Thursday, January 27, 2011

Practice and experience

"The thought that practice and experience are not one thing is just the idea of non-Buddhists. In the Buddha Dharma practice and experience are completely the same. Practice now is also practice in the state of experience; therefore a beginner's pursuit of the truth is just the whole body of the original state of experience...

Because practice is just experience, the experience is endless; and because experience is practice, the practice has no beginning."

Dogen, Shobogenzo, Bendowa, pp. 10-11 Nishijima and Cross, Dogen Sangha press 1994

In this little tidbit from the Shobogenzo, I pick up a hint of work in life, which is what Gurdjieff wished for his pupils to undertake. I will grant you, it's true; this particular passage was referring specifically to the practice of sitting Zazen, not work in life in general, so those of you eager to accuse me of taking things out of context are correct.

Nonetheless, he goes on to expand the question beautifully and point out that practice and experience are not, and cannot, be separated.

As was indicated in the last post, there is a significant danger of over-thinking everything we do in terms of inner work. It's quite amazing to me that every indicator pointing towards a new way of working, be it a quotation from someone who understands the path, or an observation we make about ourselves, or an experience–remarkable or unremarkable–which manages to make a deeper mark on our consciousness than usual, the first thing we do is have discussions about it and analyze it. Even the most well-meaning people with the most sincere work fall into this pit on a daily basis. I do it myself. We do it automatically and unconsciously. Have you ever noticed this?

We are all like that... I see that other people talk too much–but I do it myself. I see that other people are self absorbed–but so am I. In fact, everyone around me is a nearly perfect mirror of what I am. Instead of feeling grateful to them for illustrating my own condition so beautifully, I am irritated because they don't meet my wonderful standards.

What a mess.

There needs to be something much simpler about practice and experience. I want to discover how to separate practical effort from analysis; how to just be within life and inhabit it, not critique it, second-guess it, and be dissatisfied with it. I would like, in a nutshell, to just have the experience.

This would take a degree of objectivity. Yesterday, I had a long discussion with one of my best friends about what an objective mind consists of. Now, we could have arguments about whether or not anyone actually understands that... what I will say about it here is that if you ever experience an objective mind, you will know it at once. It's not a mistakable condition.

The "mind" that we have–that is, the associative intelligence, which manufactures 99.9% of what we think we are in the course of day-to-day activity–is not an actual mind. It is clever, it is flexible, it is intuitive and agile–but it isn't aware. It is, as Gurdjieff described, a machine that is programmed to function in a certain way–and because it is very good at what it does, we more or less presume that nothing else is possible.

So my practice and experience needs to find a way to invest itself in a piece of territory that does not necessarily belong to "this" mind. That doesn't mean the territory will be inaccessible to the associative mind–inevitably, I will inhabit this hypothetical new territory in conjunction with the associative mind–but there are definite parts within me that can engage in this activity which don't rely on language, form, or interpretation to sense impressions of the world around me.

These parts–as you may have guessed–are sensation (the body) and emotion-- which, in its most sensitive state, is referred to as feeling.

Feeling is active; emotion is passive. We don't have a convenient word for active sensation, but it would be good if we did, because it is quite distinct in the same way that feeling is distinct from emotion. And, if we want real help in the discovery of what we refer to as “three centered” experience and practice, feeling and active sensation need to participate.

Why do they need to participate?

Simply because these two parts do not rely on language, that is, words, to form an understanding of what is taking place in the world. They have a quality of the immediate that is not unlike the quality of music–it is wordless, yet it is expressive, active, contains a form that it creates within itself and is intuitive, not an invented form that can be fixed, perverted, or otherwise manipulated.

Let me extend the distinction a bit more. If I have a thought about a politician, it immediately connects to thousands of other associations, and I tend to pick and choose ones that reinforce reflexive emotional reactions of one kind or another. If I hear music, however, I can't think it into some new context. It's simply there. I can like it or dislike it, but it isn't subject to manipulation, because it isn't verbal, and I can't sit there rearranging it to make it something other than what it is.

Sensation is quite similar. It is a fundamental reality, the perception of a mind that is one of the three minds the body has an immediate capacity for utilizing, and you can't really change it, fix it, or fool around with it. The sensation of ice cold snow on the skin is exactly and just that–it's not something else.

So here I have two parts that, if they actively help me, actually already contain the capacity for avoiding some of the traps that my associative mind has placed all around me. An investment in these sensory capacities, an inhabitation of the immediate–they have the potential to create a form of the now, not a form of the “what I wish things were.”

Ah, we have strayed rather far from Master Dogen's Zazen! Nonetheless, it's all connected.

It's undoubtedly true that the Gurdjieff work shares a great deal in common with the practice of yoga, and Zen (hence the title of this blog) but it distinguishes itself in some specific ways.

One of these is the emphasis on what Gurdjieff calls “three centered Being.” The need for this connection between the three parts is understood in other works, but not precisely in the way in which Gurdjieff brings it to us. Even more usefully, perhaps, he brought what was (for his time) a very modern mindset to what were essentially very ancient ideas. This makes the idea of three centered work perhaps more accessible for us than it would be, for example, if we try to plumb the depths of obscure yoga texts.

The second, and perhaps most intensely significant idea that we encounter in Gurdjieff's teaching, is the idea of remorse of conscience, and its role in leading us towards a moment where we can take on a unique burden, rarely discussed in any other work: to share in a portion of the sorrow of His Endlessness.

May our prayers be heard.

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