How To Live a Genuine Life
We'll always be conditioned beings living in a conditioned world. But we can learn to see the clouds of conditioning as just clouds in the context of the sky. To do this we need the precision of practice.
A Zen student walked in to see the master. Sitting down, he blurted out, "There's something terribly wrong with me!" The master looked at him and asked, "What's so wrong?" The student, after a moment's hesitation, responded, "I think I'm a dog." To that the master responded, "And how long have you thought that?" The student replied, "Ever since I was a puppy."
What does this story have to do with spiritual practice? Everything. It puts the basic human problem in a nutshell. Next time you find yourself immersed in the drama of a strong emotional reaction, awash with deeply believed thoughts, ask yourself how long you've taken these thoughts to be the truth. Especially notice the ones you believe the most: "Life is too hard," "No one will ever be there for me," "I'm worthless," "I'm hopeless." How long have you believed these thoughts? Ever since you were a puppy!
These deeply held beliefs may not be visible on the surface of our minds; we're often not even aware of them. Yet we cling to such deep-seated beliefs, these basic identities, because they've become rooted in our very cells—in our cellular memory. And their imprint on our lives is unmistakable. But in order to avoid experiencing the painful quality of these beliefs and identities, we continually engage in various strategies of behavior—habitual coping patterns that buffer us from the anxious quiver of insecurity. These strategies are our attempt to establish some sense of safety, security and familiarity. They might include seeking achievements, becoming a helper, trying to control our world or withdrawing toward safety. But do they ever give us a sense of genuine satisfaction? No. All too often they keep us stuck in dissatisfaction, not knowing where to turn. I call this place "the substitute life."
If we're fortunate enough to aspire to become free of our substitute or artificial life, we may start questioning our most basic assumptions, including our very mode of living. Although such questioning can be painful, it's something we all need to do periodically in order to move toward a genuine life. The one question that goes directly to the heart of the matter is: "What is my life really about?" The degree to which we can be honest in answering this question will determine our clarity in understanding the basic human dilemma—that we are cut off from awareness of our true nature.
For example, how much of the day are you aware—just basically aware of what life is presenting—rather than being lost in waking sleep, in being identified with whatever you're doing, almost as if you didn't exist?
To what extent do you blindly drift from one form of comfort to another, from one daydream or fantasy to another, from one secure place to another, in order to avoid the anxious quiver of discomfort or insecurity? How much of your energy is used to fortify a particular self-image, or to simply please others in order to gain approval, instead of devoting your energy to living a genuine life?
More specifically, can you see the particular ways in which you attempt to avoid really being with your life? Do you know which strategies you use to guarantee some sense of safety and familiarity, to avoid facing the fears—of rejection, loss, unworthiness or failure—that lie beneath the surface of your thoughts and actions?
For example, do you try to maintain a sense of order and control, to avoid feeling the fear of chaos, of things falling apart? Do you try to gain acceptance and approval, to avoid the fear of rejection, of not fitting in? Do you try to excel and attain success, to avoid the fear of feeling unworthy? Or do you seek busyness in adventure or pleasure, to avoid the deep holes of longing and loneliness? All of these strategies have one thing in common: they keep us encased in our artificial or substitute life.
None of us are beyond this. We all follow some strategy to escape feeling the fears that silently run our life. Yet even when we know all about these fears, most of the time we don't want to have anything to do with them. Perhaps this sounds pessimistic and discouraging, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, it's only by realizing the extent to which we are asleep—the extent to which we are driven by the vanity of our endeavors, the smallness of our attachments or the urgency of avoiding our fears—that we can wake up, out of our state of sleep, out of our substitute way of living.
When we see that we're asleep, we might think we have to make superhuman efforts to wake up. We might look for technique after technique, or for more and more words of wisdom—but neither approach will give us the solution that we're looking for, especially if we fall into the trap of trying to fix or change ourselves. Genuine spiritual practice is never about fixing ourselves, because we're not broken. It's about becoming awake to who we really are, to the vastness of our true nature, which includes even the parts of ourselves we label as "bad."
The essence of the practice life involves cultivating awareness. This process has two basic aspects. The first is clarifying the mental process. The second is experiencing—entering into awareness of the physical reality of the present moment. When we're standing in the muddy water of everyday life, practice is often not simple and clear. But part of our challenge is to bring a certain precision and impeccability to our efforts. That's why it's important to keep returning to these two basic aspects of practice: first, seeing through the mental process, with all its noise; and second, entering the non-conceptual silence of reality as-it-is. As practitioners we learn to honestly and relentlessly observe the mental or conceptual process—thoughts, emotional reactions, strategies and fears—and then bring ourselves back again and again to the physical reality of the present moment.
