Our minds are
amazing. Somehow the streams of information coming at us constantly from all 5
senses and all of the thinking that's bubbling up the time is woven together by
the mind into some kind of narrative of "me" that actually makes some
kind of sense.
Sometimes of course
the sense-making breaks down and we get deeply tangled up and confused, which
is upsetting. We don't like that.
Other times strong
emotions take over the system and we're too angry and depressed or agitated
about something to think straight. We dont like that either.
But the amazing
thing to me is not that the mind gets
tangled, confused, and upset sometimes.
The amazing thing is
that it isn't that way all the time! The amazing thing is that the mind can
actually be okay most of the time. A little jittery maybe, a little edgy maybe,
we don't have a lot of confidence in the stability of the mind in our day to day
life I don't think - not that we think about all of this all that much - but
don't you think that just below the surface there's this anxious energy about
the very real possibility of losing it at any moment - perhaps this is part of
why we get so involved in busy-ness, so we don't worry about all of this
"under the hood" stuff because we're so focussed on what needs to
happen out there. Taking care of business. So much to do. No time to break down
so it's better if there's no time for anything, no time for time especially.
Of we notice
anxiety. Anxiety is a national and universal epidemic. But I wonder if we
understand anxiety. Maybe we think anxiety is about whatever object it attaches
to. We think we're anxious about being social or anxious about work or our
future, anxious about the state of the world. Thatmight all be true but I wonder if the root of
anxiety is a deeper anxiety. An anxiety about the nature of our own mind - a
fear that our minds are unstable, dangerous places best kept in some way at
arm's length. Which is pretty impossible so we are a living Catch-22 in some
This simplified way
of life we live on retreat has many advantages and one of them is we have a
little more of a chance to explore these kinds of deeper patterns.
Not so that we can
figure them out or fix them exactly either.
There's a deeply
attitudinal thing how we relate to all of this. Do we fear the mind's collapse
or celebrate the mind's ability to integrate and keep it all together? Or both?
One thing that
coming here does of course is we are renouncing our too-busy strategy for at
least these few days.
"few" days sounds a bit diminutive, these few days are amazing days.
Full days. Days full of possibility. Full of moments. In Buddhist psychology
there say there are 84 moments in the length of time of a finger snap. [snap!]
How many thousands and millions of moments are there in a few days? A lot.
So for these
gazillion minutes we have a valuable opportunity to study the mind. To learn
about how it works.
This kind of study
is a different kind of study than our usual kinds of studies. We won't be so
much learning how A leads to B and taking notes on how C interferes with D due
to process E as described by philospher F but doubted by scientific study G. That
kind of study is an outside- looking-in kind of study. That can be useful but
it can only show us the surfaces of things. And it's still holding this whole
delightful catastrophe of me at arm's length.
Let's drop that kind
of study at retreat. Instead let's study the mind from the inside out. Let's
inhabit the mind with curiosity and openness and willingness and kindness. WIth
honesty. Let's dive into the mind without turning away or distracting ourelves
so much and see what we see. Not as a scientist with a clip board but as an
explorer with a backpack full of supplies eager to discover new country and
willing to be surprised and willing to be in this for the long haul.
First we may pass
through a region of busy busy busy thoughts. Maybe it will seem like we're
walking in place for a long time there. A cavalcade of thoughts, memories,
random snatches of imagery, waves of emotion. We kind of know this
thought-tempest is down there but in our busy days we like to skip across the
surface of these waters. Now it's time to settle into it. Immerse ourselves in
our own mind. Let these busy thoughts swirl around us like the moist winds of
this lovely Spring storm.
exploration-study isn't one where we need to categorize and organize everything
we find either. Mindfulness often gets talked about in science language -
sometimes I say that in mindfulness you're the scientist and the experiment,
seeing what is, seeing what leads to what but that has a clinical, dividing
things up into this and that quality to it that isn't what we want at retreat.
I don't talk that way so much anymore I notice. I don't know if the separation
of subject and observer that's so central to science is what we want here.
Explorer is a better
model I think. The explorer is interested in what she sees but doesn't need to
take samples of everything. He notices and observes but doesn't need shoot and
stuff the animals to take them back to England, you know? Notice but keep moving,
how knows what's around the next corner.
My Zen teacher used
to say "get interested in your own mind, but don't get TOO
And you might notice
that this morning we didn't talk much about the mind but about the body. And
there are very good reasons for this.
