Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Resolution: To Give Up More

long time - long time

forget peripheral things / involvements

On his blog One Foot in Front of the Other, a bodhisattva who goes by the name of Michael Thaler, or ohenro-san, is describing what it really is to give up everything.

Michael's account of his journey is an inspiration to understand more deeply what sitting-zen truly is.

Master Dogen wrote: "Taking plenty of time to forget peripheral things, naturally to become one piece: this is the vital art of sitting-zen."

Forgetting peripheral things, or forgetting involvements (EN O BOJIRU in Japanese), is also a kind of giving up.

I am not ready yet for the kind of giving up that Michael Thaler is describing, the giving up of everything.

But still I can practise giving up in my limited way. And, as I have promised Michael already, not forgetting his example, I will continue to practise giving up in my limited way, come what may. I can practise it by sitting in the lotus posture, as follows:

Firstly, I can give up the idea of becoming something or being somebody; I can give up the idea of being -- don't laugh -- a great teacher who can teach everybody everything. The most relevant line in Fukan-zazengi might be TOSABUTSU KOTO NAKARE, "Don't try to become a buddha!"

Secondly, in wishing to come undone, I can give up the idea of doing an undoing. The most relevant line in Fukan-zazengi might be MIMI TO KATA TO TAISHI, HANA TO HESO TO TAISE SHIMEN KOTO O YOSU, "It is vital to cause the ears vs the shoulders, and the nose vs the navel, to oppose each other." The problem of how to bring about that separation -- that lengthening release of unduly contracted and shortened muscles, that coming apart, coming unglued, coming undone -- was a core problem addressed by FM Alexander. FM Alexander clarified for his niece Marjory Barlow, and Marjory made it crystal clear to me, that we cannot do an undoing. But knowing intellectually that an idea is false, is not the same as truly giving it up. It only takes one Alexander lesson to understand intellectually the principle of directing, not doing. To truly and completely give up the idea, however, that I might be able to help the undoing process along with a bit of doing: that requires great patience. It may involve a growing acceptance of one's own fraudulence. By fraudulence I mean a self-deluding tendency to believe one is following one course, when one is actually following another course altogether.

Thirdly, I may be able to somersault from thinking into action, by giving up the idea of joining hands and bowing.

Master Dogen's revised instructions include the words KANKI ISSOKU SHI, lit. "Lack breath/vital-energy for one breath." This is not an instruction to take a deep breath -- it is an instruction to exhale fully, to expire. The earlier instructions just say IKI MO MATA TOTONOE, "let the breath also be regulated." My response to these instructions, over the years, has gradually evolved into the following modus operandi: I decide that I am going to join hands and bow, and at the same time I give up the idea of doing so. Instead of going directly for the end of joining hands and bowing, I come back to the instruction of causing the separation between ears and shoulders, and between nose and navel. If I have really given up the idea of joining hands and bowing, and also really and truly and totally given up the idea of doing anything to force ears and shoulders et cetera to release apart, a deep breath sometimes does itself. If there is no deep breath, I renew, with more serious determination (the kind of determination I learned in the martial arts) my decision to join hands and bow, while again giving up the idea of doing so. Eventually, a spontaneous deep inflow of breath takes place. When this happens, I join hands and bow while at the same time exhaling fully. Then I sway left and right. Then I stop where I feel (rightly or wrongly) the middle is, and endeavour to sit still without fixing.

The key to success in all the above is the giving up of an idea. First to give up the idea of being anything, then to give up the idea of doing anything to come undone, and then to give up the idea of joining hands and bowing.... and yet to join hands and bow.

The trick, in short, is to totally and utterly give up the idea of doing something, and thereby to let it do itself.

I first got this point 30 years ago in the context of competition karate, when I realized to my own astonishment that even as a novice with only one weapon in my armoury -- namely, a reverse counter punch -- I was able to beat experienced black belts.

Actually, I didn't get the point. The point got me. The point picked me up like a tsunami and beached me in bloody Japan; then it picked me up again and deposited me in a soulless but relatively safe haven called Aylesbury, on the outer edge of London's commuter belt, where I did three years of Alexander teacher training and then got stuck waiting for my sons to finish their education at the local grammar school.

