This is my arrangement of a transcription of the conversation/dharma talk with Zen priest Sokuzan Bob Brown last Sunday at our local meditation group. Bob began by describing the basic technique of “bare awareness”—very different from Shamatha, a stabilizing practice which requires “trying to do something, labeling or deliberately following the breath.” He says the bare awareness approach is not as easy, but it cuts to the chase:
Basic meditation instruction: Keep the eyes open, gaze at the wall, or at the floor several feet in front of you. Sit straight, and hold the body very still without being rigid. Of course there is movement: your diaphragm, slight movements of the body, the eyeballs, etc. Keep all the senses open, including the mind. Just observe. Don’t add on. If judgment arises, don’t judge that. Don’t correct anything, except if you start to move, don’t do that. On the other hand, if your knee hurts, don’t torture yourself. Move it. Keep your hands in the lap, on the knees, or in a mudra position. Notice the sense of touch, how your hips feel on the cushion. Notice sounds. If there is speaking, notice the spaces between the words. Look for the texture of what you’re hearing. Look for what is fundamentally there before you begin to have an opinion about it. Notice what’s in the peripheral vision, colors. Notice taste, smell, the sense of thinking, when thoughts spring up full-grown and leave like clouds in the sky, leaving no trace. If you find yourself adding on, thinking, “I shouldn’t be thinking that,” just observe that. There’s nothing to correct.
Some people need a more controlled technique. Trust yourself. If you feel you do, that’s what you’ll turn to. But no matter what religious or non-religious practice you use, meditation is the same: you’re watching, moment by moment. What you may see is how much you add on, instead of just starkly seeing what things are, in and of themselves. Instead, we see what we think of things, what someone tells us about things. But over time, as we meditate, we slowly stop making assumptions. When we don’t give them any fuel, they start to slip away. Then what we see may not be all that comfortable, may not support what we think life is. On the other hand, it may be pretty exciting to see what’s actually true, for yourself. When you do, you’ll know it, fundamentally. If you’re unclear, you need to sit. Take an hour, or a couple of hours a day, or a week to unplug the food-processer mind, the mind that tries to find a reference point for everything.
This all takes time. It may take more time than you want it to. In fact, that’s almost guaranteed. It can be frustrating, and there’s not much feedback. Keep sitting. You have to do this yourself. The practice is not something to believe in—it’s something you see, for yourself. It’s like sharpening a knife. There’s not much fun in that, but when you need to use it, it will chop well. As the awareness becomes stronger, there’s nothing to contrast it with, so it may still feel like Beginner’s Mind. Gradually, though, in everyday activities, it begins to show up. Not so much in being more sure of what you think, but more in the sense of how astonishing it is just to be alive, just to be having a conversation, for example. And you begin to realize the degree to which your mind is constantly throwing things up in the air, thinking what it thinks about what it thinks about what it thinks, etc. That all starts to settle down, and we see what’s actually occurring, what it is.
Q: What if you find yourself so antsy that you can’t sit without a crutch like the breath?
A: Then use it.
Q: You told me when I was having trouble getting my paperwork done for my job to walk down the stair backward. So I did. I saw that doing paperwork is no different from anything else, biking, sitting on a cushion. . . .
A: The problem is when we fixate. We want things to be different than they are, so we ignore some parts. Or we’re afraid of what it might be. We fear failure. We fear not doing the paperwork, looking bad. The fundamental fear is of finding out the truth, that there’s no separate being, that there’s nothing, that you don’t exist. Something is occurring—we call it “you,” but it is not separate.
Q: I am often daydreaming when I sit. What about this?
A: This is awareness, when you see that you’re daydreaming. When you see it, you’re not fueling it. Or you’re seeing in such a way that you see yourself fueling it. There’s really no way to talk about this except to write poetry. You can only control this apparent physical form, nothing else. You can’t control the thoughts. You can’t even know you’re daydreaming unless you’re judging. I don’t want to say too much because you need to see it. Whatever occurs is correct, if you’re holding still, just observing.
Q: Is there a time when we will know something’s happening as a result of our practice?
A: You mean, will you wake up? You totally will. It’s an experience of less and less, not more and more. Just bare attention. Just this, nothing added. The three natures in the Yogachara tradition: dependent nature, imaginary nature, perfected nature, are really all together but we separate them to talk about how it works. Mostly, we’re seeing the dependent nature. We laminate on what we think is good or bad, etc. But when we do nothing with it, it can’t get fuel, and it starts to slide away. We can’t “accomplish” anything in meditation: we already are the Buddha..
