Monday, January 31, 2005

Is Emptiness Brahman?

From the book Essence of the Heart Sutra by the Dalai Lama, edited and translated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, Wisdom Publications, 2002:

It is important to clarify that we are not speaking of emptiness as some kind of absolute strata of reality, akin to, say, the ancient Indian concept of Brahman, which is conceived to be an underlying absolute reality from which the illusory world of multiplicity emerges. Emptiness is not a core reality, lying somehow at the heart of the universe, from which the diversity of phenomena arise.

...emptiness -- is not independent of form, but rather is a characteristic of form; emptiness is form's mode of being. One must understand form and its emptiness in unity; they are not two independent realities.

Thupten Jinpa trained as a Buddhist monk and received his geshe degree from the Shartse College of Ganden monastic university, India and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Cambridge University, England. He has been the Dalai Lama's principal English translator since 1985.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Leaving the Palace

As the story of the Buddha goes, 2500 years ago, before Prince Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha (Sanskrit for "awakened one"), he lived a very sheltered life within the walls of his father's palace. At age 29 he asked his father’s permission to be ridden around the city in a chariot. His father agreed, but had soldiers remove every sign of human aging, sickness, and death from the city.

A bent, aged man escaped the soldiers’ notice and Gautama saw him. Gautama didn’t know what he was seeing, and he was told by the charioteer that this was an old man. Gautama asked if this was the only old man in the world. The charioteer told Gotama that everyone, Gautama , his father, his wife, and friends, would someday become old and bent and would eventually die.

According to the texts, Gautama reacted “like a bull when lightning strikes in the meadow.” He then ordered the charioteer to take him back to the palace at once.

Gautama had to summon courage to venture out from the palace for three more trips. On one he saw a sick person, on the second a corpse being carried to the cremation ground, and on the third trip he saw a renunciate seated in meditation beneath a tree. Gautama was deeply troubled by his encounters with old age, sickness, and death, and inspired by the sight of the renunciate, he asked his father if he could retire to the forest.

His father refused. Gautama then asked his father to promise him that he would never die, grow old, ill, or lose his wealth. His father said he could not make such a promise.

“Prince Siddhartha’s dilemma still faces us today,” writes Stephen Batchelor. “We too immune ourselves in the ‘palaces’ of what is familiar and secure.”

Existential psychologist Irvin Yalom identifies four "ultimate concerns" (Paul Tillich's term) - mortality, groundlessness, existential isolation, and meaninglessness - which we normally are well defended against. To be plunged into confrontation with death, existential freedom, aloneness, and meaninglessness is to leave the palace where we are secure and "comfortably numb."

To Buddhism and existentialism, it is when we begin to face suffering or existential reality that we begin to wake up from a condition that has been likened to sleepwalking.

And what does it mean to face reality?

Yalom writes:
In his four noble truths the Buddha taught that life is suffering, that suffering originates from craving and attachment, and that suffering can be eliminated by detachment from craving through meditative practice. Schopenhauer took a similar position – that the will is insatiable and that as soon as one impulse is satisfied we enjoy only a moment of satiation which is instantly replaced by boredom until another desire seizes us.

To me, these views feel unnecessarily pessimistic. I appreciate the suffering in human existence but I never experience that suffering as so overwhelming that it demands the sacrifice of life. I much prefer a Nietzschian life-celebratory, life engagement, amor fati (love your fate) perspective. My work with individuals facing death has taught me that death anxiety is directly proportional to the amount of each person’s “unlived life.” Those individuals who feel they have lived their lives richly, have fulfilled their potential and their destiny, experience less panic in face of death.

Some modern Western Buddhists would agree with Yalom, as they do not use Buddhism to disengage from life but understand meditation and Buddhist practice as Yalom himself explains meditation in his 1980 classic Existential Psychotherapy:
The process of deepest inquiry - a process that Heidegger refers to as 'unconcealment' - leads us to recognize that we are finite, that we must die, that we are free, and that we cannot escape our freedom. We also learn that the individual is inexorably alone.

To relinquish a state of interpersonal fusion means to encounter existential isolation with all its dread and powerlessness. The dilemma of isolation-fusion - or, as it is commonly referred to, attachment-separation - is the major existential developmental task.

