The Spasm of the Mind

Our thoughts just will not let us be; they go on from the time we get up in the morning until the time we go to bed, and then they continue through the night in the form of dreams. We might even believe that we exist because of our thoughts: I think therefore I am. We are in the midst of what the psychologist, William James, called ‘a stream of consciousness.’ But really, it is not a stream of consciousness at all: it is a stream of thoughts, one thought after another. They are very often in conflict with each other, or in conflict with the intention that we have, and this creates many of our difficulties. The Dhammapada, for example, says, “All that we are is the result of our thoughts. It is founded on our thoughts.”

What seems to happen is that the mind turns back on itself; or, to put it another way, the mind is reflected back onto itself as awareness of awareness. This is sometimes called, ‘self’ awareness––although there is no self to be aware of. By giving this ‘self’ a name, ‘me,’ it becomes fixed. What we call ‘me,’ therefore, is a fold in the mind that is fixed as a thought with a name.

We say that human beings are self conscious; and at one time scientists believed that only human beings are self conscious, and that self consciousness makes human beings unique. However, experiments with a mirror have shown that chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants are ‘self’ conscious.

Our first awakening––that Hakuin called awakening to the Great Mirror Wisdom, or Dharmakya––is awakening to non-reflective awareness. Our sense of ourselves, our sense of being something, is based on reflected awareness. Before awakening it is as though we see everything in the mirror of the mind. When “we see into our true nature” the basic spasm of the mind, (that Hubert Benoit calls the imaginative-emotive spasm) is released. We experience the spasm as a tension, as a knot that we are constantly trying to release. This tension provides the basis for the sense of self. The stream of thought is an attempt to dissipate the tension created by reflection.

When we are practicing, we simply allow the tension to be and we pay no attention to the thoughts. In other words, we do not take note of the content of the mind. By fighting and struggling with thoughts, we simply affirm them as being important.

Of course it is very difficult not to pay attention to thoughts; it is very difficult not to listen to the voices that are constantly calling to us. I have referred to the stream of thought, but I could equally well have referred to the stream of monologue. This voice, the disembodied ghost, perpetually criticizes, judges, comments, explains, rationalizes, justifies, and bullies. The interesting thing about the monologue, is that one is both the speaker and the listener: that which inflicts the punishment and that which receives the punishment. It always seems as though we are talking to someone with this inner monologue, but at the same time it always seems that someone is talking to us. The trouble starts when we take the voice seriously.

When working on Who am I? or Mu, we constantly return our attention to the question. When we question we open the mind; when we affirm or make a statement the mind is closed. You could say that the question is searching for the possibility to reflect back with an answer. Therefore to that extent, when questioning, the mind is not reflecting back on itself with the same power. It is not necessary to conceptualize the question or use the words “What is Mu?” or “Who am I?” After one has been practicing for a long time, when one applies the mind in a concentrated way, the question is already there. The question simply colours the way the mind is brought to bear.

If you have difficulty with thoughts then it is not a bad idea to sub-vocally voice to yourself “Mu” or ‘Who.” That is a way by which to struggle through these very difficult periods. But this is only an emergency. But even when you voice the question, you are drawing your attention away from self reflecting, the ‘reflecting back’ quality. This is why it is important not to try to grasp an answer. If you’re constantly trying to anticipate an answer, then you are closing the mind, bringing the mind into a ‘reflecting back’ condition.

In Zen it is sometime said, when practicing ‘be stupid,’ ‘be an idiot.’ That is to say, have a totally open mind; be with the receptive quality of the mind alone. It is like the beak of a young bird in the nest waiting to be fed. It’s open. But, you are vigilant! It’s not just simply a sleepy condition, you are vigilant. If you have seen a young bird in the nest, then you know it is full of life. Everything is bobbing around. This is vigilant openness. A Chinese writer uses the expression ‘flexible hollow.’ ‘Hollow’ means open; flexible is what is alive, vital.

