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 in the Zen (or similar) camp will fraternize with someone in the 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 in making sense of anything.

Someone asks us what our loved one is like. “So, what’s she like?”. To answer, 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 exactly…”, 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, giving us a blank look or nodding, 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 rich has been conveyed, may both even feel very touched by this putting the loved one into words. We will see it in each others eyes and feel that shared understanding.

Perhaps a rock is simpler.

Is it though?

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

Perhaps we will humour 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, we have the option of noticing that inward movement of knowing, right on the spot, 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 everything 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. 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 perhaps, thought of this way, we might realize that we already have a certain handle on Zen, to whatever degree. We might realize that Zen is a natural capacity arising from the way experience actually works.

I think relatively recent developments in western philosophy, such as phenomenology* have a lot to offer in elucidating and making accessible to westerners a mode of 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. A more detailed exploration of meditation techniques can be found here: https://theinfinitelivingroom.com/meditation/

 

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Bus Yoga 1

Seated on the bus.

This cruising assemblage of rubber, metal, and wires, holding humans in its belly as it rolls through space, I in turn hold as ‘bus’; it obediently folds its motion, its taking of us from our As to our Bs, transparently inside my grasp of it as ‘bus’. For a moment I see the secret machinery translating the bus’s metal and gears, its controlled explosion of gas and its careful flesh and blood piloting through streets, into the electric linguistic bubble of Bus, neatly resonating within itself all the other sub-bubbles it holds (wheels, gears, line-ups, starting and stopping, get up for the elderly and infirmed, watch for your stop) outside of time, as a neon glow in cognitive space, a phantom of electric attention that could vanish with a firm yank of the cord from the outlet.

In the electric bus bubble, scenery collapses into ‘scenery’, seats into ‘seats’, passengers into ‘passengers’, all filed away within everyone’s private bus. His bus isn’t mine, but he and I include each other, in a hidden pact, on each other’s busses.

Adhering without touching, because inhabiting the very marrow, I persist as a ghost in these machines within machines, wheels within wheels. The bus driver is his own island of turning precision, tracing us through mapped time schedules onto real concrete streets, carrying us to phantom goals within solid walls. And he is my avatar up ahead, manipulating through my remote control, the arcane gears of the electric bus bubble engine, transmogrifying scenery, collapsing space between my A and B.

Bus Yoga 2

 On the bus I have somewhere to go.

We all have somewhere to go, and together on the bus we are on the way, getting there. Also, we are prone to let our eyes fall half or all the way closed, and to drift our heads over to gaze out the window at passing sights, taking those sights in with interested, attracted, or repulsed recognition, or gratefully letting them blur together into the soft trance of in between, of not there yet. We can tune in, but are just as prone to tune out, to let the bus take us.

But isn’t there often a melancholy to it, a hidden sadness? I’m here because I have to be here, have to get to the B from that A, where I would perhaps rather have stayed, or maybe even I’m fleeing an A to arrive at an unsatisfactory B. Perhaps I hear this blurring complexity whispering along the streets, singing its woes into my ears, slipping in between the lines of my I-Pod songs.

I can resist; I can set up counter thoughts, counter arguments, screw up my courage, repaint the grid of my fondest maybe even quite attainable hopes, to crowd out this dull oppressive whispering, which always obeys the traffic signals, respects the boundaries of the infrastructure, has one eye on the watch and the other on the bus schedule, the work schedule, on the unspoken emotional agendas that feel too brittle and fragile and volatile to challenge—they might break, might hit me, might crumble into tears, might ostracize me forever.

But there’s always the drifting trance of the in between. I can just let it take me, let the whispering become an alien rambling monologue, let it merge with the growl of the bus engine, with the traffic sounds, the static chatter. Where am I now?