The practice of meditation offers another avenue to isolation awareness. Though meditation therapists and teachers do not often conceptualize the benefit of meditation precisely in this manner, I believe that one of the primary growth-inducing factors in meditation is that it permits individuals in an anxiety-reduced state (that is, anxiety-relieving muscular relaxation, posture, breathing, mind cleansing) to face and transcend the anxiety they associated with isolation.

Individuals learn to face what they fear the most. They are asked to plunge into isolation - and, even more important, to plunge nakedly, without customary shields of denial. They are asked to 'let go' (rather than to achieve and acquire), to empty their minds (rather than categorize and analyze experience), and to respond to and harmonize with the world (rather than to control and subdue it).

Meditation can be a form of escapism, certainly, a way of tuning out, shutting down, closing in, and disengaging and detaching from life. But meditation can also be a way of facing existential anxiety and existential concerns and opening out to life with a "life-celebratory, life engagement, amor fati (love your fate) perspective."

Friday, December 31, 2004

Asking the Sea for Forgiveness

Dec 31, 2004

Elders' Knowledge of the Oceans Spares Thai 'sea Gypsies' From Tsunami Disaster

BANGKOK, Thailand (Associated Press) - Knowledge of the ocean and its currents passed down from generation to generation of a group of Thai fishermen known as the Morgan sea gypsies saved an entire village from the Asian tsunami, a newspaper said Saturday.

By the time killer waves crashed over southern Thailand last Sunday the entire 181 population of their fishing village had fled to a temple in the mountains of South Surin Island, English language Thai daily The Nation reported.

"The elders told us that if the water recedes fast it will reappear in the same quantity in which it disappeared," 65-year-old village chief Sarmao Kathalay told the paper.

So while in some places along the southern coast, Thais headed to the beach when the sea drained out of beaches - the first sign of the impending tsunami - to pick up fish left flapping on the sand, the gypsies headed for the hills.

Few people in Thailand have a closer relationship with the sea than the Morgan sea gypsies, who spend each monsoon season on their boats plying the waters of the Andaman Sea from India to Indonesia and back to Thailand.

Between April and December, they live in shelters on the shore surviving by catching shrimp and spear fishing. At boat launching festivals each May, they ask the sea for forgiveness.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Higher Consciousness

“When are we gonna get to the stuff on higher consciousness?” The questioner was a participant in a meditation course.

“First let’s work on the ‘lower consciousness’ we might want ‘higher consciousnesses’ to get away from,” I said.

This was not a patent answer, but a spontaneous response which seemed right for the man in question. His feedback indicated that it was, and he took another course with me the following year.

We can only be aware now, of course, and our awareness or consciousness now is what we have to work with. As meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg says:
This is the deepest paradox in all of meditation: we want to get somewhere – we wouldn’t have taken up the practice if we didn’t – but the way to get there is just to be fully here. The way to get from point A to point B is to really be at A.

When we meditate with the hope of getting to someplace better or “higher” than where we are, we compromise our connection to the present, which is all we ever have.

If what’s happening now involves pain, confusion, fear, anger, stress, anxiety, grief, sorrow, depression, or anything else that we might not like – and our not liking what’s happening is also what’s happening – then that is what we have to work with.

To be preoccupied is to be absorbed or engrossed in something to the exclusion of other things. To be preoccupied with fantasies about higher states of consciousness to the point that we disconnect from our mortal, fleshy, wounded lives here and now is escapism, not meditation.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Ken Wilber & Meditation

In his book Grace & Grit and in a essay posted this year (see link to essay below), philosopher Ken Wilber offers a perennial philosophy diagnosis of the human condition: "we are living in a world of sin, separation, or duality—that is, we are living in a fallen, illusory, or fragmented state." He says that there is a cure, a path to liberation, and throughout his work he prescribes meditation as one of the best medicines.

Wilber tells an interviewer that when in college, he “was very angry, at everything and everyone,” but had difficulty expressing his anger directly, and “it tended to come out in snideness and sarcasm.” Wilber says he went into therapy “to deal with all of that.” His therapist introduced him to Zen and meditation.

“When I first started meditating," Wilber says, "I sat for three to four hours a day. Once a week, I’d take a whole day and sit ten or twelve hours.” He also says that he did many Zen sesshins, which typically entail sitting for ten to twelve hours a day every day for a week.

“I didn’t have a single piece of positive feedback for many months after I first started. I’d try to watch my mind, and I’d get lost. I learned to keep count of my breaths from one to ten, but nothing came of it. Three or four years went by before I got my first real rush. I don’t even know why I continued, except I was absolutely convinced that this was the thing to be doing – that it was the route to my salvation.”