Sometimes, thoughts are very cruel, sometimes very vicious, at other times they are very angry. Always underneath lies tension and pain. Stay with the tension and pain. The mind is turned back on itself which can cause a schism. The mind is then in an impossible situation. Originally the mind is whole, it is one, and yet when it is turned back on itself this wholeness can be torn in two: reflector and reflected. Often, underlying the notion of “I,” lies the pain of being torn. “I must,” “I ought,” “I should,” are ways we try to stave off the pain. Underneath it all is a wound.

We look upon thoughts as pictures that can give us information. We ask “Do I have cancer?” “Will I get fired?” “Does she love me?” On the contrary, look through thoughts like looking through a window; let the thoughts be transparent. When you feel that the thoughts have some value, then you look at them in the same way that you might look at a picture. You are stopped by the thought. And because the thought has been named, or the implicit inner thought is verbalized, then it becomes an object, something. It becomes something in the same way that everything else becomes an object when named: soul, mind, ghost, God, they are all objects, things, because they are named. We take them as being something and so we take them as real.

Yet we can look through thoughts. When you are in deep states of samadhi, thoughts still drift in and out. But instead of being pictures, they are like dreams that you look through. The thoughts no longer stop you, they lose their power. Thoughts seem to melt and the solidity of the thoughts yields.

Nisargadatta, in a conversation that he had with a visitor, said, ”Remember whatever happens, does so because ‘I am'”. You are the tenth person. Everything is contained in you. To say, “I am everything” or “I am the whole world” is really redundant. ‘I am’ is “I am the whole world”. The whole world, at the moment, is the totality of your experience that is possible because ‘I am’. Even ‘I am’ is redundant. ‘The world’ is the result of being able to live without the sense of self, without the reflection back in a verbal way.

The truth that the whole world is contained in ‘I am’ is fundamental. It is not something which we learn, nor is it a philosophy that we acquire. It is not something that we get hold of or get to know about. Everything, every philosophy, everything we get to know about, the whole division of experience in the multiplicity of words comes out of the most fundamental truth, the whole world is ‘I am’. Knowing is being. This is true whether you are conscious of it or not.

We forget ourselves. When Gurdjieff says, “Remember yourself”, when I say, “Be present”, it is saying that the world is you. But because we forget ourselves we believe that the world is independent of us. Bassui says, “I am the world.” He says: “The universe and yourself are of the same root, you and every single thing are a unity; the gurgle of the stream and the sigh of the wind are the voices of the master; the green of the pine, the white of the snow, these are the color of the master, the very one who lifts the hands and moves the legs, sees and hears.”

When you are practicing, you are coming home. When you are asking “Who am I” you are smoothing out the bumps, letting go of the knots, and releasing the mind from its own grip. To see into Mu is to let go of all reflection. As you well know, it is pointless to think about the question “Who am I?” The verb ‘to think’ and the verb ‘to reflect’ mean more or less the same thing. One might very well say, “Let me reflect on that for a while before I decide.” To reflect is perhaps somewhat more ponderous than to think.

Mu is non reflection. “From the beginning, not a thing is”, or, if you like, “True self is no self.” When Dogen said, “To know the self is to forget the self,” he too is saying no reflection. Let go of the reflection and then you are, as Bassui has pointed out, “one with the ten thousand things”. You must go directly towards simplicity. ‘Letting go,’ ‘non attachment’ is non reflection, non turning back. This takes great courage because in doing so you let go of the sense of self. It seems as though you are dying, because the sense of self gives the illusory sense of existing.

All religions talk of thee need for the death of the old person and birth of the new. But all that is required is just an unfolding. For a long time we just don’t have the faith. We feel that we have to hang on, we cling, we struggle. But if we can see our practice as the self releasing its grip on the self, we will have the confidence that we are coming home.

Wherever you are is real; you can never get outside yourself. Theoretically I could duplicate your body in every possible detail, but I cannot duplicate you. I cannot get you outside of yourself in anyway. There is no outside of you, nor is there an inside.

Nisargadatta told his visitor, “Whatever happens, happens because ‘I am’. All reminds you that you are.” Everything is your face. He went on to say that to experience, you must be.

