“Is the practice of Zen always conscious, or can it be quite unconscious, below the threshold of awareness?” The question. which a questioner asked Nisargadatta, contains a number of other questions: what is ‘consciousness’? what is ‘unconsciousness’? is there a difference between consciousness and awareness? are just a few. It also highlights one of the basic problems that we have when talking about the practice of Zen. It is a truism that one cannot talk about what is ultimate, and yet can we even speak clearly about what, presumably, can be known? In our society we have such meagre, truly meagre, understanding of the human mind that this possibility is rarely realised.
Even if you take such a simple word as ‘consciousness’ and ask yourself about consciousness in terms of all that is written and said in our society, you will realise that it has a myriad different meanings. For example, this questioner himself confuses awareness and consciousness; he starts off talking about consciousness and ends up talking about awareness. Not only is there this confusion, but also a lot of what we think we understand about the human mind is probably not so.
For example, Freud probably did an enormous disservice to our society. One might even say that, in a way, he corrupted what little understanding we have of the mind. Sometimes, when I say this to people they point out a number of things he said that were valuable, and undoubtedly they were; but possibly one of the greatest disservices that he did was to elevate ‘conscious mind’ to the pinnacle of evolution, and then have it opposed to an ‘unconscious’ ― a murky, tortured, perverted unconscious at that.
The question that the questioner asks really goes to the heart of the matter. What is it that we call on when we practice? You are sometimes asked, “Who is it that walks?” or “Who is it that talks?” You can ask the question right now as you read what I am saying. “Who is it that is reading?” When we say it is done ‘unconsciously,’ ‘automatically,’ we depreciate that which reads. We have put it below the conscious mind; it is something inferior, less. It is not something that we can have faith in. We can have faith only in the conscious mind, because it is the conscious mind that we feel is supreme. One of Freud’s dictums was that he was reclaiming the conscious mind from the unconscious mind. He likened it to the work that was done in Holland reclaiming the land from the sea. We have to hold in check, or overcome, this unconscious, bring it into the conscious mind because then we can deal with it. We can work with the conscious mind, the rational mind, the superior mind. And yet this mind, this conscious mind, is a very recent development in the field of life.
If you see a cat stalk a bird, or if you see it leap onto a high shelf, or if you see two kittens playing, you see what we would call ‘unconscious’ activity. We put it down even to ‘instinct,’ something that is lower still; and yet how beautiful the cat is when it makes that leap; how concentrated it is as it creeps towards that bird; how full of flexibility, fluidity, joy it is as it romps with another kitten. All of our Bruce Lees or Pete Kings in karate, the martial arts are clumsy oafs in comparison. This beautiful mind, it is not ‘unconscious’; when it walks, it walks.
See the dignity of a cat walking. It is not surprising that this feline family has been worshipped; the lion, the jaguar, the cat in Egypt, were looked upon as divine. Of course we now know, thanks to the latest researches that have been done, that the cat is just a machine, a complicated computer. We’ve degenerated even further; we’ve even got rid of instinct and consciousness and unconsciousness. Even so, the question remains. Who is it that is reading? It is no different to that which stalks the bird, which leaps to the high shelf, which gambols and runs and plays. It operates through a different mechanism, a clumsier mechanism, a grosser mechanism, but it is the same whatever.
Nisargadatta, in his reply, says in the case of beginners the practice is often deliberate and requires great determination, and so it is ‘conscious’ practice. What is this conscious mind, then? What does it do? We know that what really distinguishes us from the cat is that we have language. Cats communicate with us, and we communicate with cats, there is no question about it. So, when I talk about language I am not necessarily talking about communication. I’m talking about that ability to see, and seize, form; about the ability to isolate forms and freeze them. This then gives us the opportunity to choose between the forms, to choose one form over the other, to choose one way of behaving over the other, because we can perceive different ways of behaving in terms of different forms of behaviour: to work, to play, to meditate, to run, to jump. And so it is that we can choose. We come to choose meditation, zazen. Sometimes, we choose this as a way of behaving among other ways of behaving: “I think I’ll try meditation. I’ve tried hatha yoga. I think I’ll try meditation.” But these people rarely last long; they move on to something else. But some people run out of choices, and all that is left to them is meditation. In a way, meditation is then not chosen: it is meditation that chooses. But, nevertheless, there is the need for that assent, that ‘maintaining’ what has been given to us as meditation, and it is maintaining that which has been given to us that is the work of what we like to call our conscious mind.