To Freud, dreams were the via regia or royal road to the unconscious, and to Wilber, meditation is the royal road to salvation through making the unconscious conscious. In his model of meditation (presented in essays such as, “Meditation and the Unconscious,” “Odyssey,” and “The Effects of Meditation”), Wilber says that meditation is de-repressive and that “the overall net effect is an intensification of Eros (the Ascent to God) and Agape (the descent of the Goddess).”

I first started meditating in the late 60's when I was in high school, and I was a mindfulness-based stress and pain management course instructor for the integrative medicine program of a large hospital complex through the 90's, but I have never recommended meditation to anyone who was not already interested in it. My view of the psyche is more informed by Jung and post-Jungians like James Hillman and Arnold Mindell than by Freud, and from a Jungian perspective I am disinclined to give primacy to the peaks of experience over the valleys, or to "spirit" over "soul" (as Hillman in particular discusses this distinction, e.g., in his essay "Peaks and Vales").

I do not think that the mental ego or rational mind is in a position to decide which "spiritual" practices are right for the psyche, and I do not think of meditation as a universal panacea or as a universal regia or way, and I do not consider the fall/redemption motif implicit in Wilber's essay "An Integral Spirituality" to be the most psychologically useful or skillful way to conceive of the human condition. It is one way of looking at things, and it apparently works for some people at some times, but it is not the only or best way of looking at things.

I’ve long had distaste for attempts to legitimize meditation by appeals to the desire for empirically and scientifically measurable results, and I've long had distaste for the McDonaldization of meditation. When I was in high school (Class of '69), after I'd already begun to meditate, a teacher arranged for a presentation on Transcendental Meditation to take place at the school and he invited me to attend. Two men in business suits showed up and proceeded to hype TM as if they were selling real estate or some type of pyramid sales franchise scheme.

In what I imagine was an attempt to make meditation palatable to Western audiences, Swami Vivekananda likened meditation to a "scientific experiment" conducted in the "laboratory" of the body-mind. Wilber's "take up the injunction" essays (in his books Eye to Eye and Eye of Spirit) strike me as having the same general thrust, as if likening taking up the injunction to meditate to the scientific method will persuade skeptical rationalists of the soteriological value of meditation.

In the early days of the transpersonal movement, transpersonalists made attempts to appear empirical and scientific in the eyes of the wider academic and social communities. In Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, Jorge Ferrer writes, "the legitimization of transpersonal studies in the late 1960's and 1970's (and even the 1980's) had to be empirical." But he argues that this approach, "although once indispensable and perhaps even salutary, has become unnecessary, limiting, and counterproductive."

Despite my aversion to appeals to science and reason to legitimize meditation, I appreciate that such appeals have led to openness to "complementary" approaches to wellness on the part of the mainstream medical community. While I remain skeptical about research into the health benefits of meditation (IMO, eagerness to legitimize meditation leads to premature and exaggerated claims about the health benefits of some of the "side effects" of meditation), I think the public attitude toward meditation today is much better than it was in the sixties, when meditation was routinely written off in the mainstream media as "navel gazing" and hippie occultism.

After the psychedelic heyday of the sixties, meditation was, for some, one of a number of "natural" and legal methods used to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness. Integral Institute sponsored an “Integral Training” seminar this summer, which included three guest appearances by Ken Wilber. According to the seminar description at the Integral Institute website, each day began with a “yoga and energy session, followed by a meditation with a delta-wave technology that induces non-ordinary states of consciousness.”

My initial interest in meditation was as a way of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness, but today I use meditation as a support for moving into greater intimacy with life. I need the form, structure, and discipline that a sitting practice entails. But I can't imagine recommending meditation to anyone who is not already drawn to it, and I can't imagine trying to provide someone with reasonable, rational, or scientific reasons why they should "take up the injunction" to meditate. For those who do feel drawn or called to meditate, I agree with Wilber when he says in Integral Psychology that a qualified teacher is a must.

Susan Sontag (1933 - 2004)

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Author and social critic Susan Sontag, one of the most powerful thinkers of her generation, died on Tuesday at a New York cancer hospital. She was 71. - Claudia Parsons

In her 1963 essay "Against Interpretation," Sontag wrote:
Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life--its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness--conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.