It’s your heritage as a human being, to wake up. All of the traditions are all set up to crowd you into that, to encourage you, even to plead with you to do it. Don’t waste and waste your life until the physical form is gone again. Do something meaningful. Look at what your fundamental living quality is moment by moment, what you are.
Q: Sometimes I can’t bear just sitting there, the physical situation. I have a yoga background, so I am always moving subtly to get more comfortable. I’m not being with what is, I guess.
A: This is called awareness. You’re moving deliberately because of discomfort in the body. Nothing wrong with that. But I would say, would you be more comfortable on a chair? How often do you sit? It seems to be necessary to schedule it. The ego doesn’t want to do this. An hour a day is general idea, plus block sitting in four-hour stretches. Plan to sit down on a Tuesday evening at eight and sit till midnight. Get up to get a glass of water, stand up and stretch, go to the bathroom, etc. but make the container clear. Do not leave. If you’re too tired, go to bed and try a different time of day next time. The reason for the long sitting is to see that you can’t protect what is not real. What is not real is your self- centeredness, your ego.
Q: Should I just sit and wait for things to happen, or should I do a scan, to see what’s there?
A: Do a little of each. Everything is welcome to do whatever it wants. The awareness begins to see that it’s not happening to anyone, no one is there.
Q: So, nothing fancy happens during sitting?
A: No. it’s boring. Life looks to us as if it should be tit-for-tat, i.e., if I do this, I will get this result. But we just sit, good/bad/neutral, all the same. Just observe. Don’t evaluate your progress. Do this for two years, then check in with me again.
Q: Do you, yourself, want a sharp knife?
A: I don’t want anything. I did very much at time. Oh, I do want to save all beings. But they’re already saved.
Q: If your knife is sharp, will it be evident?
A: My teacher, Trungpa Rimpoche, said, “If you meditate, you may not be getting anywhere, but at least you’re not making a nuisance of yourself.” [laughter]. People may begin to notice that you’re paying attention. You may not have too much comment, but there’s more space. You say something and wait for them to say something. This is called a conversation.
Q: You said that you don’t want anything. When you started meditating, what did you want? How did what you wanted from the practice change for you over the years?
A: Originally I just wanted to stop suffering, being so aggressive with myself and others. There was intense fear. I didn’t want to look even to see what I was afraid of. I was not trusting my own intelligence or insight. It was very intense and painful. Until I met my teacher. I saw what he had, and I wanted that. Then it was very gradual. What he said is go sit. Pretty ordinary. Things just start to change. They actually become less and less and less, not more. Less separate. That sometimes comes up in flashes. Sometimes in the Zen tradition, they talk about the Northern and the Southern paths, whether things come in a flash or slowly. But it takes both.
Q: It’s tricky for me to trust myself. I don’t feel that trustworthy. I think I don’t want to meditate, but part of me is guilty.
A: It seems to be very important to schedule, like brushing your teeth. If you think you could be meditating, you are aware you’re avoiding. The self-centeredness is aware that it’s being threatened. It doesn’t like going in and looking at the very core of passion/aggression/ignorance.
Q: Sometimes I think I don’t really see what I’m noticing. I’m just sitting. A teacher can show me what I’m not aware of seeing. Can you comment on that?
A: From my perspective, don’t worry about it. Just worry about sitting a lot. If you get tied up in the insight factory, it starts to be more about progress, the ego marking along the path. Just put one foot after the other. That is the path.
Q: We say “I want to meditate, exercise.” I need to change the word to “I must.”
A: I recited The Four Reminders each morning before I got out of bed for years: the preciousness of being free and well favored. . . . .
Q; I got to thinking about this “chop wood, chop wood” thing. I’m making ship models, time goes by and when something outside of that intrudes, it feels as if I’ve achieved the space that I want to achieve in meditation.
A: We’re always meditating on something. The way to actually sharpen that situation is to do it without any particular object. What arises is confusing enough. We want to just be here. If you can do that making models, make models. Myself, I got frustrated. But I was only ten.
Q: When I am lost where have I gone?
A; I don’t know. I’m not concerned with it. When you fall asleep, where did you go?
Q: May I think about something in particular and on purpose when I’m meditating? I’m sometimes distracted by a thought. I ring a bell and sit with it, to think about it.
A: This is awareness: you’re trying to understand what the thought’s about. I did that once at a retreat—made the retreat about thoughts, because I was plagued by them. From this point of view, you can’t make any mistakes. And if it helps you to read something before you sit down, fine. But it’s good not to turn the practice into reading. It’s better to just sit and look at the awareness itself.