We know when we sit and follow the breath, for example, that the mind constantly wanders. It goes into a kind of free flow, seizing this, seizing that. We endeavour to choose the ideal, the perfect, that which will bring stability, harmony, equilibrium, homeostasis to the mind, but because of the complexity of the mind, every choice is displaced by the possibility of another choice. So therefore, when we come to meditate, we stay open to that which has been given to us, that choiceless choice, if you like to call it that. And this requires deliberation, concentration; it requires that it be supported against the claim and clamour of all the other possibilities that keep offering themselves: memories, sensations, images, desires. But, underneath it all is a longing, a longing we say to come home; it is a longing for unity, a longing for the One. That is not a product of he ‘conscious’ mind.
The longing for the One is at the basis of all of our desires, but the problem is that the strategies we use to satisfy that longing, the conscious choices that we make to end the longing, are always abortive. They always end in a blind alley, but even so the restlessness of the mind, the surging of the mind is that longing for unity.
Because of the longing for unity we are divided against ourselves. We see the possibility of unity in being outstanding, in being unique, in being the one. We also see the possibility of unity in being the whole, in belonging, in engaging, in being involved as completely as possible. The former, if you like, is the will to power, and the other is the will to love, and they are in conflict.
The conflict of unities, as I have shown elsewhere is not just a human conflict. The conflict pervades the universe. One way that nature resolves this conflict of the opposites is through the cycle, through rhythms, oscillations, waves and undulations. I have a book called “Cycles,” and in this study of cycles, literally thousands of cycles have been identified, and, you can see, if you look carefully, every one of them comes out of the clash of opposites. This is how it is: our minds are surging in a constant undulation. This is why it is that we can be totally concentrated, fully present, and all of a sudden wake up as though we have been asleep. The more we bring the pressure of the mind to bear, to choose, the more we encourage this surging of the mind. We choose, and even as we sit in zazen, we keep changing our choice. Very often it is simply changing the strategy we use to practice. But within a given strategy, we are constantly concentrating on this or that or the other. When we first start we have an alternative; we try to grasp something, we try to choose something rather than something else. Very often we try to choose a still mind. We have this notion of peace, we have this idea, this form of peace that we feel can be attained by this that we call the conscious mind; or we choose this that we call awakening, or we choose this that we call success, or we choose this that we call the right way to practice. It doesn’t matter, it is still a form that we choose. Whatever form it takes, it’s a form. It is a product of this capability that the human being has for language, for structure, for forms, for freezing.
A master says, “No matter what you do, it is no good. Now what are you going to do?” What he is trying to do is open us up to another way of practice, the way that is other than choosing. We must shift the locus of our faith. There is no doubt about it that this that we call the conscious mind is capable of many extraordinary feats. There’s no question that the whole of civilisation has been made possible by our ability to make forms, or formulate, and to freeze those forms in concepts and relate those concepts to one another and so build incredible structures. It is a great achievement, but even that, even the creativity of those forms themselves, comes from a source beyond those forms. It comes from the source from which the body is held up on the tan, and it is to that source that we must ultimately return. It is that source that walks, that talks. We must not call it the unconscious; we must not call it the automatic. How can we have faith in the automatic, in the instinctive, in the unconscious? It is best of course not to call it anything, but the mind, being what it is, needs to make that leap into this seeming abyss from a stable platform. This is why the intellectual mind must be satisfied in what it is that we are doing.
For some people this is easily accomplished. They are simple people with simple faith. They have little store in ideas, in the value of ideas, in the value of thinking, in the value of reason, and above all in the value of the conscious mind. They have little to cling to. But none of us in this room are that simple. We are all too clever, far too clever. This is why I have to take so long to disabuse you of the notion that it is the unconscious that is holding up that body. And it is being held up. If I shot one of you, the body would collapse in a moment. It would just be a heap of bones and flesh. But now it is taut, upright, defying gravity. But what part is this celebrated conscious mind playing in all of this?