Firstly it's a
somewhat foolish artifact of concept and language that we have the idea of a
mind over here and a body over there. It doesn't even make sense in the
material world: if we assume the mind is a kind of emmination of the brain and
nervous system we know the nervous system is part of what? The body? And like
every body system the nervous system is incredibly and intricately
interconnected with all of the other systems of the body. We wouldn't be able
to keep our hearts beating and our breath flowing if that wasn't true. We do
have the one giant nexus of nervous system in the brain so we think: well, the
brain is a separate organ so that's where the mind is. The brain is separate
and thus the mind is some kind of separate special quality that's different
from the "the body" which seems to be every else but the brain.
philosphy, on a good day when they're talking to each other, say "not so
fast." The brain may be a big concentration of these specialized
communication cells - neurons and their supporting glial cells and so on - 100
billion of them, an incomprehensible number - but there are lots of neurons in
other parts of the body too. 50 to 100 million or so neurons in our digestive
system. Trust your gut has a deeply biological meaning it turns out. It's funny
how the comparing mind is like "yeah 100 million neurons it a lot but 100
billion is more! The brain wins! Consciousness must be from the brain. And the
"neural correlates" of most thought processes do show up in our brain
- you think about something or see something or start moving your fingers and
more or less consistent parts of the brain get active - but that doesn't mean
that our mind is exactly our brain. Lots of super educated scientists seem to
forget the maxim from statistics 101 that correlation does not imply causation.
When it comes right down to it no one really knows what the mind is. Andyet here we live right in the middle of the
So part of our
project of investigating the mind and this path towards clarity of mind is
about allowing the body to come back together in our conception of who and what
this all is. That's why we spend some much time on body awareness. To heal a
deep a separation we've made with our culture, language and concepts. How could
a person who's split herself in two ever really heal?
So we settle into
our body - and experience the sensations of our breathing as a super helpful
and continuous reminder of the body's presence in our awareness. And from that
settling stance we open our attention to what the mind is up to.
Our study of clarity
of mind is firstly a study of obscurations of mind. What blocks clarity? What
is clarity anyway? Let's set that slippery question aside for a moment.
One pattern of mind
that interferes with clarity is time traveling. We know this pattern - at least
it's super obvious when it's in it's cruder forms - the amazing ability of the
mind to travel to the future and the past. To focus on what's coming later. To
remember the past. Useful qualities to be sure. We need to imagine our
alternate futures to make decisions. We need to think about the past to learn
from what happened.
And yet so over used
and so easily canted towards the negative. There may be an evolutionary bias in
our thinking in general towards the negative - better to be a little nervous
and edgy and alive than content relaxed and in the belly of a predator. I'm increasingly
suspicious of this simple "it's from evolution" storylines for our
complex minds but that does make sense. And in any case in test after test
people do respond more quickly and powerfully to negative information and I do
deeply believe the maxim that "what you practice grows stronger" so
it's pretty easy, natural even, to strengthen your minds ability to be worries,
nervous and anxious. A little evolutionary or cultural nudge in that direction
and then no support for paying much attention to the workings of the
body/heart/mind and then 30 to 70 years of steady effort and you can end up
with a pretty darn negative-leaning mind.
In time travel is
where this negativity bias is so evident though isn't it? Do we rehash and
repeat to ourselves over and over our happy and successful memories? No we
rehash the disasters and mistakes. Once or twice or ten times might be helpful
for learning and setting intentions for next time, but surely 100 or 1,000 or
10,000 rehashings of our failings surely doesn't help us. Just hurts us. They
call that rumination - a deep root of depression - and it took me a while to
notice where that word comes from: cows. Cows ruminating, chewing their cud.
Which is a useful thing to do with hard to digest foods like grass if you're a
cow but is a toxic thing to do with your memories if you're a human. And yet we
do this. A lot. Time travelling to the past. Stuck in a loop. Over and over.
Anxiety seems to
come in with future time travel. Of course we need to think through what we're
going to say or how's it's likely to be, but that too we over do in a truly
impressive and stupendous way. We don't notice the point of diminishing returns
on planning and anticipating. And just like with time travel to the past we've
been taught to do this, seen it modeled, had it rewarded in us "great job
being so prepared" that we miss the point where it's hurting not helping
and we proceed to hurt ourselves with our anxious time travel to the disasters
just around the bend. We end up living here too and the mind is deeply
distrubed and churned up by all of this.
Our retreat is such
an amazing place to explore and study time traveling. Notice when you're not
here, notice where you went - to the past? To the future? - notice the
unreality of it all - and come back. Come back to where? Breath and body is a
great start. Because unlike the mind, the breath doesn't know how to time
travel, sensations in the body are only occuring right now. The breath can't
say to itself "well if I take this breath in this way, I'd better be
careful because some later breath might end up that way" - the breath can
do this. Even breathing is a kind of conceptual generalization. Actually
there's only this present moment of breathing going on. Just this inhale, just
this exhale. Where is your breath right now?
An important note
here about breath awareness: some of us, often it's those of us who've also
experienced significant trauma might not find turning awareness towards the
breath safe or helpful. If there's a sense of distrubance or alarm when you
focus on the breath try a few things. Experiment. Dont be rigid. Try firstly
just holding that breath awareness so lightly. There may be a way that the
awareness is acting like a straight jacket on the breath - too tight -