What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art--and, by analogy, our own experience--more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.

Watts on Wiggles & Waves

"A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool: the shape alone is stable, for the substance is a stream of energy going in at one end and out the other. We are particular and temporarily identifiable wiggles in a stream that enters us in the form of light, heat, air, water, milk, bread, fruit, beer, beef Stroganoff, caviar and pate de fois gras. It goes out as gas and excrement – and also as semen, babies, talk, politics, commerce, war, poetry and music. And philosophy."

"And so what I would call a basic problem we've got to go through first, is to understand that there are no such things as things. That is to say separate things, or separate events. That that is only a way of talking. If you can understand this, you're going to have no further problems. I once asked a group of high school children 'What do you mean by a thing?' First of all, they gave me all sorts of synonyms. They said 'It's an object,' which is simply another word for a thing; it doesn't tell you anything about what you mean by a thing. Finally, a very smart girl from Italy, who was in the group, said a thing is a noun. And she was quite right. A noun isn't a part of nature, it's a part of speech. There are no nouns in the physical world. There are no separate things in the physical world, either. The physical world is wiggly. Clouds, mountains, trees, people, are all wiggly. And only when human beings get to working on things--they build buildings in straight lines, and try to make out that the world isn't really wiggly. But here we are, sitting in this room all built out of straight lines, but each one of us is as wiggly as all get-out."

"Now then, when you want to get control of something that wiggles, it's pretty difficult, isn't it? You try and pick up a fish in your hands, and the fish is wiggly and it slips out. What do you do to get hold of the fish? You use a net. And so the net is the basic thing we have for getting hold of the wiggly world. So if you want to get hold of this wiggle, you've got to put a net over it. A net is something regular. And I can number the holes in a net. So many holes up, so many holes across. And if I can number these holes, I can count exactly where each wiggle is, in terms of a hole in that net. And that's the beginning of calculus, the art of measuring the world. But in order to do that, I've got to break up the wiggle into bits. I've got to call this a specific bit, and this the next bit of the wiggle, and this the next bit, and this the next bit of the wiggle. And so these bits are things or events. Bit of wiggles. Which I mark out in order to talk about the wiggle. In order to measure and therfore in order to control it. But in nature, in fact, in the physical world, the wiggle isn't bitted. Like you don't get a cut-up fryer out of an egg. But you have to cut the chicken up in order to eat it. You bite it. But it doesn't come bitten."

"So the world doesn't come thinged; it doesn't come evented. You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean. The ocean waves, and the universe peoples."

- Alan Watts

Individuation & Woundedness

"The individuation process is usually quite painful. It requires learning much about ourselves we would prefer not to know, and assuming the burden of our inner conflicts. Becoming whole is a dark and dangerous passage and it is a small wonder that most people avoid it if they can. Those who do enter into individuation experience a certain woundedness. They can no longer live with illusions, and they can no longer live without letting into consciousness whatever it is that the unconscious wants to bring. Individuation in itself is a kind of wound, and there is a connection between becoming whole and experiencing one's illness and woundedness. We can even speak of individuation as a 'divine wound'."

"In fact, we are all of us wounded people. There is no such thing as a person who is free from illness, incompleteness, and injury to his or her personality. Some of us can simply hide from our woundedness better than others. When we can no longer hide from our woundedness, we are ready for individuation."

from Healing and Wholeness by Jungian Analyst John Sanford.


"What encourages us within a Western metaphysical tradition to separate time and space is our inclination, inherited from the Greeks, to see things in the world as fixed in their formal aspect, and thus as bounded and limited. If instead of giving ontological privilege to the formal aspect of phenomena, we were to regard them as having parity in their formal and changing aspects, we might be more like classical China in temporalizing them in light of their ceaseless transformation, and conceive of them more as 'events' than as 'things'. In this processural worldview, each phenomenon is some unique current or impulse within a temporal flow. In fact, it is the pervasive and collective capacity of the events of the world to transform continuously that is the actual meaning of time."

"In early Greek philosophy, ther term 'kosmos' connotes a cluttered range of meanings, including arche (originative, material, and efficient cause/ultimate undemonstrable principle), logos (underlying organizational principle), theoria (contemplation), nomos (law), theos (divinity), nous (intelligibility). In combination, this cluster of terms conjures forth some notion of a single-ordered Divine universe governed by natural and moral laws that are ultimately unintelligible to the human mind. This 'kosmos' terminology is culturally specific, and if applied uncritically to discuss the classical Daoist worldview, introduces a cultural reductionism that elides and thus conceals truly significant differences."