When Nisargadatta says that you are, he don’t mean that you are ‘something.’ All that I can say is that you are; I cannot say what you are. I sometimes say that you are pure awareness, or that you are knowing. But this is saying far too much. I say it because I want to direct your orientation away from things and objects. But what you are is truly inexpressible. When I ask, “Who walks?” some people still sit and think about this. And yet I ring the bell, and up they leap and off they go without a thought. Now, who responded to the bell? Who walks? Who bows? Who eats?

As Nisargadatta says, you need not stop thinking. In a book on Zen and painting the author said, “Sit in a comfortable position, get rid of all thoughts…” But, apart from the sheer impossibility of doing this, practice is not ‘getting rid of all thoughts’. It is seeing that the mind is intrinsically empty. Seeing that the whole world is intrinsically empty, that it has no substance, no ‘thingness’ of its own.

There are thoughts beyond thoughts. Our problem is not simply the thoughts that flicker across the mind. There are other thoughts that are churning constantly below the surface of consciousness and as you allow the mind to relax so you begin to be aware of them. They are still churning, they are still random, they still have no connection one with the other, but the movement of the mind is there all the time. But do not be interested in the content of this movement. Don’t take it as being of any value whatsoever to you. Whatever it is, however intimate, do not dwell upon it. This injunction does not only concern bad thought: it concerns all thought. It is not that we are plagued by bad thoughts and must replace them by good thoughts. Even good thoughts are bad thoughts. It’s like a master asked of one of his disciples, “Which of the words of the Tripitika were written by the devil?” The disciple replied, “All the words of the Tripitika were written by the devil.” The master congratulated him and said, “No one is ever going to take you for a ride.”

The hook that attaches us to all thoughts, feelings and sensations is ‘I’. If you have taken the time to be present while allowing the inner monologue to churn on, you will have seen that it always churns around ‘I’; it always churns around me. As Nisargadatta says, “All conversations turn on ‘I’.”

If you listen in to a conversation, you will see that there is a hidden agenda. This is ‘I’. This is why we will only listen so long to another person speaking before getting irritated and wanting to butt in to start talking about ourselves. We feel that it is about time ‘I’ was established. We also tend to balance the books. If someone says something that, subtly affirms [his] ‘I’ we will say something, equally subtly, that affirms [our own] ‘I’.

Nisargadatta tells us to “make straight your hooks and nothing can hold you.” It is because we hook onto things that they can affect us in the way that they do. A short while ago a young woman phoned me and it was evident from her voice that she was swearing at me. But it just could not touch me because she was speaking Polish. I did not understand what she was saying. There was no hook. It is only because we allow what others say or do to become attached to us, that we are affected by it.

This is why we work so hard to see into “I am something”. And, of course, for most of us it takes a lifetime or more to straighten out the hooks. But that is not important. We do not practice to avoid the pain that others inflict upon us. Nor is it to avoid or get free from the pain of life. We practice because we have to practice, that is all! There is no other reason. Or we could say that life is practicing through us.

The belief, “I am something” is an addiction just as much as some drugs can be an addiction. This is why Nisargadatta says, “Give up your addictions. There is nothing else to give up.” Practice is so difficult because we are hung up on ‘I am something.’ A Zen Center used the twelve steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous as twelve steps in the practice of Zen. This shows that they recognized the addictive quality of the sense ‘I am something’.

If you have struggled with cigarette smoking you will know how hard it is to give up even that addiction. You know how irritable it makes you feel, how you have to pass through a kind of dark night of the soul in which there is just nothing to look forward to. After giving up smoking one feels the days just stretch endlessly. The day is just like a lunar landscape. One craves anything, any kind of stimulus that will break that intense monotony of nothing to look forward to. And that is just because of giving up a cigarette. In practice we are giving up a much greater addiction, the addiction to the self! And people wonder why it’s tough!

“Give up your addictions. There is nothing else to give up. Stop your routine of acquisitiveness, your habit of looking for results, and the freedom of the universe is yours. Be effortless.”

“Stop your routine of acquisitiveness” Nisargadatta advises. Stop your habit of looking for results, and the freedom of the universe is yours. It is always a source of disappointment when people say, “You know, nothing is happening. I’ve been practicing for so long and nothing is happening.” Of course nothing is happening. Truly, practice has nothing to do with making something happen. It is the lust for acquiring results that stops us from being at one with the process. There is one activity that you are doing in life which is useless. That is, you are sitting in zazen; this is useless. Regard it as useless and be effortless

Another way of looking at it is this: when people say that nothing is happening it means that they have certain criteria by which they are judging their progress. For example, whether they are as irritable with other people as they have been in the past, or whether people like them more, or whether life is what they call easier. And these may be the last things that will give way in the practice.