Nisargadatta says, “Those that are practising sincerely for many years are intent on self-realisation all the time, whether conscious of it or not.” What brought you here? What brought you to this sesshin? It certainly wasn’t the food that we provide. It certainly wasn’t the sleeping accommodations, nor was it the comfort of sitting on the tan or the interesting people that you are going to meet. What was it that brought you here? If your conscious mind is anything like mine, you would rather be miles away. And yet you can’t be miles away. You’ve got to be here. One feels disappointment when told, “I’m sorry, we do not have a place for you on sesshin.” One feels the let down, the betrayal, the anger. So what is it? Why not have faith in that? Why not let go of this belief in “I,” which is another word for this formulating mind, this mind of forms? Why not give up faith in that mind, and turn to that which is always, always working for your good, because the good, just like the true, or the holy, or the beautiful, is ultimately the realisation of unity, the One, the whole, the harmony, the completeness. It is working unceasingly in us. It is us. That is what we are. You can call it creativity if you wish, or intuition, or understanding, the spirit, the soul, even call it God. It is holding us up. It is hearing what I say. It is seeing the zendo. It is knowing. And yet this formulating mind still cannot let go. I say, “What is it? What are you? What is Mu?” Can you see you are looking for “What form can I give it?” “ How can I grasp it?” “How can I have it?” Can you see that grasping mind at work? What are you, truly now, what are you? Can you see how there is a movement of that mind towards grasping? What are you? What is real? What is reality? Watch it. See it.
It is said that shikantaza is the highest form of practice. Shikantaza is simply letting go of this compulsion to grasp. That’s all. Someone said it is like a person with no hands clenching her fists. That is shikantaza. There is no need to give a form to yourself. There is no need to find a form for that which is holding the body up. Can you see that now? As you sit there, where is this body? What is there, truly, right now? We are not forms. Do not give it a form. What is there now, right there? As you relinquish the need to formulate, to define, to conceive, as you relinquish that, so one sees more clearly what is meant by “forms are empty.” There is a movement outwards, and with the movement outwards comes a scattering of forms. With the movement inwards there is a relinquishment; one lets go, one releases, one liberates from these forms. And what is left? It is not nothing.
Nisargadatta says, “Unconscious practice is most effective because it is spontaneous and steady.” We now understand that the ‘unconscious’ is the real mind. It manifests basically as an ongoing search/expression of unity; unending, without source or cause because it is the source and cause of all. This is you, without source or cause. Nothing has brought you into existence. Nothing is prior to you. You are not part of some greater whole. To say that you are part of a greater whole comes from using this conscious mind, this formulating mind. Nothing can be said about you.
The questioner asks, “What is the position of a person who was a sincere student of practice for some time and then became discouraged and abandoned all efforts?” The question is then about your deliberate, conscious, practice. You let go of deliberate conscious practice, and then what? Nisargadatta replies, “What a person appears to do or not do is often deceptive.” You see there are people who can go through tremendous activity that could appear to be, and even be called, practice. These are often people who are very holy; they go through all the rituals and do everything according to the book. They sit long periods of time. It all comes out of a concept they have of themselves as being a spiritual person. It is a product of this formulating mind. “I am a spiritual person.” And then there is the one who apparently doesn’t do anything and yet comes to great awakening. But you see, what we are talking about is the appearance. One appears to be very holy and the other appears to be quite the opposite. And yet if one were able to enter in, the second person is constantly at work, there is a constant friction, a constant yes and no going on, a constant unease, a lack of any ability to make a final choice, whereas the first person has chosen; there is no internal strife any more. One has made it, “This is what I am,” and that person is spiritually dead.
He says, “A person in apparent lethargy may be just gathering strength.” This is why when you practice you need great honesty with yourself. Is your striving simply because you feel that you have to strive in order to maintain the feeling that you are practising Zen, or is there no alternative but to strive? On the other hand, is this lethargy truly a kind of fatigue, a giving up, a laziness, or is it that immobility that sometimes comes in practice, a kind of spiritual numbness that comes from having exhausted all apparent possibilities?
Nisargadatta says, “The causes of our behaviour are very subtle. One must not be quick to condemn or even to praise.” I remember at Rochester I was always terribly discouraged when I saw the younger men and women who would be sitting in the zendo after 9:30, and I couldn’t even think of sitting in the zendo, until one night I happened to summon up more of whatever it took, I think it was more pride, and I noticed that these people kept looking at one another. They were waiting to see when someone else was going to leave, and then one suddenly saw a kind of evacuation of the zendo. They weren’t really sitting; they were competing for who could sit the longest. One does not judge practice by the behaviour of other people. We must work according to this deep sensitivity, that is another word for honesty, that we can have towards what is needful, what needs to be done. And what needs to be done does not come from the conscious mind. You know in fairy stories it is always the ignorant one, or the one who is led by animals or insects, or the one who walks in the dark, or who is blindfolded, who makes the grade. It is that not-knowing that we must rely on.