After 30 years of trying to grasp the point, if the truth be told, I still haven't got it.

Even as I write, somewhere within me still lurks the idea that if I were to truly and completely give up the idea of trying to get it, I might thereby really get it, and thereby become -- don't laugh -- a great teacher who could teach everybody everything.

To give up everything, as Michael describes on his blog, is no easy thing. Even to give up a last little vestige of an old idea that put us wrong, is no easy thing. But if even the slightest trace of the old idea refuses to be given up, the truth of non-doing is turned into its dialectic opposite, and a deep breath does not come.

The non-advent of a deep breath, truly, is something to be grateful for. My restricted breathing lets me know that there is something for me to give up.

After something is given up, and a deep breath spontaneously comes, then one is truly free to expire.

It is never the point to be tempted by supposed short-cuts like breath counting or abdominal breathing. These are not short-cuts to anywhere; they are tainted, end-gaining approaches, geared to short-term results. Giving up takes time.

Michael, I shall join hands and bow to you. But not for the time being. If I truly give up the idea, a deep breath will come spontaneously.


Blogger gniz said...

You said: "It is never the point to be tempted by supposed short-cuts like breath counting or abdominal breathing."

As someone who practices a method similar to what is stated above, I can only say that I dont think there's such a thing as a shortcut.

You dont have to believe that there are different ways to hold a guitar pick, different ways to do math, different methods to perform the same surgery.

But that doesnt mean there arent.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Hi Aaron,

To the extent that you object to me pontificating about how you should practise, I accept your objection. The idea that I am here to teach anybody anything is just the idea that I am requiring myself to give up. I am not your teacher and you are not my student. You are right about that.

On the other hand, Master Dogen wrote that counting the breaths, as practiced in small-vehicle mindfulness meditation, was "tainted."

For many years I didn't understand exactly what Master Dogen meant by "tainted." But in recent years I have found FM Alexander's distinction between end-gaining and means-whereby very useful.

According to Alexander, end-gaining methods involve going for a result directly and unconsciously. The opposite conception is consciously to give up the idea of getting a result, and instead to allow a process that will lead to the result indirectly.

The more clearly one understands the distinction, the more disgusting the greedily grasping end-gainer appears -- particularly as he usually hides his own end-gaining even from himself.

Now, I wonder: why am I holding my breath?

3:58 PM  
Blogger gniz said...


History is filled with people who think there is only "one right way" to do any number of things.

In fact, it would seem to me that your own teacher, Gudo, might just be one of those "one right way" people.

Many of those people who believe in just one right way, are masters at what they do.

This doesnt mean they are correct in every regard.

For instance, a great karate instructor might tell you there is only "one way" to throw a punch. Well, is there?

4:23 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Hi Aaron,

In general, when we get an idea to do something, there is only one way for us to respond: our habitual way.

But if we are able to give up our idea, or "inhibit the desire to gain the end" in Alexander jargon, then any number of responses become possible.

Talking of karate, it may be pertinent that experienced fighters often find it easier to fight less experienced fighters than to fight complete novices. The main reason, I think, is that the beheaviour of less experienced fighters is more predictable, whereas beginners are liable to do anything.

So if I were your teacher, which we both agree I am definitely not, I might recommend you to investigate what kind of freedom a beginner has, and what kind of rigidity a person who is no longer a beginner has.

But I wouldn't dare recommend that to you directly, lest it might spoil your Happy New Year.

4:39 PM  
Blogger gniz said...

Mike, you are my teacher...sometimes.

Other times, I consider you to know far less than me.

And maybe thats when I learn the most.

If you think that I sound like I "know" something...believe me, I know I'm full of shit.

When i sit down to breathe and relax, I do not sit around and pontificate on my own wisdom.

I try to simply be with my life, in as relaxed and balanced a way as possible.

That i do not intellectualize it in exactly the same way as you, is not my fault.

I'm happy for the differences.

4:48 PM  
Blogger gniz said...

I do want to go back to your comment about more experienced fighters having trouble with novices.

