In zazen (sitting meditation) one becomes more keenly aware of the content of the mind. Most people do not realize they have a mind. Most people think they are the mind. If you think you are the mind, then it is difficult to work on the mind, because it is difficult to find the place from which to work on it. The thought content will be taken personally.
This thing that is talking within us determines the quality of our life. We are rarely taught to cultivate it—to cultivate happy mental states, gentle mental states, stress-free mental states. We are taught to use the mind to advance our personal situation in the world, and that idea is the work of the devil. It is the devil because it puts us in hell. The idea that we are going to fulfill ourselves as individuals is the gateway to hell, because we cannot fulfill something that is impermanent.
Sometimes when I sit with people, I take on the flavor of their background. Knowing that there are Catholics in the meditation hall, I end up talking about the Bible. And knowing that there are musicians in the meditation hall, I end up talking about the crow crying out during zazen. Musicians may think, “When I hear the bird, I know that I am quiet enough to hear the bird. Usually, I’m too busy.
When I hear the bird, it’s not just that I hear the bird, it’s a sign that my mind is lucid. It’s not so busy that I can’t even hear a bird.” That’s the Bird Bible: “This is how to live. This is how your mind should function.”
Once you think you are going to fulfill yourself as an individual, you lose contact with appreciating that you exist. You lose contact with what a miracle it is to be. You get thrown out of the Garden of Eden and open the gateway to Hell. When sitting in zazen, you are cultivating a relationship to the thinking activity by being aware of it and accepting it as it is. You are not trying to suppress it; you are not trying to do anything other than allow it to flow. That is called water meditation in the sutras. Let the mind flow like a stream, and it will find its own peace.
Everyday life is very different. The mind is needed to decide how we are going to pay our student loans, or whether we are going to Walmart or Target. The mind is needed to do these things, and we cannot just observe it, because we are in it. We cannot just experience it in a detached mood. Nowadays, instead of letting the mind relax, when people have a free moment they play with some technology and do not sink back into themselves. Without sinking back into yourself, you lose track of the fundamental miracle of your existence. You do not appreciate just waking up in the morning. People misuse their minds badly; they get down on themselves, which is one of the strangest things one can do. We divide ourselves into two parts, and one belittles the other. No one explains to you how pointless that is. When you judge yourself, when you get down on yourself, it is no different than using your right hand to punch your left arm.
The mind is dividing itself into two parts—one acting and one judging. And the judge can be pretty severe. Your mind is malfunctioning, and instead of thinking, “Oh, my mind is malfunctioning, I should allow it to relax,” people take a drug or engage in some activity so they can get rid of this tension. Spirituality is cultivating the wisdom of caring for the mind. And if you cannot be forgiving and kind to yourself, you will never be able to forgive anyone else. If you find something in yourself that is unforgivable, how can you forgive that same quality when it shows up in someone else? Impossible. And you will never be truly able to love someone unless you can love yourself.
If you cannot have a sense of humor about what a fool you are, then you are misusing your mind in such a way that it produces suffering. That is why it was said, “The meek shall inherit the Earth.” You should cultivate meekness. To be meek, to have a humble feeling about yourself, is more precious than a BMW and it will bring you more happiness than having a Tesla. To be a peacemaker, to be able to make peace with being yourself, will bring you more happiness than winning a lottery.
To hear a bird and appreciate that you have an organ that can perform this activity gives you greater wealth than trying to find something external to make you happy. If you suddenly discovered that you had millions of dollars left to you by a great uncle, what would you do with that money? Would you try to buy yourself happiness? We might have the thought, “Now I can do everything that I always wanted to do. I can do all the neurotic things that I couldn’t do before,” and then start chasing around like a gerbil on a rotating wheel. Zazen is different—it teaches you that you should learn how to relax and be with this mind you are experiencing. And your life as it is should be relaxed.
Maybe you are jealous of Jeff Bezos. He is the richest man in the world, which means he can get anything he wants from Amazon. But usually, when you can get anything you want from Amazon, it is difficult to be happy about a muffin or bird song. There is not necessarily any connection between happiness and wealth. It is good to have enough money to be able to feed yourself, but there is no proving self-worth. You do not attain some level where you say, “I have done this, and now I am complete.” No, you will never have that experience except for a passing moment. Your completion comes from your gentleness.
When you are doing zazen, you are slowly extricating your consciousness from neurotic mental activity. When you take your seat, your body should be relaxed and comfortable, your mood should be relaxed. Have no resistance to anything that comes up in the mind. No desire to chase away negative thoughts, no desire to push them away. There is no desire to bring in exquisite, beautiful things. Just be indifferent. And in that indifference, you are finding the peace that surpasses all understanding. Born out of that peace, you appear in this world as kindness. This is the true spiritual path, this is what real religion should be—not belief in external gods, or angels. It is the humbling of the heart, allowing the natural lovingkindness and gratitude that is in it to come forth. That should be your religion.
Reprinted here by permission from A Temporary Affair: Talks on Awakening and Zen by Yoshin David Radin, published by Monkfish Book Publishing Company (2022) Rhinebeck New York.