Nisargadatta says, “Remember that practice is the work of the inner self on the outer self. All that the outer does is merely in response to the inner.” It is not only in spiritual work that this is true. It is our openness, our transparency, our permeability, that which cannot be described, which determines our maturity.
The questioner asks, “Even so the outer helps.” Nisargadatta replies, “How much can it help and in what way? It has some control over the body and can improve its posture and breathing. Over the mind’s thoughts and feelings it has little mastery because it itself is the mind. It is the inner that can control the outer. The outer would be wise to obey.” When we talk to people about following the breath, we always point out to them that we all have a feeling of wanting to be in control. The outer, conscious mind––that is to say, the formulating mind or “I”––have to be in control. Some people get into extreme states of tension and they are afraid to let go because they feel that they will fly out of control. But even the so called normal person is always trying to add, subtract, change and shift, constantly manipulating, judging, choosing this rather than that, constantly wanting to be in control of their lives. These choices, these graspings, these judgements fracture the mind in such a way that it becomes completely and eternally at war with itself. It takes courage to allow, to be open, but we can start with this by following the breath. When we follow the breath we begin to be able to allow. We begin to become permeable, or open, or transparent to the true control, that is to say to that which is holding the body up at the moment, that which talks and walks .
The questioner asks, “If it is the inner that is ultimately responsible for our spiritual development, why is the outer so much exalted and encouraged?” In other words, why do I keep saying to you, “Be present”? Why do I say to you, “Don’t waste a moment”? Why do I say, “These seven days are very precious”? Nisargadatta answers, “The outer can help by being quiet and free from desire and fear.” In other words, it is an opening he is talking about, a letting go. When I say, “Be present,” it is not a grasping but a releasing; you are present, you cannot be absent. You cannot be absent. But you can let go of these desires, fears and forms that you are present to. You can just be present. You do not need to have something to be present to. You do not need an idea in your mind to be present.
He says, “You will have noticed that all advice to the outer is in the form of negations, such as stop, refrain, forgo, give up, sacrifice, surrender, see the false as false.” It is always in that direction, to be open, to allow. This is the effort that the conscious mind can do, can make. The effort that it can make is to let go of its own efforts. The conscious mind can do this because it is this formulating mind alone that formulates. There is a releasement there that is possible. When you are asking, “Who am I?” it is a releasement from all the possible forms that you think you are that must respond: not finding that ultimate form that you are. It is the same with Mu. It is the releasement from all the forms in which you enclose or give body to the world and to yourself, all the ways that you separate things from things, things from you, and you from others. To ask, “What is Mu?” is to melt; it is not to freeze.
He says, “Even the little description of reality that is given is through denials; not this, not that. All positives belong to the inner self, as all absence to reality.” It is very important how one begins any enterprise because it sows the seeds from which the enterprise germinates and grows. It is said in Zen, if you want to go north, do not turn your cart towards the south. “You are!” or if you like, “It is.” That is North. Don’t turn your cart towards an idea of what you are. That is south.
Thank you so much for this post. I am reminded of this little poem in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
O man, take care!
What does the deep midnight declare?
“I was asleep—
From a deep dream I woke and swear:
The world is deep,
Deeper than day had been aware.
Thank you. There is deep assurance here and no promises, moving me to tears, like the green pines on blue-shadowed snow. Gassho.
Mr.Low confronts us with a different mode of being, urging us to take this leap of faith.
Recently I read the book Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks. It pushed me into an unexpected world of wonder in which one could see a most astonishing demonstration of the plasticity of the human organism. The author talks about the pre-lingually deaf and how a visual language, Sign, develops provided it is nurtured at critical times in ones early development. Sign (like ASL for example) is a rich, genuine, and complete language that has its own spatial grammar, resembling dance and music.
Helen Keller’s “water”, the first word, is compatible with the first sign, that leads to all others, opening heart and mind.