggle and disorienta- tion, I also detected an undercurrent that was independent of my assessments. Noticing this subterranean current is the beginning of the true, deep direction of practice. It isn’t influenced by what we think or feel we need, and perhaps for that reason really does lead into a more joyful life. Uncertainty The core of all navigation is probably uncertainty: tolerating not knowing makes it possible to find your way. Not knowing means embracing what is not known rather than fighting with yourself over it. Since the mind always strives to know, not knowing is dis- orienting in a useful way. Uncertainty and not knowing teach you not to believe the stories your mind feeds you day in and day out. If you allow your own course to be mysterious, then even the hard things can become easy. This is the beginning of awakening. Fan Noise This is a conversation with an eighteen-year-old student at UCLA: Student: What is meditation about? Teacher: Well, why do you meditate? Student: Well, it wasn’t that I hated my life and had to medi- tate, but I realized that my life wasn’t handleable without it. It’s like a fan noise that’s there all the time, and when I med- itate it’s silent. When the fan was on you didn’t hear it, because it had always been there. There was a catalyst that happened for me too. A friend who was a musician died suddenly, and the fan noise became really loud. I was alone in New York City and lonely, and didn’t even connect the stress with my friend’s death. The acute stuff is what it is obvious, but even if you deal with the acute stuff you still have that chronic back- ground pain. It’s the chronic stuff in the background that is interesting to deal with. And if I don’t meditate, that noise gets worse—and worse. That’s why it’s good to want a different life, to be Cinderella wanting to get out of the kitchen. If you want a different life, you might learn to stop the fan noise. The fan noise is like the dreams you have during an afternoon nap—just below consciousness, not completely garbled but not really making sense the way waking things make sense. The thoughts accumulate and get more and more tangled, but they are not necessarily in awareness and they might never rise to the level where you could ask yourself whether they were true. Medi- tation turns off the fan and reinstates the silence. JOHN TARRANT is a Zen teacher, Jungian psy- chotherapist, and director of the Pacific Zen Institute, a venture devoted to koan study and the arts. His most recent book is Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans to Bring You Joy. MAY 54-59.indd 56 MAY 54-59.indd 56 3/6/08 11:30:44 AM 3/6/08 11:30:44 AM