I think my favorite Zen story is about an exchange between Hui Neng, the fifth Chinese patriarch who lived about 1,400 years ago, and Wo Lun, a monk who wants to demonstrate his spiritual attainment. Wo Lun tells Hui Neng this:
"Wo Lun has skillful means
Enabling him to cut off all thoughts.
In the face of circumstances
he is not aroused,
and daily, monthly,
Hui Neng sees Wo Lun's pride and his sense of spiritual superiority and offers a corrective, gently couched in the language of his own experience.
"Hui Neng has no skillful means.
He does not cut off all thoughts.
In the face of circumstances
his mind is often aroused.
How can there be the growth of wisdom."
Wo Lun expressed the misconception, apparently as common then as now, that meditation produces wisdom. Hui Neng tells him what he's learned, that the human brain is a really sensitive and reactive organ that isn't tamed. He doesn't argue or try to impress Wo Lun with the righteousness of his own thinking. The contents of his mind are of little interest. Awareness has taught him that his mind makes him suffer, and he recognizes that thinking is, by its nature, delusional.
People begin meditating in the hope meditation will make them wise. The attentive learn how quickly clarity and ease dissolve into anger and stress under pressure. There's a saying that a mindful act makes a Buddha of a common man as an unmindful one makes a common man of a Buddha. The awakened state is not necessarily steady or stable. We wake up, and then we fall back asleep. It is perfectly natural.
I've spent the last 30 years working with troubled kids in public schools. It has been instructive. If you want to observe the human mind in its purest, rawest form, kids are perfect. They just can't hide the simplicity of their motives. A kid hurts, and when he hurts he has a tendency to hit somebody. The person he hits hurts and hits back, or he takes it out on somebody else. The consequence is an expanding cycle of psychic pain that is carried into adulthood. Those most affected don't learn the cycle. They just delude themselves and others into thinking their mean attitudes are grand moral principles. We all experience this. When I pick up a newspaper or turn on the computer to catch the news, there is a high probability that I will see something that makes me mad. I read an opinion that threatens and hurts, and I want to hit back with my own opinion.
I began my meditation practice because I was overwhelmed with the constant conflict that is the nature of teaching in public school. Worn down and exhausted, I have awakened many an early morning with my mind on fire with upset. I get up and sit, because God knows I won't be sleeping, and begin shifting my attention from my fevered thinking to my breath and my aching body.
Sitting quietly is an invaluable practice in keeping the mouth shut. There is a river of mean thoughts and the hurt of wanting to hurt someone to make the hurt stop. There is the iron grip of angry, hurt thinking that just magically lets go. There is a relief that is like a fever breaking. I've been through this many times over the last two decades. It is kind of a miracle that makes it possible for me to go back to work with a clear mind and an open heart. One of the positives of working with kids is that the water flows quickly under the bridge. With a kid, you can start each day with a clean slate. Every day, we try to do a bit better, and every day we do. The work has been very difficult, but it has also been a great joy.
I've learned that thoughts are simply thoughts, and meditation is a medicine for infection that is crazy thinking. When you take your medicine, you don't spread the infection any further. The act of turning attention to the breath to soothe the body is very simple. It is not easy. It is a basic human responsibility.
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