Felt Sense and Nonsense: Zen and ‘zen’

It is common to think of meditation as a technique of sharpening and strengthening concentration, and also as a way of attaining ‘mental silence’, of taking a holiday from chattering thoughts, bothersome emotional tides. And of course that’s part of it.

Zen, Buddhism in general, and similar spiritual modalities, such as Sufism perhaps, are often seen as cryptic, maybe elegantly mystical, as opposed to (what is often perceived as) more dubious ‘new age’ approaches. ‘Meditation’ as such can often immediately come to be associated with the latter however. But what do we actually mean by ‘new age’, or ‘zen’? What makes them different or even perhaps the same? Could ‘zen’ sometimes be even more truly ‘new age’ in the popular, denigrating vision of ‘new age’, than other, ‘new age stuff’? Conversely might also some element or representative of what seems ‘new age’ actually be ‘more truly Zen’ than a more overt seeming example of ‘zen’? Isn’t there some confusion here that could be cleared up?

The line is fuzzy isn’t it? Even genuine Zen, or the sneaky sayings of Rumi, or the Hinduism-laced pronouncements of Gandhi, might be burdened with ‘the new age taint’. Aren’t they, in fact, so tainted? Often someone more clearly in the Zen (or similar) camp will fraternize with someone in the more clearly seeming new age camp, and vice versa. Who is who then? We may vaguely find ourselves wondering who to be admiringly fascinated by, and who to be sneeringly scornful of . . .

After all, that seeming Zen elegance, that fashionable one hand clapping, can at bottom be seen as being a somewhat more respectable yet similar phenomenon to new age varieties of spirituality. Or in any case, the reasonable way to think about it tends to be: we might just dip into Zen (or a more overtly new age variety of) meditation, to get some admittedly useful skill in concentration and ‘mental chatter taming’, and then get on with the real business of being a responsible and competent worker, boss, parent, friend, artist, etcetera, because really that is the only aspect (mental chatter taming) that has any tangible worth in such things.

And that’s it, that’s all there is to it . . .

What is going on here?

We are using language.

In language, Zen becomes ‘zen’, New Age becomes ‘new age’, a packaged set of information hooked into our shared collective mode of thinking, which, though it seems to merge inextricably with an objective, immutable collective space, ‘that describes the way things are’, is still for each of us our own private version of a collective language, or culturally influenced inner dialogue. It becomes our version of what the cultural world ‘in our heads’ calls zen, or new age; Zen becomes, without our generally noticing it, a ‘thing’, hard and tangible, like ‘a doorknob’ on a locked door.

This actually makes nonsense of Zen, or of New Age for that matter, while appearing to be perfectly sensible. Doesn’t it rather behoove us to carefully consider who is actually conveying what before we turn them into a zen or new age doorknob?

Subvocally say a loved one’s name, if you will.

Stop for moment and notice what you feel, what you sense inwardly in saying that loved one’s name.

Say the name a few times. Pay close attention to the images, the feelings, the flashes of memory.

There is the name, and then there is ‘all that’ which is the inward sense, the deeply complex richness of inward experiencing which that name, as symbol, simply points to. Probably many people share that same name. We can actively and very straightforwardly focus on that inner richness, that ‘felt sense’ as philosopher Eugene Gendlin calls it, and this is not ‘a thing’ exactly, but is instead the true backdrop and actually the essence of experiencing, which we must and always do refer to, to ‘make sense’ of, any ‘thing’.

Someone asks us “What’s X”–our loved one–”like?” and we must refer to this inner complexity, this ‘all at once’ knowing-experiencing, turn inward to it, and out of the intelligence we’ve gathered from that well, we offer up word forms, symbolizations, to our questioner. And we might have to go on for a while, sometimes correcting what we have said, “Oh . . . actually, no, she’s not really like that . . . “, we might say, again and again referring to that inward complexity that is our felt sense of her, “Yeah, no, it’s not really that she’s shy, it’s more like she’s very sort of . . . circumspect about everything, very careful how she steps around things, you know what I mean?” And that questioner will be referring to his or her felt sense, checking in on it, seeking to ‘get’ what we’re saying. In the end we may not actually say that much, in words. But we both might feel like something deep and somehow ‘lengthy’, ‘meaty’, has been conveyed, may both even feel very touched by this ‘putting the loved one into words’.