"Mediated experience entails the fact that Being, in the mode of this or that essence, is made manifest through the particular beings of the world. Persons are actualizations of some prior endowment or potential. Such experience is characteristic of substantialist ontologies and cosmologies that regard substance and form as fundamental, and that understand experience as being governed by a strong teleological design. Substances are known through forms or concepts that either exist prior to the substances themselves, or are abstractable from them. These forms are the evidence of a given design."

"...the Daoist does not posit the existence of some permanent reality behind appearances, some unchanging substratum, some essential defining aspect behind the accidents of change. Rather, there is just the ceaseless and usually cadenced flow of experience."

Quotes are from: Daodejing: A Philosophical Translation, by Roger Ames and David Hall

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Argument & Quarreling

One sense of the word "argument" is disagreement or objection combined with soaring blood pressure. I state an opinion, you disagree, but neither of us can provide reasons for our opinions, which are our conclusions about the topic under discussion.

The other sense of the word "argument" is that an argument is a claim supported by other claims. An argument in this sense consists of a conclusion and the reasons that allegedly support the conclusion. Argument in this sense has nothing to do with bickering.

One way to tell the difference between an argument and the expression of opinion or personal belief is to ask if a better argument would lead you to change your mind.

"Argument is rational discourse," writes D.Q. McInerny in Being Logical: A Guide To Good Thinking. "It is not to be confused with quarreling. The object of argument is to get at the truth. The object of quarreling is to get at other people. There are any number of folks, who, though happy to quarrel with you, are either unwilling or unable to argue with you. Do not waste time and energy trying to argue with people who will not or cannot argue."

Argument is War

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson illustrate how the conceptual metaphor "argument is war" structures the way we engage in arguments:


Your claims are indefensible.

He attacked every weak point in my arguments.

His criticisms were right on target.

I demolished his argument.

I've never won an argument with him.

You disagree? Okay, shoot!

If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out.

He shot down all of my arguments.

"...ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR."

"...we act according to the way we conceive of things."

Dogen: Introductory Notes

Dogen (1200-1253) is the founder of Japanese Soto Zen.

D.T. Suzuki (not to be confused with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi), is well known for introducing Zen to the West. D.T. Suzuki was steeped in Rinzai Zen, which is the other major school of Zen in Japan, and so the West’s introduction to Zen was primarily to Rinzai Zen, the Zen of kenshos and koans.

D.T. Suzuki’s influence has been said to have led the West to have a view of Zen as unmediated, ahistorical “pure experience,” and this influence has been attributed by scholar Robert Sharf to cultural bias on Suzuki’s part. Another scholar, Bernard Faure, has referred to this as “Zen orientalism” or “reverse orientalism,” using Edward Said’s term "orientalism."

Dogen’s influence is seen most directly in the West in the US in the teachings of Zen teachers such as Shunryu Suzuki, Dainin Katagiri, and Taizan Maezumi, and in teachings that have flowed from the Zen centers they founded, in SF, LA, and Minneapolis, through their Dharma heirs.

Perhaps the most popular set of Dogen-influenced teachings in the English language is found in the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which consists of talks given by Shunryu Suzuki and edited by his students.

“Dogen’s religious and philosophical thought as a whole was highly antagonistic to models of hierarchies, layers, levels, degrees, strata, etc., although this did not mean the denial of their limited usefulness and validity” (Hee-Jin Kim, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Oregon).

Dogen taught zazen. “Zazen is not a method,” said Katagiri Roshi. “Zazen is completely different than other meditations.” (Andrew Newberg, noted for his research on the brain states of meditators and contemplatives, has noted that certain changes in the brain are particularly pronounced in the brains of Zen practitioners. Also see Psychophysiology of Zen by T. Hirai and a reference in Shinzen Young's essay "Stray Thoughts on Meditation.") “Whatever kind of experience we have through zazen is secondary,” says Katagiri.

Zazen has nothing to do with seeking “to attain a special state of consciousness, nor to become a Buddha,” nor is it “an attempt to attain enlightenment" (Kim).

