Not So Single-Pointed Philosophical Activity

Meditation, particularly in the tradition of Dōgen, is the paradigm for single-pointed activity. Whether you follow your breath or “just sit,” openly aware of the present moment in its entirety, Dōgen makes clear that you are not to judge whatever arises as good or bad. And when thoughts, images, desires, etc., arise, you let them go and return to the “object” of meditation. In so doing you are contributing to the re-habituation of your mind, getting “better” at letting go of everything that tries to pull you out of awareness of the present moment, letting go of judgments of good/bad, and thereby establish a foundationless foundation of calm in the ever fluxing and flowing waters of experience.

I want to leave aside issues here having to do with the sitting just-to-sit and not sitting so-as-to-achieve-a-future-enlightenment-experience. Rather, I’d like to continue with the theme of my earlier piece on single-pointed activity. That is, leaving aside the problematic nature of speaking of progress in the context of Dōgen’s Zen, the assumption behind continued, regular meditation practice seems to me to be that the more you do it, the better you will become at being present and letting go of what arises, letting go of habitual patterns of judging everything moment to moment in terms of its pleasantness, etc. In other words, the longer you do it, the calmer your mind will become, the less often thoughts will come up unbidden, until there is just the moment in all of its transitory, interdependent oneness.

This then is the ideal for meditation, at least that is the impression that I have come away with over the years (again, disregarding certain complications of the oneness of practice and enlightenment). Importantly, it is the ideal that becomes normative, becomes the standard, for off-the-cushion-activity. In my own experience, when I’m paying attention, I notice that I don’t just rinse off the dishes and put them in the dishwasher, my mind engages in a running commentary on the condition of the dishes, whether the dishwasher will be able to remove that much food, how the day went, what I’ll do later, how so-and-so’s comment was hurtful. When I notice this, I try to let go of and simply focus on what I’m doing, using the dishes, the water, etc., as my “object of meditation.” I hope the reader can see how this directly connects up with the issues I raised in the earlier linked piece. I am coming at them from a different direction this time because I want to elucidate a different aspect of the problem I have with the above description of Buddhist activity.

In the other blog piece I talked about the idea of single-pointedly doing just what one is doing, for example, eating, and not multitasking, not eating and watching tv, but also not eating and reading, eating and talking to others, etc. Just as when you’re on the cushion focusing on your breath, letting go of what arises, not judging it, you focus on each bite of food, slowly chewing, experiencing it fully, not judging the quality of it, the deliciousness of it, just being open to what is, moment to moment.

Here’s my problem and it is not one that pertains to me and my profession only, but the latter is what I know, so I will speak of it, encouraging readers to think of their own experiences . As a philosophy professor (I don’t feel comfortable saying “philosopher” as that’s always struck me as an honorific), my passion is philosophy, which, for me, means passionately engaging certain kinds of texts (one’s I deem philosophical), my daily experiences, and people and their words and lives, with a critical eye. An eye that seeks to understand things “philosophically” (I’m cheating in a way here, because how I would unpack that “philosophically” is really key and not likely to be how others would do it, but ultimately it’s besides the point for my present point). One way to put this is: just as the skillfully-habituated Buddhist experiences each moment in a way that is characterized by presence and non-attachment, characterized by an appreciation/realization of the emptiness of everything, including emptiness, so too does my way of habituated philosophical living mean that I experience each moment with a critical eye, looking for a way below surface meanings, looking for connections and differences, assessing how what I experience fits in with my worldview, etc. When I sit and eat, trying to be mindful of only the food, it is difficult for me in part because my ability to focus is in need of practice (more time on the cushion?) but also because when I sit and eat, not reading, talking with others, or watching tv, then my “philosophical mind” kicks in.

It is, perhaps, a special form of “monkey mind,” that mind that becomes so apparent in meditation when we observe our minds unconsciously flitting from thought to thought, playing a kind of random thought association game. But it is in that free play of thought, that philosophical monkey mind, that I often have insights. Often enough—particularly if I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about Buddhist philosophy and practice—they are important insights about Buddhism and practice. It was at one such meal that I realized, not just thought it but really realized, how one way of thinking about activity in Zen is that whatever you are doing is an end in itself and not a means to some other end. So, if you are buttoning up your shirt, the buttoning is its own end, not just a means to getting dressed and out the door to work. But the issue of philosophical monkey mind arises when I am walking somewhere or even when I am in the shower or brushing my teeth, etc. Whatever I am doing becomes an opportunity for my mind to freely wander the philosophical landscape and is often itself fodder for philosophical thought. I remember (albeit fuzzily) an episode of the Office in which Andy is singing a melody but, I think, Jim cuts him off, but Andy just has to finish the melody as he feels a kind of mental cramp leaving it unfinished. That struck me as a profound moment for some reason and I needed to “play” with it philosophically, and still do.

