Experiments in Trust

I recently heard a quotation from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr that will likely be familiar to some of you: “Salvation is being on the right road, not having reached a destination.” This is so resonant with our own teaching of practicing with "no gaining idea." Yet, we do have ideas about what we want and the things that motivate us to practice. When we receive such teachings we might wonder what we can trust. How do we know we are on the right road? Is our practice the practice that will deliver salvation, freedom, enlightenment, an open heart and a clear mind? We can't know exactly. But we can cultivate a faith that does not rest outside of ourselves, outside of Buddha Nature. We can come to see our practice as an ongoing experiment in realizing faith in our True Nature.

Suzuki Roshi once said, “Big mind is knowing that we have to see the world through our small mind.” Dedicated practice slowly relieves us of the false (and often tightly held) hope that we will eventually become someone else. Commitment to zazen, study, and working with a teacher eventually demonstrates to us that we will not become something else other than human. We will always be limited, impermanent humans that can paradoxically imagine and awaken to the limitless and the inconceivable. Everybody sees the world through their own eyes and with their own unique perspective. We are naturally under the illusion that what we are seeing is real and whole. But, by definition, we are limited creatures using limited equipment, meeting other limited beings and impermanent things in a never-ceasing flow of change. As a result, we are anxious.

So, a meditation center and a community of practitioners is a laboratory for trust in the face of this anxiety. "Can I experiment in this environment with simply being myself? Do I even know who this person is? Is it OK to be this person?" As we meet these inevitable questions, it is important to remember one thing: This is not a practice path that helps us necessarily trust others or our surroundings or conditions to deliver the freedom we seek. Everything is contingent and without an abiding self, so we can't reliably place our trust elsewhere. This road is about trusting ourselves. Practicing in this way, with our small minds, reveals to us the larger perspective that salvation is, in fact, trusting ourselves to be ourselves. Profound acceptance is the road of Big Mind and we travel it with small mind.

I would venture to say that pretty much all of the optional suffering in the world derives from our not wanting to be ourselves, especially not wanting to feel what we feel. There is pain and suffering in this world that we can’t do anything about, but the rest of it comes from not wanting to be "this person." Rather than learning to be with and to greet all the parts of ourselves that arise in response to the challenges we meet along the road, we resort to habitual patterns and automatic habits of protection and coping. Sitting in stillness and silence in zazen is an experiment in trust. "Can I be this person? Can I sit with all of this and meet it with a wholesome attitude—with an open heart and a soft mind?" This is the road of Big Mind.

But to sit in stillness and silence can bring up powerful things that might feel like barriers to Big Mind. Stillness and silence shine a light on the little nooks and crannies of our being like nothing else. When we relinquish our habit of coping and protection and sit in the naked now, things are reveled that would otherwise not be shown to us. Here are a few that were manifest during our recent Integrated Intensive. These, and many others, can become dharma gates for our release, rather than perceived barriers to practice. These are the challenges to liberation and they show us where we are shaky and lacking trust in our True Nature. This is where we can meet and transform that which we have lived with all of our lives, often with a sense that we are stuck, trapped, or that nothing will ever change. We hear about mediation practice and enlightenment hoping that this will be the magic we long for. But when we enter the practice path of sitting in silence and stillness, this is what we may actually encounter:
  1. In some families, silence was used as punishment. So when we are asked to sit in silence, this painful feeling might arise. We have a chance to meet this suffering differently and find some freedom if we have skillful support.
  2. We might also be asked not to make eye contact during a retreat. However, looking away and “ignoring” is one powerful way that shame in triggered, especially when we are young. Once again, the light of awareness can bring forward these tender parts that carry shame.
  3. For those who lived in a violent or otherwise unsafe environment as child, being still can be experienced as terrifying. We might feel a profound sense of danger, especially is we are facing a wall and things are going on behind us that we cannot see. Not speaking might be construed as harsh suppression or being muzzled, another painful or terrifying possibility. Practice does not become "safe" by avoiding these realities. We build a life of trust and safety by transforming these embodied memories and habits through practice and new relational experiences that disconfirm our embodied beliefs.
  4. Sometimes stillness for long periods is proclaimed to be “not me” – “I'm the kind of person who needs to move.” Such a statement is a description of a preference or a habit pattern that might feel quite good and might be truly healthy and beneficial to a body-mind. This is in no way discouraged as a lovely and wholesome practice. However, in our Way, stillness brings forward what is not shown in movement. Movement can be a healing and generative practice, but it can also be a spiritual bypass for the parts that arise only in stillness. Restraint can be felt as bondage, but the deepest bondage, in truth, is from the fear held by our exiled parts that protective and active habit patterns continue to cover.
  5. The attentive silence and steady stillness of zazen can be misconstrued as seriousness and heaviness. Zen students or mediation practitioners can take on an unnecessary attitude of rigidity and harshness that is totally unnecessary. It is as if people carry a false belief that “spiritual” somehow means “serious and heavy.” This path is the road to freedom from suffering, which is joy and ease. We engage in activities that bring forward all the parts of us that are not joyful and at ease so that they can be met fully. An affected attitude of seriousness and heaviness is not an antidote to pain.
  6. Likewise, mindfulness is not about being lost in inner reflection, going inside over and over, and moving in slow motion. Mindfulness is not dissociation from the immediacy of experience and is not a replacement for the actual lived experience of the moment. Mindfulness is resting in and as the embodied presence of the moment, but it requires us to accept this body, this mind, this heart, and these circumstances as the reality to be met. Can we trust this?
  7. As we learn to trust ourselves in this moment, we also discover that meditation is not the practice of waiting. The road is right beneath our feet and seat. We are not moving into silence and stillness so that something new and better will happen. We are sitting to accept and trust this moment as the fullness of life right here and now.
This body is the altar—a shrine if you will—the manifestation of the Buddha’s Body, our True Nature shining forth. Nothing can disturb the unconditioned (Big Mind) even as we live with the disturbances of our conditioned selves (small mind). Big Mind is knowing that we always see through small mind. This is the road of salvation, not the road to liberation.

So we live with the questions: “Am I willing to actually be this one? Can I trust myself to meet it all?” Here is the Inquiry reflection and the meetings that ensued. If this does not show up in the email, please go to the blog itself to hear the Inquiry session.

Inquiry recording: