Skip to main content

Suffering and Renewal

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 01/30/2008
In Topics: Emotion

Zoketsu discusses the five hindrances, especially fear and anger, and in general, working with strong emotions.

Talk on Suffering and Renewal

(Transcribed and Abridged by Barbara Byrum)

The world is very difficult, very confusing, and we are lucky to be able to take a day and sit down in the middle of this difficult and confusing world. What a simple thing to sit down and breathe. Nothing particularly deep or spiritual about it. Just sit there. And yet, I think that everyone here knows that in a subtle way, over time, this simple sitting really does change our lives. As I was saying this morning, and I have been thinking a lot about this lately, one way to understand our sitting is to recognize that through our sitting we are meeting another person; that is, a much larger person that is sitting on the cushion with us, a person who is not exactly different from you and I, but is also not exactly the same as you and I. And as we sit, letting things come as they must, there is no way that we can stop them, but also being willing to let things go. Just the process of sitting like that will help us to discover this person. And then as we continue with our lives, little by little we find a way to allow this person to act through us, through our lives, and then we see that it is possible to let go of fear and anxiety and just trust this person. Trust the deep wisdom of our own lives that is deeper than we are consciously aware of.

I am sure that many times I have mentioned the story of Tōsan who is asked who is working so hard, “Why are you working so hard?” And he says, “I do it on behalf of another.” And the monk says, “Why doesn’t he do it himself?” And Tozan says, “He has no tools.” So sitting this way as the years go by, we begin to see our life as a tool of this larger person, and to feel more and more that the source of our happiness is how well we use our lives on behalf of that person.

There is another story that you all know of Daowu and Yunyan. Yunyan is sweeping the floor, and Daowu says, “Too busy.” And Yunyan says, “You should know that there is one who is not busy.” Daowu says, “Oh you mean that there are two moons?” And Yunyan holds up his broom and says, “Which moon is this?”

This is another story that points to the person I am speaking about, the person who is not busy ever, who is always willing and able to accept what is, not matter how difficult and atrocious it may be. The person who is present in our lives even when we are too busy, even when we are suffering too much, even when we are too confused. We keep on sitting and our confidence in this person grows, and we understand that there aren’t two moons, that the person is nowhere else but right here where we are, and little by little we trust that as the true guardian of our lives.

In classical Buddhism there is a really useful discussion of meditation practice in terms of the hindrance to meditation practice. It is the Five Hindrances. And so we sit and notice these Five Hindrances coming up and we work with them. We use the Five Hindrances as they arise as the path towards calming ourselves and clarifying ourselves on the cushion. So the five hindrances are: attachment/aversion, one and two; laziness/excitement three and four; and doubt. Laziness is often translated sloth and torpor. Very graphic. Sometimes they translate excitement as “flurry and worry.” I have noted over that years that excitement, exciting, is a very popular word in our current culture. People say, “Boy, that was exciting!” And they mean this in a positive light, “That’s exciting! You got a new job? That’s exciting.” Interesting. Anyway, these are five hindrances or faults that will arise.

So I will say a little about each of them. Attachment: you are sitting and a thought arises and you are hooked, you grab hold of it, you make more of it. You use one thought to manufacture more thoughts more feelings more sensations. So that is attachment. As you notice that happening, as of course it does happen, it’s normal. You notice that happening you recognize it for what it is attachment and come back to the breath. That’s why the breath is a really great device because it is always there, ongoing, no matter where your mind is, your breath is still going on! So you notice that and come back to the breath and gently open up and open up the hand of thought and let go of that thought or sensation.

Sometimes it is the opposite; the fault is aversion and you are sitting there and you notice that you are averting from a thought or sensation in the body or you are dimly aware of some thought or feeling and this is harder to see because aversion often covers up the thought or feeling completely, but while you are sitting there, you notice and sometimes it’s physical, you notice through the physical sensations that you are averting from. Sometimes you are sitting on your cushion and actually trying to escape yourself like this. Sometimes behind that physical sensation is a feeling that you’re averting from, and when you feel that, when you feel tightness or a sense of being blocked in your sitting, then again you can use the breath to soften and go toward that place in the body or in the heart, using the breath to guide you and soften so that you don’t have to flinch and glance away. These two things, attachment and aversion are quite connected to one another because you sometimes use attachment as a way of coping with your aversion. In other words, if there is something that I don’t want to think about, look at, or be aware of, so I want to be attached to this other thing and get obsessed about it so that I don’t like even have to notice that I am averting from something else, so these two are quite connected to each other.

And then there is laziness. Sometimes we all work hard and are tired and we might sit in meditation and get sleepy, but sometimes you notice that you got a good night’s sleep and in fact I was feeling really perky until I sat down in meditation, and as soon as I sat down in meditation, I started snoozing and my mind became dull. Then maybe laziness or sleepiness or sloth or torpor becomes a way that the body copes with aversion. So that’s why you get sleepy. So you have to counteract just as you counteract attachment with letting go and you counteract aversion by turning toward, you counteract laziness by trying to bring up your energy, opening your eyes wider, noticing the light in the room and trying to make it more bright. That’s when it is a good time to introduce other practices to wake you up, like chanting something, like chant the sutra. To yourself or take up Tonglen practice. Many times I have talked about ways of practicing that you can do that you can engage the mind more, the discriminating mind, to bring up the energy. If none of that works, you can stand up and meditate, and then if you fall asleep, you will fall over and smack your head against the wall and you will have an incentive not to do that. Anytime anyone who is too sleepy in zazen can just stand up. You can stand up in front of your seat and meditate, and that will keep you awake.

Of course, with all these hindrances there are times when nothing works at all. Then you just practice endurance, patient endurance with an impossible situation that nothing you can do can correct. That happens too.

Excitement is when the mind is agitated. You can’t sit still. The mind won’t stop. So being with every breath, clarifying with every breath, is calming. It’s a good way to counteract excitement, or flurry and worry.

If you are doubtful in this case, it means that you are not applying the practice. So doubt is a hindrance in that instance if you see that you are sitting on your cushion and are not making any effort. So this is doubt. You make a commitment to yourself in the beginning or in the middle of the period to apply the practices and pay attention to your mind.

So this is one way to look at meditation practice. We don’t have to reify the five hindrances and make too big a deal out of them and we each have our own way of working in our meditation, but it is kind of instructive to sometimes hear about the five hindrances and tone up our meditation practice. I’ve spoken about that before I am sure.

But the reason I am bringing them up now is that I thought that each one of us could develop a life list – birders, people who do bird watching make a life list of all the birds they’ve seen – we can start each one of us developing our life list of your hindrances. What are your favorite hindrances? You should know, and now I am talking about not on your meditation cushion but in your life, when you get up from your meditation cushion. What are your five, or ten or twenty hindrances that knock you off your seat, that make you confused, that make you flail around and create more suffering for yourselves? I am working on my favorites; we all have different ones, we all have different ways because of our karma and personalities. What is a hindrance for one person is a breeze for the next person. But for the other person it is a big problem.

I thought about two favorite hindrances that I will speak about today as a starter, and if you have any of these hindrances, you have a head start, and if these are not yours, then you have to start from zero!

The first hindrance is getting swept away by emotion, especially fear or anger. Very popular hindrance. The second one is the feeling that we have to be right or the feeling that we have to be in control and in charge of what is going on. So I would like to discuss a little bit these two hindrances and tell you some of the ways I thought we could work with them.

So, swept away by fear and anger. That’s really a good way of looking at it – swept away- because that’s what happens, you get swept away. Fear and anger are really powerful emotions, and we have to humbly recognize that any time they have the power to sweep us away and take us over pretty completely. These are compelling, highly realistic feelings. When we have these feelings, we really believe in it. It is hard to have perspective, and we become reactive before we even know what we are doing. We are speaking and acting out of this very compelling feeling of anger or fear. We have a lot of complicated relationship to those emotions. We are afraid of the very emotions, so we avert from the emotions. And the aversion to fear actually is so strong that mostly we don’t allow ourselves to feel it and mostly that’s where anger comes from. Not wanting to feel the uncomfortable feeling of fear, we feel the feeling of anger. And then we are lashing out at someone, and instead of cowering in the corner with fear, we lash out at someone, and sometimes the best person to lash out at is ourselves. That’s a very popular form of – self anger which can not necessarily be furious but insidious in wearing down the soul as we constantly generate critical anger, criticism of ourselves as a way of not facing our deepest fears. And then if we are mad at somebody else, we are agitated and run around doing things about that, avoiding our fear, avoiding our tremendous vulnerability. A human being is a very vulnerable creature; in fact, that is probably the definition of a human being: a radically vulnerable creature and a creature that understands on a certain level that he or she is radically vulnerable. This is probably the working definition. It is much better than a “featherless biped!” It’s a working definition of a human being.

But we don’t want to, it’s too much to recognize that. And we are swept away with other emotions. So, anyway, that is what happens, I think. It is pretty normal actually. It turns out that various forms of insanity are normal. That’s actually the truth, you know! Like most governments, I was thinking the other day, are basically insane. You know, because they are in this little bubble, they create this little mode of discourse with the world that has very little to do – I mean all governments – have very little to do with the way the world is. And then they are operating on the basis of this very distorted view. And this is not restricted only to governments.

So what I am saying is that we are often overcome by a really crazy energy in our lives, and this is not at all unusual or rare. So we better have a way of recognizing and practicing with it. So how would we do that? Well, one thing is that maybe we would begin by understanding these powerful emotions of fear and anger as path. When we see fear and anger we should think, “This is my path. This is my practice. This is the way I need to go.” So, before we get swept away to try to realize that now I am feeling fear and now I am feeling anger. Label it and name it and see it as a path. To stay with it closely and to study it. How does it feel to be afraid? How does it feel to be angry? How does it feel in the body? How does it feel in the mind? How does it affect the thoughts? One could actually literally in a simple minded way practice, you know, saying to oneself in the face of this emotion, “This is anger. Anger is not myself. This is fear. Fear is not myself.” You could practice that thought yoga as a way of being close to the anger and not allowing it to sweep you away. Or the fear.