Being precise means focusing on what gets in the way of clarity in practice. We need to focus particularly on the addictions that keep us encased in a substitute life. I'm not talking about the most obvious addictions, like the chemical addictions to drugs or alcohol. I'm talking about more subtle addictions to which we all fall prey.
Let's start with our addiction to comfort. I'm talking about the ways we manipulate our experience in an effort to find comfort and avoid pain. We've all got it to some degree. What does yours look like? Does it manifest as avoiding sitting meditation when you don't feel like it, or as moving around during sitting even when the instruction is to sit still? Can you see it in your attachment to food or sleep or fantasizing?
What is the practice here? First, we have to see the ways in which we constantly seek comfort. Then we look at our mental process, beginning with noticing our most basic beliefs. For example, if we're sitting in meditation and feel agitated, we ask, "What is my most believed thought right now?" The answer might be, "Life should be comfortable." Or, "Life should be free from pain." Or, "I can't be happy if I'm in discomfort." We certainly believe that these thoughts are true; yet many people have experienced that happiness does not depend on being free of discomfort. In fact, it's our belief that we have to avoid discomfort that is one of our deepest sources of unhappiness. But to see through the beliefs that underpin our habitual attitudes and behaviors, we first have to know what they are. We need to label our thoughts with precision and clarity to see through the addictive quality.
Once we see these beliefs clearly, what is the experiential component? It's staying with the restlessness, the anxious quiver, the hole of discomfort out of which our addictions spring. Residing in the present moment when it's uncomfortable isn't necessarily easy, since we have a natural aversion to discomfort. This is one reason why having a daily meditation practice is helpful, because we learn what it means to stay with the experience of the body even when this experience doesn't please us. However, to really reside in physical discomfort, it's helpful to first clearly see our believed thoughts.
As we observe the mental process with precision, we come to see that we rarely take a breath without a thought or opinion or judgment going through our head. We begin to notice the extent to which we're addicted to our thoughts. Much of the mental activity is innocuous—just energy arising as mental concepts. But for most of us there's also a particular addictive pattern. Once we know clearly what it is, we can use simple generic labels, such as "planning," "conversing," "remembering" or "worrying," and then return to the physical experience of just being here. Sometimes we have to label more precisely. For example, with fantasizing, to get to the addictive quality, we could say, "Having a believed thought that I must fantasize." Identifying the addictive quality makes it easier to return to the physical sensation of craving.
Some addictive patterns are more pernicious than others. For example, the addiction to self-judgments is particularly hard to see. We all fall into the trap of taking such thoughts as truth. Judgments like this one—"After all these years I'm still doing that. I'll never get this. I'm hopeless. I'm a bad person"—arise directly from our most deeply seated core beliefs, the fixed decisions we made about ourselves early on as a result of the inevitable sense of separation we all feel. These fixed beliefs always have a negative cast, like a darkened lens through which we interpret "reality." These negative filters, the results of past frightening experiences, actually shape our reality, although they don't reflect reality directly or accurately. Beliefs such as "I'll never measure up," "I'll always be alone," "If people could really see me they would see that I was nothing" may sound trivial, but their devastating power comes from the fact that their "truth" isn't open to question. We take them as reality. Thus our life remains a dissatisfying puzzle.
It's important to label these thoughts with precision, because otherwise we'll continue to believe them. When the judgments stay intact, what happens? They continue to run our life. Once we've seen the self-judgments for what they are—just opinions—we return to our experience and ask ourselves how it feels, physically, to hold onto them. Again, we need precision to stay with the sensations rather than succumbing to the temptation to think about them. If we get hooked back into our judgmental thoughts, we're likely to wallow in guilt and shame, eventually confirming the "truth" of the thoughts rather than experiencing the feelings.
This brings us to one of our strongest addictions: the addiction to our emotional states. Think about the last strong feeling you experienced. At the time, didn't it seem like reality? When we're caught in disheartenment we really believe that we'll never be adequate, that we'll never fit in, that nothing will ever work out, and so on. When we're caught in anxiety or confusion, it's hard to imagine it as just a passing emotional state. These emotions feel solid and permanent. Because there's no particular comfort in them, they may not feel like an addiction. They may feel more like a barrier between ourselves and our life. But they're only a barrier until we pass through them. Then we see that the emotional state was just a prop to which we're addicted in order to confirm our identity, to hold us together. This seems especially true of our addiction to busyness, or even more so, of our addiction to being right.
