How Do We Return to Society?

In Zen training we start with The Search for Ox, the Ox being our true nature.

With diligent practice over time, we move through stages that lead to an enlightened return. Examining the evolution of Zen training is essential when we think about how a commitment to mindfulness meditation can positively influence society and encourage students to keep going.

If you’re interested in a thoughtful overview of the stages of Zen training (with a good portion of the book dedicated to teaching meditation technique) I recommend Katsuki Sekida’s book, Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy. However, for the purpose of this reflection, I want to call your attention to the final three stages.

They are:

  • No Ox, No Man (A state of mind called, “nothing” or “the great death.” A thorough purification of consciousness, a vanishing of the ego and attachment to circumstances)
  • Returning to the Source (Going back to the start, the stage of the beginner but now with awakened consciousness. Seeing with new eyes and new hearing)
  • In Town with Helping Hands (Mingling with the world, caring of nothing other than the joy you bring to others. All antagonism is dissolved. Freedom, playfulness and positivity.)

I have found in my own practice and when listening to others on the path that it is natural to feel lost during periods of training, like when we experience The Great Death, or the Void.

According to Sekida, the stage No Ox, No Man is enlightenment when normal consciousness ceases. However, when there is a break in this state of mind (as it often occurs for most students) we are confronted with gnawing feelings of unease. We may ask ourselves: What do I do with this awareness? How will I ever integrate into normal society? Do I have to engage with society at all? What is the purpose?

When these questions arise, I have found it helpful to learn from teachers, many of whom contribute their experience and wisdom in literature. When a student is in a period of readiness, they are drawn to a teacher or a text… not by chance but as if the mere asking beckons a response. 

As we discover truth in literature, in the teachings, we can lean on this knowledge with expectation. We know more that if we keep moving forward, we can anticipate another change of being. This might feel like innocence and inspiration and later, much later— curiosity for being In Town with Helping Hands.

This notion that our practice, our calm, our bliss, a dedication to Self and resting in our true nature is ultimately leading us to a presence that brings joy to others is a very powerful knowing.

So, how do we progress from stage to stage?

Simply, it’s in your dedication to a daily practice, to sitting in meditation, to reading literature on the topic, talking and listening to teachers who demonstrate a commitment to the task, taking care of yourself and your instrument, that which is your body. It’s trusting your capacity to expand beyond what you can possibly imagine.

I realize there’s a certain surrender about this work but there is also foresight. There’s strength in this balance of knowing, learning and mystery. We are sitting at the intersection of life’s greatest koan, of effort and letting go.

As I progress from one stage to the next, I’m observing my life choices and how they are leading me to fulfill my purpose. I want to express courage and freedom, to help us see life’s beyond beyond. I want people to feel at home and loved and rested — especially those adults who have walked the road alone and there’s vulnerability and neediness.

That just feels beautiful and important to me.

Seeing the Forest

While the stock market tumults, I study things up close like the black and orange caterpillar that crosses my path. How does a caterpillar survive this uneven terrain I wonder? The war and torture in Ukraine continue while I step out firmly on wet soil. I listen to the tall pines sway and watch the flickering light dance with shadows. There’s a song that plays here. It’s a strange echo of a melody, reminiscent of memories left behind and futures yet unseen.

I get into my car and drive. The prices at the supermarket are barbaric. I grab some produce and plop the bag on the seat. The gas tank is half empty. Gas is expensive as hell and I’m calculating each move by the dollar. There’s a man standing on the corner of the station with his hands in his pockets. I think he knows I’m hiding out, borrowing some green serenity from his forest. I wonder if he’s thinking that I’m a foreigner and should get out.

Back in the thicket, I spot a woodpecker but can’t see the cricket that chirps loudly. Now, I know for sure I’m being watched by a deer family. Each time I walk by, they freeze and escort me with their eyes. They’re strong and soft and wait for each one of their own to cross. I watch them run fast and leap. They look like joy and I’m transported by their free flight.

There’s an age old idiom that says we can’t see the forest for the trees meaning we can’t see the big picture if we focus too much on the details. There’s another idiom that says the devil is in the details meaning details are important. Which idiom is suitable for us now, seeing our current state of things? How can we keep site of the whole journey while also observing the details of our surroundings? What do we pay attention to when things are uncertain and changing?

My inclination is that we need to understand how what we pay attention to impacts our feelings and decision making. There’s nothing wrong with getting up close and personal with the details, if we’re observing with equanimity. We can benefit from observing the texture and pattern of a situation if we don’t get mired down or overwhelmed. When it comes time to decision making, it’s important to widen our perspective to include the bigger picture, the vision, the greater purpose driving everything. You know when you tap into your purpose and vision because it always feels light, joyful and filled with energy.

In mindfulness and meditation, we train our mind and learn to hold our attention deliberately. Sometimes, we practice zooming in and sometimes we practice zooming out and seeing the entirety. The key is moving awareness strategically to see with greater clarity and to take action accordingly.

Today, I am a forest dweller. Yesterday, I was in a light tower. Tomorrow, I will be exactly where I need to be. If only I am aware and patient with what nature is showing me.

Down To Earth Change

It’s been one week since I left the Light Tower. I now find myself very close to Earth. I’m renting a cabin in the Pocono woods with abundant deer and wild turkeys. There is a stream and I walk on gravel and damp leaves. I center my thoughts on Native American animal medicine. I know that deer is Gentleness and turkeys are Giving. But still, in spite of all this beauty, this change has brought uneasiness and fragility.

Michael Fullan, the master of change, says we should expect discomfort and a dip before the benefits of transformation settle in.

This morning, I forgot to put water into my espresso coffee pot. I sat at my computer until I smelled something burning. When I figured out what it was, I went to the stove, grabbed the pot and held it under cold water. I noticed the base was dark and stained from the fire and my stomach ached. I love my pot. I travel with it for warmth and familiarity. Now, I know I’m distracted and dipping. I had gone to sleep with Sadness and woke up with Regret and perhaps these lingering emotions had smothered my brain. A calm mind feels like wakefulness and plenitude.

I will meditate.

***

The sun has risen. The trees let in light marking the sharp angled walls of the teepee cabin like tie die webs and sponge blots. I drink a fresh cup of coffee and I’m feeling calm now. I look forward to a hot shower and I’m planning my day. I’m thinking about the paradox of organizing the future while living in the present, how the future is a clean slate but we are steeped in rich memories.

I think about posture and stance, a dancer poised and balanced, an artist standing in front of a blank canvas, a builder surveying the land.

I recall Antonio Blay’s chapter on positive attitude, which he calls a dynamic stance and I’m thinking about my old friend Chögyam Trungpa’s chapters on perkiness and horse wind.

I’m curious about the impact of our commitment to presence and how that translates into down to earth reality. How important is our posture when it comes to creating? How might circumstances change if we approach the future from a positive stance and a calm presence? What routines should I practice daily that will cultivate beauty, love, abundance and possibility?

***

When I see life and behavior as a continuous experiment,

When I sit and observe the mysterious forces that alter reality,

When I take the time to breathe, express gratitude and trust everything,

I am part of that glorious sky.

I am walking on good earth.

I am alive and willing.

Everything created is beautiful and fulfilling.