Barry Magid, a Zen teacher in the lineage of Maezumi Roshi, says that zazen is “simply the act of sitting and paying attention.” He suggests that insights, illuminations, awakenings, higher states of consciousness, samadhis, and ecstasies, “are the almost inevitable by-product of steady sitting,” and to those who are “addicted to specialness,” these are “ego-goodies.” To such people, he says, “ordinary day-in, day-out practice seems too ordinary,” and “in fact it is too difficult for such individuals to tolerate that ordinariness... But a practice that doesn’t gratify the sense of our own specialness may be the hardest – and most real – of all.”

Dogen’s teaching is nondualistic. “However, Dogen’s nondualistic mystical thinking had an especially realistic thrust… That is to say, nonduality did not primarily signify the transcendence of duality so much as it signified the realization of duality. … This was indeed far from being a kind of mysticism that attempted to attain an undifferentiated state of consciousness. On the contrary, Dogen’s thought was entirely committed to the realm of duality – including its empirical and rational aspects” (Kim).

Dogen’s shikantaza (just-sitting) should not be construed “as advocating absorption in an undifferentiated realm” (Kim).

Dogen wrote that zazen is not a matter of merely “returning to the origin, back to the source.”

To Dogen, “the resolute state of sitting” “should not be identified with mystical contemplation or illumination” (Kim).

Zazen is “not the experience of mystical union, nor of pantheistic apprehension of the self and the world. As Dogen untiringly emphasized, the Way is realized in and through the body” (Kim).

Dogen wrote, “If you have attained enlightenment, you should not halt the practice of the Way by thinking of your present state as final…”

To Dogen, enlightenment is actualized moment by moment. Outside of the embodied actualization of enlightenment, there is no such thing as enlightenment. Enlightenment is thus the beginning of practice, not the end or goal. Dogen means this literally, and he means literally that practice and enlightenment are identical.

Dogen’s “entire religion may be safely described as the exploration and explication of…radical phenomenalism…” (Kim, 2004). I suspect that Kim is following Nakamura here. Hajime Nakamura contrasts what he calls Japanese phenomenalism with “an Indian inclination toward an Absolute transcendent to the phenomenal world… ” “The phenomenalism of Japanese culture meant that the sacred is not distinct from this world but suffused in all things” (David Loy, from this essay).

I would refer the interested reader to:
Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist by Hee-Hin Kim
Chan/Zen Studies in English: The State of the Field by Bernard Faure.
The Rhetoric of Immediacy by Bernard Faure
Ch’an Insights and Oversights by Bernard Faure
The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism by John McRae
Moon in a Dewdrop ed. by Kazuaki Tanahashi
Returning to Silence by Dainin Katagiri
You Have to Say Something by Dainin Katagiri
Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen (Hagen received Dharma transmission from Katagiri Roshi)
Buddhism Is Not What You Think by Steve Hagen
Ordinary Mind by Barry Magid
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
Not Always So by Shunryu Suzuki

Systems, Open & Closed

In systems theory, systems are described as being open or closed. Hall and Fagen's "Definition of a System" says "organic systems are open" when "they exchange materials, energies, or information with their environments. A system is closed if there is not import or export of energies in any of its forms as information..."

The "conceptual shift from energy to information is essential to the almost vertiginous development in the philosophy of science since the end of World War II, and it has had a particular impact on our knowledge of man," write Watzlawick, et al, in Pragmatics of Human Communication, 1967.

I kick a pebble. Energy is transferred from my foot to the pebble. The pebble is displaced and will move and come to rest again in a position which is determined by the amount of energy transferred, the surface on which it rolls, the size and shape of the pebble, the wind, etc.

I kick a dog and the dog bites me. The relationship between the kick and the bite is very different than the relationship between the kick and the displacement of the pebble. The energy for the dog's reaction does not come from my kick but from his metabolism. What is transferred is thus not energy but information, and the bite is the feedback to the information, which is my kick.

A kick of a pebble is a transfer of energy, but a kick to a living system is a transfer of information.

We may view the boundaries of a given system along a continuum from closed to open. A completely closed system would be one which accepts no input and gives no output. A completely open system is one which accepts and gives all.

Feedback within systems is positive or negative. Positive feedback leads to "amplification" (e.g., turning the volume knob on the stereo clockwise to increase volume). Negative feedback decreases (or is intended to decrease) "output deviation from a set norm or bias" (e.g., decreasing volume by turning the volume knob counterclockwise). With feedback, "part of a system's output is reintroduced into the system as information about the output." Feedback helps to both change and maintain the system. In a closed system there is "no change of components" within the system (Hall & Fagen).