When you are practicing it’s like taking a drop of clear water and putting it into a muddy pond. That muddy pond is changed in its entirety as a consequence of that drop of clear water. But you will not be able to detect that change. It’s not as though you scoop out a hole in the water and put in its place a drop of clear water. The practice is like constantly adding clear water to a muddy pool and eventually, of course, the clarity will far exceed the muddiness. The analogy stops there as one can only push any analogy so far.

Reflecting back, turning back onto yourself in order to find if you are progressing, is one of the great obstacles to practice. Take it that you are making a gift to life with the practice that you do. What you call the self is not going to benefit from this practice. It eventually will die, so how can it benefit? Once you sees it like this, then you will no longer look inside yourself to see whether you have ‘improved.’ You will no longer look at other people and ask, “Are they any better? They don’t seem any better to me!” Or criticize and say, “Good Lord, he drinks beer! How can he be awakened?”

Someone said that when he first started practicing Zen, his heart sank when he saw his teacher getting up from a period of zazen limping because his legs were stiff.   By checking, by using criteria to judge ‘progress’, you set up hurdles to leap over. Then, if you can leap over them you tell yourself that you have made progress. But often you just crash into the hurdles and then go to the dokusan room and say, “I am not making any progress.”

Nisargadatta exhorts us to, “Stop your routine of acquisitiveness, your habit of looking for results, and the freedom of the universe is yours.”

People say to me, “Well if I am not going to look for results. what then?” Not looking for results would be freedom. You will feel a sense of élan when you just throw yourself in and no longer try to grasp, grab, or get. If you want to cross the ocean, don’t keep swimming around in the harbour. Get out to sea!

“Be effortless,” says Nisargadatta. This is the direction to go. This is ‘Shikantaza’. This is seeing truly that nothing needs to be done. The questioner misunderstands and replies, “But life is effort. There are so many things to do.” Many people confuse “Nothing needs to be done!” with “do nothing.” This is like sitting down in the middle of the road thinking that this is a going on the journey.

Nisargadatta just says,   “What needs doing, do it. Don’t resist. Your balance must be dynamic based on doing just the right thing from moment to moment. Don’t be a child unwilling to grow up. Stereotyped gestures and postures will not help.”

And then he says, “Rely entirely on your clarity of thought, purity of motive and integrity of action. You cannot possibly go wrong. Go beyond and leave all behind.”

That is a very powerful statement, “Rely entirely on your clarity of thought”. What we would say is, rely on the fact that you do know. Don’t ask yourself, what is it that I know? Just know. Everyone knows. This is why it says, “From the beginning all beings are Buddha”. Every living being knows. Knowing is living. As knowing is not something, it is impossible for it ever to go out. You are a light that shines by itself. You know. Your very being is knowing. That is the clarity of thought.

Purity of motive: give yourself over to the truth, no longer seek to bolster the sense of self by acquiring or getting results. Seek truth wherever this search may lead.

Perhaps the Buddhas and the Patriarchs and the masters were mistaken, perhaps they were fools, perhaps they were cowards or charlatans, but that should in no way impede your search for the truth and reality. Make up your mind that you are not going to accept anything else but the real, whatever it costs, however long it takes. This is purity of motive.

And then there is integrity of action. You know what needs to be done. What needs to be done is fundamentally simple. You do not have to follow a complex routine. You can forget every thing that you have ever heard and learned, forget every book that you have read about Zen. You know what needs to be done. And so, do it! That is integrity of effort, integrity of action.

The real is all that is worthwhile. Go for it!

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2 Responses to The Spasm of the Mind

  1. annie manseau says:

    Merci, ce texte est encourageant.

  2. axel says:

    What is your one thing in Billy Crystal film or the Zennor master who held up one finger. What is not duality. Is it that we are! Many thanks for your clarity.

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