And the next way of working on fear or anger or other strong emotions is to work in a way that we have been working today. Just to sit on our cushions and breathe and establish that little bit of extra spaciousness in our lives helps because you can’t really see fear and anger as a practice, you can’t really name it and study it unless you have some choice in the matter, where you have a little bit of that extra space to say that I am going to relate to it in this way and not that way. Because most of the time it sweeps us away so quickly that we don’t have a choice, but when we work on our meditation practice, when we sit on our meditation cushions, and come to see our lives on the cushion as part of our life all the time, we are creating, it might not be so noticeable, but we are creating that little bit of space, our consciousness, our emotions, just a little bit more pliant, so that they are not so intractable, so impacted as they were before, maybe for a long time. I think of sitting as kneading our consciousness as you knead bread. You knead it. You keep manipulating it somehow, it changes the texture of it, it makes it more pliant and more smooth. When practicing meditation this happens, and then we have that little space, choice, and have the capacity to say that I won’t be swept away. The emotion is there and I can’t make it go away, but instead of being reactive and swept away, I can begin to make the emotion a pathway for myself. And then one sees the extent to which finding reasons for and blaming are the most popular productions of strong emotions. You have a big, strong emotion right away you are trying to figure out where that came from and who is to blame. Much better than feeling the emotion. I don’t want to feel afraid, I don’t want to feel angry, but I do want to figure out who made me feel this way and assign blame, and like I say, whether we blame ourselves or someone else is quite immaterial. It’s maybe more insidious when we blame ourselves, but blaming another person is really just the same thing as blaming ourselves. Sometimes it is not ourself or someone else, it is just this rotten world. This world sucks; that’s the problem. That’s why I have fear and anger and these powerful emotions.

So blaming and assigning reasons, this may be an oversimplification, but I think that it is the truth that you can always assume that these things are cover ups. Counterproductive. So a way of practicing with powerful emotions is to train to stop yourself from being fooled by blaming, and return to your actual feelings. Take a step back and see what you are feeling instead of trying to look outside and blaming – even if they are at fault. It has nothing to do with who is at fault or not, because it makes no difference, because when you are overcome by an emotion, that’s the reality and that’s your responsibility. Don’t be fooled by your ideas of right or wrong. That’s how we justify our blaming. Because he’s wrong! Not to say that wrong is irrelevant, but most of the time right and wrong is a kind of smokescreen for our passions.

And finally then, when you have a powerful emotion, I mean , I wish you could write all this down, take it home and do it, and then you’d say, “What do you know? I am no longer troubled by powerful emotions. This is great! ” Unfortunately, that will not be the case. You can listen to all this and try to put it in practice and you will still suffer from being overcome by powerful emotions for quite a long time, so then you have to have the practice of patience and forbearance. Train yourself just to be able to be there. And recognize that there are all these stories of spiritual transformation, blah, blah, blah, and this is great, I believe in it, but when it really comes down to it, there are no quick fixes, and when the conditions are ripe for anger and fear, anger and fear will be there. I don’t care how many brilliant, enlightenment experiences you had, if strong enough conditions are there, you will feel them. So we all need a way of coping with that, and forbear with them. In fact, our brilliant spiritual practice can itself can be an excuse for a failure to really skillfully deal with these emotions and to forbear with them.

So that is a little bit about my first favorite hindrance and applying the practice to daily life, being swept away by emotions.

Then the next one is our endless desire to want to be right and to have everything under control. Now, if you reflect on your sitting practice, just today, for instance, if you are sitting today, probably would agree that trying to control your mind does not work that well. Actually, when you decide that my mind is going to go this way, usually it goes the other way, and actually it’s not very skillful to try to control your mind. The more you try to control your mind, the more you are controlled. On the other hand, the more you let go and accept and allow, the more you are free. What is interesting about life is not about how often one is right, this is not the interesting thing about life, what’s interesting about life is that you grow. There is an endless possibility to learn about yourself and about life. And when you insist upon being right and insist upon being in control, you don’t learn much because you are not open to what else is happening. In your relationship, in your work, in dharma practice itself being open to the possibilities and always letting go, not trying to control is really the way. One learns not by thinking that one knows, but by recognizing that you don’t know. That’s when a new thought comes into your mind. Learning comes from not knowing, not from controlling, being willing to risk being wrong, being willing to be surprised. A mind that is willing and open is a mind that can learn.

And this is how we practice on your cushions, breathing into open space, and we’re all, although we might not feel this way, the truth is that we are all in a cooperative relationship, with all of the reality around us. In other words, it is not up to us to control things and bring about outcomes. We make effort, but we make effort in cooperation with other people and the world at large. When you know that you don’t feel the need to control and make everything go your way. It’s actually more interesting to find out what we happen. So one makes effort, sincere, strong effort with the feeling of openness, “What will happen?”

So, a short discussion. You may have such hindrances also. You may have your own. It would be interesting to keep your list of hindrances