In general orthodox fighters, even very skilled ones, can experience difficulty when facing someone who is unpredictable.

The beginner has freedom, but ultimately they lack skill and technique. So while it may seem 'easier' to fight a more orthodox opponent, i think the complete beginner will almost always lose to the more experienced fighter.

There is freedom in understanding that no technique is ever complete or total. No understanding is ever complete and total.

So if I were to twist your example to my own ends (which I will)--I'd say that appreciating technique is different than being RULED by technique.

The fighter that says "my way is the only right way" is a fighter who has stopped learning and is becoming inflexible.

The flexible fighter will adjust, whereas the experienced, rigid fighter, will be in disbelief that this "novice" is giving him so much trouble.

Both the rigid fighter and the flexible fighter will likely beat the novice.

However, if those two fighters faced one another, and are of equal abilities, the winner will be the one who can adjust.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Hi Aaron,

"I try to simply be", I am sorry to say, are the words of a total wanker.

Believe me, I know what I am talking about.

When I used to get on the no. 91 bus to go to the posh school in Birmingham, King Edwards School, in the 1970s, I wanted nothing more than to be "normal," to be seen as one of the lads, a regular Brummie basher. So I tried to simply be a Brummie, not one of the posh, arrogant, intellectual King Edwards boys. I wore enormous baggy trousers (Oxford bags) and affected a strong Birmingham accent.

The end result of all my effort, tragically enough, was that the genuine normal Brummies on the bus thought I was a total wanker.

And on some level I knew they thought I was a wanker. So unfair -- even though I tried so hard to be a simple, normal bloke. A tough lesson for a teenager to learn.

In retrospect I see it was the idea of not being a wanker that turned me into just that.

5:35 PM  
Blogger gniz said...

Mike said: "I try to simply be", I am sorry to say, are the words of a total wanker.

...Fair enough Mike.

But I think you've got a lot to offer. I think you're a dedicated, intelligent, caring person who is working your ass off.

Far from being a wanker.

I choose to respect you Mike, and I'd appreciate some respect in return.

5:54 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

If you gave up trying to be right, and thereby truly allowed yourself to breathe, I would certainly respect you for that.

But I sense that it may take you a few more years of being a wanker who does not know he is a wanker.

Anyway, Happy New Year!

6:05 PM  
Blogger gniz said...

Very interesting conversation...not sure if anything came of it, but I've enjoyed it anyway.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Listen, Aaron: My life has been an extreme example of trying to be right, trying to be authentic, trying to be the real McCoy, trying to be simple, trying to be... you name it.

If, from my descripions of it, you begin to understand my folly, even slightly, then what will come from it are the first seeds of a bit of nothing.

A bit of nothing, or a bit of freedom, follows primarily from the giving up of an idea.

9:44 AM  
Blogger gniz said...

I hear you Mike (even though you seem to think I don't hear you).

I believe you might misinterpret some of my expressions. When I say that I'm trying to "be with my life" its just a way of saying,
I make time to sit and work with relaxation and breathing.

You see this as a doing, as endgaining, etc.

And sometimes it is. Othertimes, I am just relaxing, spontaneously, and letting go, within the confines of my practice.

But its okay. You dont have to believe me. You can think I'm a wanker trying to be right.

I enjoy the conversations regardless.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Hi Aaron,

It is not so much that I think you are a wanker with a tendency to try to be right.

It is rather that, except when I forget it, I KNOW that I am a wanker with a tendency to try to be right.

8:52 PM  
Blogger gniz said...

"It is rather that, except when I forget it, I KNOW that I am a wanker with a tendency to try to be right."

But thats the thing about meditation, whether it be Zen or Vispassana, etc.

"I am a wanker" is just a thought floating through my head.
When I relax, and take a slightly more open breath then the previous moment, I do so, regardless of that thought.

I just dont see the point in telling me and everyone else how big a wanker I am. Yes, I am a wanker, but thats kind of like pointing out that the sky is blue instead of appreciating the sky, no?

I want to once again thank you for your efforts and your thought-provoking conversation, I really do enjoy it.

9:10 PM  

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