A and B have melted together, the themes of going from here to there, of ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, of ravenous striving commerce and aching dreams of protesting art, have all merged into a theme-less realm of heavy eyes, through which surreal scenery sends its waves, that break against the subdued chaos of mumbling detached thoughts, swirling together with tendrils of sound, all of it washing through ‘me’… But this is another me, a retreating me, with the dial turned away from jagged rocks of the A-to-B station, finding a welcome undemanding static, a nonthematic purgatory which may not be heaven but at least it’s unhinged from the endless themes, the storylines of traffic lights, NO STOPPING zones, and four-way intersections where you MUST decide which way to go, who goes first, and who has the coolest car.

Can I see this though, bring it clearly in focus, and thereby become the driver sometimes instead of always remain the passenger? Can I take it further, travel with it off the map, pave new roads inside the in between of riding the A-to-B bus?

Perhaps this unconscious escape, this drifting retreat, can become tinted with a new curious attention, a sneaky, gleefully conspiring light.

I could slip into this nonthematic in between on purpose. And also I needn’t be bummed by the murky thematic tangles of A and B; I can cast a neon light on them from within the security, the secret refuge of my drifting middle ground stronghold, my sanctum sanctorum, where I can move back and forth at will: I can conspire to see in between the lines, and just let them drift by as curious creatures, as passing blurring scenery I needn’t ‘recognize’; and also I can reach out with intelligence culled from my new nonthematic spy network, and grab the thematic steering wheel, change the schedule, redraw the maps.

Yoga Energetics

My teacher and friend Sensei Yula and his partner Becca Mukti have released another book, a practice text called Yoga Energetics:

http://www.centrefortheways.com/Yogaenergeticsasanalternative.html?utm_source=Centre+for+the+Ways+eBook+Announcement+Newsletter&utm_campaign=9266576071-Yoga+Energetics+eBook&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b237366e82-9266576071-%5BLIST_EMAIL_ID%5D&ct=t%28Tao_Eating_Zen_Digesting4_6_2013%29&gooal=eyJjaWQiOiI5MjY2NTc2MDcxIiwidGFnIjoiVGFvX0VhdGluZ19aZW5fRGlnZXN0aW5nNF82XzIwMTMiLCJ1aWQiOiI3Y2VhY2FjN2E1YWRkMmZkYzE5ZjY2ODAzIn0%3D|c2ltb252QGVhc3RsaW5rLmNh&mc_cid=9266576071&mc_eid=%5BUNIQID%5D

The Infinite Living Room: Two Views of a Secret

Here is a chapter from my novel, The Infinite Living Room. I am currently seeking a publisher for this book

The Infinite Living Room is written in the style of magical realism, deals more directly with themes I have been exploring on this blog in posts like Bus Yoga, and Felt Sense and Nonsense, in the form of a psychological mystery characterized by frequent dips into the waters of dreamtime.

First, as a lead in, here is an idea of what would appear on the back of the book:

Gradually, half with the willingness of a daring explorer, and half with all-too-human terror, Martin Saxon finds his simple life expanding into an infinite living room.

What begins for writer Martin Saxon as a routine trip to give a lecture at a university flowers into a quest of such intensity that it splits open his psyche into bizarre, and by times violently competing approaches to that quest.

These approaches manifest in the form of three fantastical agents, who blur the lines between dream and reality.

Did he hire them, as they claim? If so, why? And why can’t he remember doing so?

These agents take as their debating platform and battleground the dreamscape city of Quantavium, into which Martin finds himself slipping while sleeping, and increasingly, while awake.

Is Martin going mad? Or is he experiencing some vaudevillian form of Zen illumination?

Chapter Eleven

Two Views of a Secret

Martin’s dream journal:

Fred and I were shown into a sort of heaven that didn’t seem right: It was too cutesy and typical, with friendly (heavenly) but disappointingly stereotypical angels and such flying around, in a swirl of pinks and reds. So we turned back to try again. A mysterious woman, a sort of secret agent (J. P. Infinity?), who apparently had led us to the first heaven or dimension, created another doorway for Fred and I to go through.

This time we entered a sort of bus or train terminal with people standing around (broad spaces, high ceilings, lit with bright sunlight coming in through narrow windows and open doors). We left quickly—it was an uncomfortable, threateningly ‘official’ place—and began walking across a field, through the town.