Perhaps a rock is simpler.

Is it though?

“What is a rock?” someone might ask, irritatingly.

“Well, a rock is . . . just a rock . . .  Don’t ask stupid questions!”

Perhaps we will humor the questioner though, stop for a moment, and look inwardly at what ‘rock’ means. A whole implicit landscape of rocky experiences is there, isn’t it? All our experiencing of rocks is there, in our felt sense of rock: geography lessons; throwing them; being hit by them; sitting on them; skipping them over lakes; primal childhood memories of gazing at them; their strange captivating ‘graininess’ when looked at closely; collecting interesting ones from the beach; precious stones; mountains.

But all those details come out of a felt sense of rock that is there ‘all at once’, though not in a fixed way—that felt sense can be changed with new experience and in fact must continuously be changing—but nonetheless the nature of ‘felt sense’ is to have this all-at-once accessibility, as intimate as our own body.

And really it is a body, a thought/feeling body.

We can directly access it in a way that is actually the same as accessing our body, like when we feel inwardly for that sense of our hands, our lips, our feet inside our shoes, or bare, standing on a warm rock.

And as we look inwardly at that complexity of our loved one, or of ourselves, as we grip the warm rock with our bare feet, notice who, or what, that inward movement of knowing is–experience the felt sense of it—right then, as it moves, ‘all in one motion’.

What happens, then, to the normal categories of language we think in? What happens then to the collective cultural dialogue we each have a version of ‘in our heads’, that dialogue which quickly sums up every ‘thing’ we encounter ‘in our experience’?

It doesn’t go away, it hasn’t become discarded, but it has new depth, its true intricacy is uncovered; and it is thus rendered suddenly radically more flexible, also somehow ‘sacred’, at least for the duration of that strange all-at-once movement of insight.

What is our felt sense of ‘what our face looked like before we were born’, or of ‘the sound of one hand clapping’? What if we gazed with steady concentration on that strange inward complexity, at the miraculous cleverness that is our own innate and taken-for-granted experiencing/intelligence, for a concentrated period every day, for a while; and what if we began to notice it in every day activities, talking to our loved ones, walking along the rocks at the shoreline, reaching out to grip ‘the doorknob’? Maybe then ‘zen’ would begin to grow into Zen, and also maybe, thought of this way, we might realize that we already have ‘a certain handle on’ Zen, to whatever degree.

I think relatively recent developments in western philosophy, such as phenomenology* have a lot to offer in elucidating and making accessible to westerners a ‘meditation’ with an elegance and depth that stems from the nature of experiencing itself; a kind of art of thinking emerges, a philosophical instrument that may be of use alongside, or inside, any life activity, a Zen in the art of anything whatever.

*Here in this short essay I am especially drawing on Eugene Gendlin’s phenomenological insights: See “Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning”, by Eugene Gendlin; and also see “The Field of Zen” by Daisetz Suzuki, for a good introduction to Zen.
With regard to meditation practice, real ‘navel gazing’, focusing on the inner lower abdomen, the Hara (Japanese) Dantien (Chinese) or ‘the well’ (as I call it, simply to give it an easy ‘western’ name), while calmly maintaining awareness of natural breathing, is a very healthy, tried-and-true concentration/yoga technique: thoughts/sensations/experiences in general come up; you notice them clearly, but you don’t try to suppress or alter them regardless of whether they are good bad or in between, nor do you try to elaborate and follow them; you just keep bringing the attention back to the well and to breathing, for say twenty minute sessions to start, longer with experience if that feels right. This kind of practice works well with Zen/philosophical insight, as explored above. There is a more detailed exploration of meditation techniques on the Meditation page of this blog: https://theinfinitelivingroom.com/meditation/


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