Eugene Gendlin is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Chicago. For 15 years he and his colleagues did research that led them to conclude that psychotherapy patients who showed tangible changes on psychological tests and in their lives after therapy, were different than those patients who did not. They concluded that the difference between patients who changed and those who didn't was detectable in recordings of early sessions in psychotherapeutic treatment.

The difference that Gendlin and his associates observed was so easy to detect that Gendlin says that they were able to explain this difference to inexperienced young undergraduates, and that once this difference was explained to them, they were able to easily detect the difference between patients.

The difference is in how patients talk, which is an outer sign of what they are doing inside themselves.

Gendlin calls the thing that the patients who changed do inside themselves an "internal act," a "process," and an "uncommon skill," and since the mid-70's he has referred to this "internal act" as "focusing."

"It is a process in which you make contact with a special kind of internal bodily awareness. I call this awareness a felt sense," writes Gendlin.

Focusing, says Gendlin, is a natural inner act, and he emphasizes that "[a] therapist is not necessary in focusing."

By "felt sense," Gendlin means a physical experience.

"A felt sense doesn't come to you in the form of thoughts and words or other separate units, but as a single (though often puzzling and very complex) bodily feeling."
"Since a felt sense doesn't communicate itself in words, it isn't easy to describe in words."

Nor is a felt sense an emotion. "It has emotional components in it, along with factual components. But it is bigger than any single emotion, more complex - and much less easy to describe in words."

Gendlin notes that the equivalent of "hundreds of thousands of cognitive operations are done in a split second by the body." The body, he says, is a biological computer, "generating these enormous collections of data and delivering them up to you instantaneously when you call them up or when they are called up by some external event. Your thinking isn't capable of holding all these items of knowledge, nor of delivering them with such speed."

To illustrate what he means by "felt sense," Gendlin suggests that the reader think of two people who play a major role in his or her life. In his illustration he uses the names John and Helen.

"Let your mind slide back and forth between these two people. Notice the inner aura that seems to come into existence when you let your attention dwell on John, the sense of 'all about John'. Notice the entirely different aura of Helen."

Your sense of John or Helen doesn't come to you as thoughts, he says, as "discrete bits of data that you gather together in your mind." Your sense of John or Helen comes as a felt sense; it is bodily felt.

"The amount of information [about what John looks like, how he speaks, how you met him, what he does for a living, conversations you've had with him, etc.] is staggering - yet somehow, when you think of John, all the relevant facts and feelings come to you at once."

Gendlin says that to engage "[t]he inner act of focusing" is to touch an "unclear holistic body sense" with a receptive attitude. This usually results in a "body-shift," a shift in the felt sense, but whether such a shift occurs or not is not within our control.

Gendlin says that focusing "differs from the usual attention we pay to feelings because it begins with the body and occurs in the zone between the conscious and the unconscious. Most people don't know that a bodily sense of any topic can be invited to come in that zone, and that one can enter into such a sense. At first it is only a vague discomfort, but soon it becomes a distinct sense with which one can work, and in which one can sort out many strands."

In Psychotherapy and Spirit: Theory and Practice in Transpersonal Psychotherapy, California Institute of Integral Studies professor Brant Cortright says:
Another approach to body awareness is focusing. Developed by Eugene Gendlin..., focusing brings awareness of the bodily felt sense into sharp relief. Very much in the tradition of Reich's and the existentialists' distrust of the mind and verbal approaches that may stay intellectual, focusing uses the awareness of the bodily felt sense to access the body's wisdom of emotional life. It is noteworthy that it has been adapted by transpersonal therapists working both in theistic-relational traditions [he names two Catholic priests], and in non-dual traditions [he cites John Welwood's Buddhist-influenced approach as one example]. Both traditions insist that one obstacle to spiritual development is the mind, and one way of getting out of the head is by tuning into the body. Focusing can be a powerful way of accessing feelings by tuning directly into the "edge" of emotional-somatic experience.

The body-centered approaches collectively ask the question: how can we go beyond what we don't engage in? Bringing awareness or mindfulness to bodily experience is the first step in becoming present, in grounding the person in his or her somatic reality. The body is the entry point into presence. As presence deepens and the sensitivity to perception refines, there is an opening into the transpersonal, a movement beyond the self into the immensities of sensory wonder and spiritual awe.