Bart: What is the mind? Is it just a system of impulses or is it something tangible?
Homer: Relax. What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.
We all have bloody thoughts.
Sunk in a morass of thought, we carve out channels into which our emotions and actions cannot help but flow. We follow this endless swell out to sea, until we can no longer find the other shore, and at the mercy of mysterious undercurrents. Out of this inner infinity, vast revelations unfold and arise; shadows of thought fall upon our minds. Their tendrils snake into actuality, as we mistake them for something that demands expression.
Our inner lives trouble us to no end. When we finally begin to crack ourselves open, we begin to remember what we have forgotten. Our anxiety only increases. Something stirs in the bottom of our soul and uncoils into the light. The endless dialogue of the self intensifies, disturbing images and thoughts bubbling up from the subterranean depths. Only when we have examined this vast complex for ourselves and immersed ourselves wholly in the miasma of our own thought can we begin to fully undermine the foundations propping up this self/edifice. We have denied our inherent freedom, lost in our own convolutions.
The first koan in the collection Entangling Vines is the penetrating insight of Bodhidharma and his sword of wisdom, entitled Pacifying the Mind of the Second Patriarch:
Huike, the Second Patriarch, said to Bodhidharma, ‘My mind is not yet at rest. Master, I implore you, set my mind to rest.’
The master replied, ‘Bring your mind here and I’ll set it to rest for you.’
Huike said, “I’ve searched for my mind, but am unable to find it.’
‘There,’ said the master. ‘I’ve set your mind to rest.’
Our minds are chaotic and unpredictable, spinning out ley lines of interpretation and conjecture. When we begin a meditative practice, we might feel that to master meditation, we must always quiet the rippling and cascading from within, until our minds are as quiet and open as a winter field. This tendency is still symptomatic of a much deeper problem of the denial of our fundamental truth. The rejection of that experience can be subsumed into even the most spiritual practice, as we attempt to deny our own lives in the service of perceived “higher-order” concepts.
To me, the crux of this matter is to go into the nature of the discursive mind. This is the mind that is always ready to frame a situation in a particular way. This happens so regularly that we have identified wholly with the products of this conceptual mind. We react to our current situation with loathing, wishing to pull ourselves into another experience. The creativity of this mind is always exploring, pulling the novel out of the depths. This is an expression of our innate intelligence, and the basis for some of our deepest discoveries about ourselves.
We have framed this highly creative mind as a problem, and we are disturbed by what we find there, the realization that we are not who we thought ourselves to be. We implore a Master to still the multitude, to let us know peace from thought. The master allows us to inquire into what it is we have defined as “mind” and how we are actively interpreting this situation as a negative. Rather than a mere surface reorganization of thinking, the master pushes us to go deeper. We examine the space from which thought emerges and look without flinching into the abyss. Part of this process is the realization of our own vastness. New aspects of our subjective experience unfurl until we have encountered our personal spectrum of light and dark.
For our willingness to experience whatever thoughts arise signals a radical overturning. This is a desire to build our life on the rock of the present moment, whatever that moment may hold in store.
As the World Honored One was walking with the congregation, he pointed to the ground with his finger and said, ‘This spot is good to build a sanctuary.’
Indra, Emperor of the gods, took a blade of grass, stuck it in the ground, and said, ‘The sanctuary is built.’
The World Honored One smiled.
Expanding our awareness out of the endless churn of thought, we begin to see how thought arrives on its own volition. It constantly frames experience in certain ways. We often reject these thoughts completely, shifting the problem onto others or onto the thoughts themselves. This arising is always free and simply as it is, with our insistence on defining this situation as problematic. We feel the need to be liberated from this unlimited course, when liberation is always with us.
This can be observed in our meditative practice by allowing our ruminations to exist on their own terms. Even without our input, the mind is often a hub of unceasing activity, as opinions interlock into new forms. When we drop our attitudes of understanding the diverse chatter of our own minds as a problem, a door to the present, “the gateless gate,” begins to open. Our experience and body are the key and the lock, widening the cracks and letting us breathe into and through our own constructions.
For this aspect of practice is simply to examine and point to our own mind, and the pathway to freedom is firmly grounded and expressed in our own experience. The desire to quiet the mind and to be liberated from it begin to dissolve the more we shift towards understanding these thoughts on their own terms. This includes and honors thought, but goes further in ways that thought cannot encapsulate.
Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, ‘What is the Way?’ Nanquan said, ‘Ordinary mind is the Way.’
Zhaozhou said, “Shall I try to direct myself toward it?’
Nanquan said, ‘If you try to direct yourself towards it, you will move away from it.’
Zhaozhou said, ‘If I don’t try, how will I know it’s the Way?’
Nanquan said, ‘The way is not concerned with knowing or not knowing. Knowing is illusion, now knowing is blank consciousness. If you truly arrive at the Great Way of no trying, it will be like great emptiness, vast and clear. How can we speak of it in terms of affirming or negating?’
Zhaozhou immediately realized the profound teaching.
And from Entangling Vines:
Yunmen said, ‘How vast the world is! So why do you put on your vestment at the sound of the bell?’
We have set certain limitations on experience, turning them into absolutes, and obeying our own blind programming. Your mind is originally pacified, and you are intrinsically free in the present. To see this is to see yourself, and your own mind, “set out in array.” This mind is entwined with and is an expression of this basis of all life.