It was an alternate, utopian or dystopian world—It wasn’t clear which. But I saw a clear vision of a city bus going by. On its side, written in big letters, were the words ‘Transit Vace.’ I immediately inferred from this that their language was altered but still similar to mine.

Then at a bus stop we were standing around with a group of people on a muddy, trash-covered curb. Suddenly an environmental policeman pulled up to the curb in a sci-fi van. He assigned particular people to various trash disposal duties. It was illegal to disobey. The chosen people piled up trash and sprayed it with a special super glue that made the piles solid, then they threw all the solidified piles into the policeman’s specially equipped disposal van. I contemplated picking something up voluntarily, but didn’t (I justified this to myself, with dubious conviction, by noting that I wasn’t one of the people chosen by the policeman).

The scene shifted to somewhere else in the same world. There was a student who was being questioned outside his room, in a university residence. The man who questioned him was an agent of the state. The agent drilled him to prove his merit in society. The student listed his academic achievements. It appeared that he was doing exceptionally well  . . . except for his environmental duties. The agent began to recite something taken out of state dogma, but the student cockily finished what the agent was saying for him, listing The Three Things that everyone in society was supposed to uphold, which just happened to be tacked up on the student’s door on a piece of paper (there was a feeling that they were tacked up on every student’s door). They were self-against-self, self-editing, or self-criticizing injunctions, known as The Three Paranoias:

1 The Paranoia of Survival

2 The Paranoia of Social Conformity

3 The Paranoia of Responsibility

Martin read over what he’d written of his dream carefully, keeping mentally in touch with the feelings and certainties he’d felt while dreaming. As he often did, he noticed upon looking back that there had been a reality surrounding the dream which was simply assumed, like the way everyone assumes the complex, meaningful world surrounding their waking identities. And there were vivid emotional nuances that he felt while dreaming, which he couldn’t get down on paper, just like with normal memories.

Martin placed his dream journal beside the bed again. He decided to go back to sleep, since there was nothing pressing he had to do that day.

He drifted into sleep, into sitting at a kitchen table, drinking coffee and looking across at the linear flux-time assassin, Voratio Santini.

Their table was in the middle of a low bridge stretching across a harbour. The grey colours of the scene seemed to shift around them, a blurry, rhythmic movement, like an image reflected in water. But Voratio’s form stayed sharp, the boundaries of his image remaining as dark, thick lines, like a character in a black and white animation.

Voratio took a deep breath through his nostrils, made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and said, with absolute conviction, “Wishful thinking assumes that what you desire is unlikely to occur, whereas making things really happen is accepting the idea that your firm, determined intent will in fact cause that thing to happen, step-by-step. If it doesn’t happen then you are being insincere in your conviction, there are hidden reservations in your psyche, or the intentions of others may be blocking you. It helps to have abundant energy and good concentration. Although the exploration of methods to take advantage of this is up to you, there are traditional ways, long ago worked out, which I highly recommend you avail yourself of.”

“That having been said, it is best that you work with the situation you find yourself in, such that you view it as having naturally arisen out of your individuality and decisions.” Voratio placed his hands palms down upon the table and thrust his face at Martin. An open, but grey sky framed Voratio’s angular features. “You have chosen me to be your representative of systems, of tried-and-true methods that can provide sure success along the path. I strongly suggest that you follow the few basic principles I am presenting to you. It is best that you not ignore the examples of the many who have gone before you.” He began to trace figures on the table with his finger, as if etching these basic principles into its wood. “Look for possible openings without setting your sights on one particular route, because the path of least resistance that would best fulfill your truest intent may be something you could not possibly foresee. It is not for you to plan out, in all of its ineffable details, the scenario of your ultimate fulfillment, as perhaps you already know.” Voratio looked at him searchingly, and maybe somewhat suspiciously.

“Yes.”

“So it comes down to not just focusing your attention on particulars, although that is important, but also on the overall intent of a thing, because to obsess over one part, is to neglect the whole.”

“Understood.”

“It seems to me that to a degree you are already informed in what I am telling you.” Voratio said, a little pointedly.

