A Morning Mind Essay

When you first sit zazen you simply are your thoughts; they occupy the whole of your mind. They’re so loud! But as time goes on they quiet down a bit, and diminish in intensity. They don’t seem as frantic.

They couldn’t occupy the whole of your mind, when you think of it. Something was watching them, though they seemed right up against it. That thing must be part of your mind. As your thoughts quiet down, and you get some distance from them, you begin to notice how repetitive they are. Also how utterly banal. You realize, to your chagrin, that most of your thoughts originate in something your parents said in 1954 (or Timothy Leary in 1963). You’re so boring.

And you actually believe this shit. For years when I first meditated, probably every day for the first ten years, I had some variation of the thought, I don’t make enough money. It was one of my most cherished beliefs. I’ve generally lived as a writer, and it’s true I haven’t made a fortune. But one day I thought, enough money for what? I haven’t missed a meal for ten years. (I haven’t missed a meal in my whole life.) I do virtually everything I want (partly because I don’t want all that much). I have a wonderful life. What’s the problem?1

As various teachers have pointed out, your thoughts all come from the past. Even when they’re supposedly about the future, they come from the past. They also comprise the self. Your self is composed of the various thoughts you have about yourself. If your self isn’t that, what is it? Think about it (since you’re doing so much thinking already).

Thoughts like: I don’t make enough money, I really like to have sex, I need to lose a few pounds (and always have needed to, and always will).2 Those things create what you regard as your self. Other people (your wife in particular) have other thoughts about you. To them those thoughts are your self, though they might be in complete contradiction to yours (except the one about needing to lose weight). You think your self is one thing; your wife thinks it’s another.

It’s no wonder the Buddha said the self doesn’t exist, if it’s just a bunch of thoughts. J.P. Sartre would have agreed. It’s a shame they couldn’t have met!

After a while3 you begin to notice that something else is going on while you sit. Physical sensations. Often initial instructions in sitting try to bring your attention to them by having you focus on the breathing. At first that seems impossible (what breathing? Somebody’s breathing? My God, it’s noisy in here) but at some point you start to notice it. That would probably happen even without the instruction, because, as a physical sensation, the breathing is so obvious. It’s overwhelming.

Other things are going on as well, subtle feelings of energy, shifts in the internal organs, pains and feelings of pleasure. Often it is astonishing to notice all that is going on in the body, and has apparently been going on for your whole life. So absorbed were you by your thoughts that you didn’t even notice.

When we first meditate, our physical sensations seem to be a distraction from our fascinating thoughts (which will soon reveal themselves as hideously banal). Oh my God! I’ve got a pain in my knee! I can’t meditate anymore!4 But after a while (see footnote 3) we’ve seen our thoughts a million times, they’ve become dreadfully boring, and we begin to notice that our physical sensations are constantly new, quite distinct, and endlessly fascinating. They’re happening now! we notice, in contrast to our thoughts, which happen now but come out of the past. Sensations are constantly different, and they’re unpredictable. In theory you would think they’d be boring, but in reality they’re endlessly fascinating. You’re like those Sixties hippies who took LSD and sat there staring at a flower, smiling goofily. Oh, wow.

At least one teacher5 describes enlightenment as “the liberation of the senses from the control of the mind.” Just watching your sensations, letting your thoughts go, seems quite blissful.

But isn’t there something beyond that? This is a place where sitting (or maybe it’s reality) gets hard to talk about: the harder we look, the more mysterious it seems. On the one hand, our experience seems to be composed entirely of thoughts and physical sensations. The birds are singing, but we know that through a physical sensation. The day is warm: that too (combined perhaps with an idea). We feel the sun on our skin; that’s the sensation. Then we have a thought, Holy shit, it’s hot today.6

But there is something else, all that stuff out there that is causing the sensations. What do you call that: the world, reality, existence? The great 13th century master Eihei Dogen said to drop body and mind, which sounds like you’re dropping sensations and thoughts, but if we do that, what will be left? Dogen’s translator and interpreter Gudo Nishijima says, “Reality exists, transcending thoughts and sense perceptions,” but if we transcend sense perceptions, how do we perceive reality? With what?

When we hear the bird, is the sound inside or outside? The sound takes place when the vibrations hit the timpani of the eardrum, I think that’s what it’s called, so the sound must be inside. Where is the bird? Outside, I guess, except your vision of the bird occurs when the image strikes the ocular membrane, or some fucking thing7. That’s inside. You get to a point where it seems everything is inside.

Is reality inside you, or are you inside reality? Are you a part of things, or are they a part of you? If there’s no such thing as inside or outside—and it’s starting to look that way—then you have no boundaries. If you have no boundaries, where are you? Are you reality? Is reality you? Where do you begin and reality end? If there’s no such thing as you, is there such a thing as reality? Where?

In a ceremony at the end of sesshin, I asked my teacher, what is reality? And she said, what isn’t reality? I said, how do you find it? She said, open your eyes.

Can’t do that, I’m afraid. I’d be using a sense perception.

But if I am reality, why do I have to perceive it? Why can’t I just be it?

I’ll have to try that.


1 There is a spiritual teacher, and supposedly enlightened being, named Byron Katie, and her whole method is to have you ask questions about your thoughts. The first question is, Is it true? The second: is it deeply true? I don’t remember the others, but those are two pretty good questions. Also, the act of asking questions gives you more distance from your thoughts.

2 Is it true? Is it deeply true? Say it ain’t so, Byron Katie.

3 By the words “after a while,” throughout this essay, I am referring to a period of several decades.

4 I’ve noticed that for some reason I’m using an extraordinary number of exclamation points in this essay, like a fifteen year old girl writing to one of her friends.

5Sri Bhagavan, also known as Kalki Bhagavan, Sri Kalki Bhagavan, Mukteshwar, and (some time ago) Vijay Kumar. He worked as a clerk for an insurance company before donning the robes of a spiritual teacher. Despite these various incarnations, I find his YouTube video “What is Enlightenment?” to be extremely, well, enlightening. He is married to “Amma” Padmavati, who has hugged more people than anyone else on the face of the earth. Let’s hope Sri isn’t a jealous man.

6 Which can continue into a series of thoughts. “It was hot yesterday too. It’s been hot every day this week. It seems a lot hotter than it used to be. Must be that global warming. My God, we’re doomed!

7 Look it up on the Internet.