The addiction to our identities—who we think we are—is one of the hardest things to see. At any given moment we all have a mental concept of who we are, and usually several. Some identities are concrete, such as the identity of being a parent or a student. Some are more image-based—we see ourselves as being smart or nice or spiritual. Usually we're blind to our identities, and consequently to their addictive quality. For example, if we have the identity of being a spiritual seeker, we may blindly get comfort from the identity of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Or we could have the comforting identity of being studious, hardworking or deep. We certainly get a perverse but very juicy comfort in "being right" or in being busy and productive. Ask yourself, what is your identity right now? Can you feel its addictive quality? Can you sense how you cling to it for comfort?
The conceptual aspect of practice is seeing these difficult-to-see identities with clarity. The experiential aspect comes into play when our identities are threatened, when our strategies to hold ourselves together fail. Here we have the opportunity to work with the sense of groundlessness, where our props are no longer supporting us. Unfortunately, it's just the place we don't want to be, because it takes us back to the core pain of feeling unworthy, faceless, isolated. Yet to willingly reside here allows us to see through its solidity. Ultimately we see that what we've spent our whole life trying to avoid is simply a complex of believed thoughts, unpleasant sensations and ancient memories. We can't reach this understanding while we're clinging to the props of our identities. The essence of practice, really, is dropping the addiction to identities, learning to be no one.
I don't mean to set up a new ideal of "no one special to be." We already have enough idealized pictures of who we're supposed to be. For example, how many of us have the view that the spiritual ideal is being able to face death or adversity without fear? Such a view is still living out of ideals and artificial identities. Real freedom is to face adversity without having to be free from fear; without the addiction to the identity of "fearlessness."
Of course, we're more addicted to fear than to fearlessness. Notice how much of the day you hold tightly to your fears, especially the fear of the loss of control. All of our "what if" thinking falls into this category: "What if I don't do it right?" "What if it's painful?" "What if I look bad?" These thoughts are based on wanting to control some imagined future more than on what's happening now. It's crucial to see and to label them with the question: "What is my most believed thought right now?"
After seeing the mental constructs, we just sit, experiencing what's happening right now, aware of the intense physical sensations of anxiety—the tightness, the queasiness, the narrowing down. We might ask the practice question or koan, "What is this moment?" What happens when we do this? Finding the answer is what practice is really about.
Again, the simplicity and clarity of practice amounts to this: first, we must see through the mental process, dropping the story line of "me." What is the story line of "me"? It's the addiction to comfort and thoughts, to our self-judgments and emotions, to our identities and our fears.
What does it look like to drop the story line of "me"? There was a baseball movie out recently in which a star pitcher is facing a star batter at a crucial point in the game. The pitcher is having a hard time focusing. He's thinking about what would happen if the batter got a hit. He's distracted by the fifty thousand fans shouting and waving. Then he says to himself, "Clear the mechanism." All of a sudden the sound level in the movie drops into silence. Even though the fans are still moving and waving, you no longer hear them, reflecting what the pitcher is experiencing as he disengages from his own emotional noise. Then he says to himself, "Now just throw the ball to the catcher, like you've done a million times before." In "clearing the mechanism" he was turning away from his preoccupation with the mental noise of "me," from his fear-based thoughts about imagined results, about himself as a star, as someone special. Then he could enter the direct experience of simply throwing the ball.
Once we can learn to stop focusing on our own inner noise, we can "clear the mechanism" and drop the story line of "me." Then it becomes possible to enter the experiential, non-conceptual world, the silence of reality as-it-is. This doesn't mean we won't have messiness in our life; it means we won't be so addicted to it. We'll always be conditioned beings living in a conditioned world, but it's possible to learn to relate to the clouds of conditioning as just clouds, and see them more and more within the context of the sky. To do this we need the precision of practice. We need to see and work with our addictions for what they are—believed identities, thoughts and other mental constructs. We also need to see them for what they aren't—the truth about who we are or what life is.
Ezra Bayda, the author of Being Zen, received dharma transmission from Charlotte Joko Beck, and presently teaches at the Zen Center San Diego. This excerpt is from his book, At Home in the Muddy Water: A Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos (Shambhala Publications).
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