I hope I have made clear that a solution to the “problem” I am raising for the understanding of Buddhist practice I described above is not to set aside some hours in the day for sitting and “philosophizing.” —Instead of saying, “Hey honey, I’m going to go meditate,” I’d say, “Hey honey, I’m going to go philosophize.” That’s not how it works.

I cannot help but think that this points to an important difference between monastic and lay practice. The highly regulated and ritualized monastic life that Dōgen prescribes strikes me as much more conducive to the stillness of mind that I find so problematic. It’s not just a matter of giving up fame and gain that allows for that, but also the ends of the monastic are quite different from my own, or at least they diverge. I take it that Dōgen’s monastic has as his/her end each and every activity engaged in, but more broadly enlightenment and the compassionate awakening of all others. I share those goals, but I also have many others necessitated by lay living and still others necessitated by my need to engage life philosophically. Is this purported need to engage life philosophically in tension with the Buddha’s refusing to answer certain metaphysical questions about the universe and the self? Am I like the one who refuses to be treated for my wound until I know a myriad of details about my assailant? Perhaps.

Yesterday, in the midst of ruminating on these issues, I felt a visceral resistance to Buddhism, or, better, my conception of Buddhism. My being was deeply wedged between the choice of Buddhism as single-pointed, commentary-less, non-ruminating activity and living a philosophically engaged life. But then something broke or released or opened up. In part this was from remembering that I have read of highly skillful Buddhists who say that no matter how long they meditate, and regardless of the fact that they have been doing it for years, their minds are never really still. What is key, rather, is the ability to let go and not get caught up in the turbulence. Their practice embodies emptiness, their minds embody presence and awareness, deep insight, but not necessarily placidity.

This reminds me that one obstacle to skillful practice is our conceptions of things. (As an aside, it is our conceptions not our concepts that cause problems for practice—alas, it seems that most folks writing about these issues confuse the two.) Dōgen writes in “Only a Buddha and a Buddha”:

When you realize buddha dharma, you do not think, “This is realization just as I expected it.” Even if you think so, realization inevitably differs from your expectation. Realization is not like your conception of it. Accordingly, realization cannot take place as previously conceived. When you realize buddha dharma, you do not consider how realization came about. Reflect on this: what you think one way or another before realization is not a help for realization. (Tanahashi 2012, 866)

This passage is not so simple, but I take it that among other things it is directing us away from our conceptions of enlightenment. We read this, hear a Dharma Talk and think that, we then experience this and that in meditation, and we develop a conception of what enlightenment must look like, what it must mean. This may well trap us in delusion, Dōgen warns.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but think that the ruminative nature of the philosophical life requires too much free play, too much allowing oneself to disconnect from the present activity to chew on life, to be very Zen—at least at times. That is, there are skillful and less-than-skillful ways of “living philosophically.” For example, there are clearly times in which I am not feeling very philosophically engaged. Those are times to practice deeper presence and awareness of my activities, whether tying my shoes, fixing breakfast, taking a shower, etc. And there is a big difference between eating and letting loose the philosophical monkey and eating and engaging in gossip or watching tv. The difficulty for practice seems to lie in having to navigate the when and where of the balance between ruminating and letting go of whatever arises so as to realize, in some more significant sense, undivided activity.

There is a further complication that I will leave aside until next time, but it is this: In engaging in philosophy, or some other intensive, creative work, might there not be times in which the requisite progress/“progress” can only be achieved through a kind of burning attachment to the “problem” at hand and its resolution? And this, of course, brings us to the tension I see between a kind of Nietzschean (Dionysian) engagement with life and that of the homeless Zen monk, Ryōkan, living in poverty and isolation, coming down the mountain to play with the children and beg for food, eschewing in all things, name and gain.

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