“Yes, but it helps to have someone as casually familiar in its actual implementation to explain it, to get a taste of that . . . casual assuredness.”

“Glad,” Voratio said, his face transforming into an enormous grin, “to be of service.”

Martin then saw a flash of movement within the top periphery of his vision. Voratio put his hand out quickly, grin vanishing, to catch his attention, but Martin was already looking up, at J. P. Infinity, who stood balancing on top of a high wooden pole, like the lookout on a sailing ship. Her sturdy, voluptuous form, along with the vitality that made her flesh firm, her glowing cheeks, her breasts, made her like a fruit-bearing tree, the wild hair on her head breathing the sky, the light. She had her hand up over her eyes, as if she were scanning for land, or saluting the horizon. Above her in the sky hung a full moon, shining.

The water surrounding them had become the endless, vast ocean, the unknown, the landscape of the unsaid. It remained hidden, unseen, like the deep ocean below you as you swim on your back, yet it seethed with an awesome, terrifying intelligence, infusing Martin with a secret excitement, an exquisite knowing. It was the genuine promise of mystery which has always yet to unfold, the true vastness of things, forever in between the lines.

She jumped, all in one motion, performing a swan dive, down into the abyss. He could feel her descent in his guts. He wanted to cry out, a victory howl, in celebration of her bravery.

At the last moment, just as the fingertips of her outstretched hands were about to break the surface of the deep, he saw that she had tied a bungee cord to her ankles. She bounced smoothly back up to the top of the pole, then gazed coolly down upon him, eyebrows raised, questioningly.

My most recent (science fiction) book is Gray World: Stealing Fire: https://theinfinitelivingroom.com/2012/04/13/gray-world-11/

The Wholly Wedded Gift of the Law

The Law was the compounded changing
judgment, He, the law-abiding
judge, a multi-layered cafe
pastry man, with a Mind
full of cafe mumbles,
a thick paste of past
between his layers, almost liquid,
seeping continuously,
between prim coffee sips,
through half-baked barriers
of querulous cogitation.

His problem was that he wanted to BE
his cake and EAT it too,
and also to stand outside, admiring its colors,
the delicacy of feathered flakes, to
marvel at the miracle of
mixture that birthed it;
and to taste it, especially,
best flavors from most treasured,
deepest profound layers. But,
because sour parts gave indigestion, and
hidden stones fallen into the initial mix,
cracked teeth, and scraped
tender-proud gums, and
too much sugar on the surface
ice,
caused wincing embarrassment—
because of these, it was hard
to savor the good
for fear of the bad.

So he resolved to be . . .
a criminal,
to weave inside and outside of
association’s Law, bending the
ephemeral flow, of judgment, of
sometimes slow, other times
quick jerks and twitches
of mental machinations.
And he would go backwards sometimes too,
or forwards if it suited him, drifting,
but not foundering, playing along,
but not necessarily by the rules.
And he did not play to win;
he didn’t have to, being a
clever Crook,
who understood the
rule of the Law
which,
in the fine print,
(in-between
intricate layers),
arbitrarily states
that there is, in fact,
nothing
but the Law.

And therefore, also, there
shall be and is no weeping One,
who really falls
(who falls?) through the
treacherous cracks, into obscurity,
like a contemptible Crumb
pushed off the cake onto the table,
then flicked onto the filthy floor
by the Merciless Finger.

And no One Crumb may soar
up the hierarchical ranks of the
Wedding Cake, to live in
Perfect Union
at the Top,
standing victoriously betwixt
a static,
forever smiling,
Mystic Marriage.
No,
there is only the
Wholly Wedded Gift,
the movement
of the Law.

Interview

Recently I was interviewed by philosopher, musician, and web designer Cory Duchesne, who posted the interview on his website, Core Webworks: http://www.corewebworks.com/community/simon.php

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Damyanti Biswas is an author, blogger, animal-lover, spiritualist. Her work is represented by Ed Wilson from the Johnson & Alcock agency. When not pottering about with her plants or her aquariums, you can find her nose deep in a book, or baking up a storm.

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