The Zen of Conformity?

JohnRobbLast night I did a talk at the Irish Club in Manchester, England with punk rock legend John Robb. That’s him in the photo, though he kept his shirt on last night It was pretty amazing.

I’ve been doing as many of these “in conversation” gigs as possible They’re always fun and interesting. I often feel like my talks don’t really get going until the Q&A portions anyway. I never know how many in the audience have read my books and blogs and already know how I got into Zen and what I think about the connections between punk and Buddhism, and how many require that context before I can proceed to try and get deeper into things. Having an emcee guide the talk helps out a tremendous amount.

John was a great interviewer, though he was a bit intimidating at first. He’s got that kind of star quality certain people have where you know people will stop and listen to him. But he’s also friendly and personable and genuinely interested in finding out what his interview subjects have to say.

I find that my life just keeps on getting stranger. It’s never what I expect it to be. So I deal with that by trying not to expect anything. As most regular readers know, I never set out to be a Zen teacher. Quite the opposite. I had to be pretty much forced into it by my teacher.

I think that makes my experience of this life “dimensionally different,” as Nishijima Roshi might say, to most other people I meet who do the same sort of thing. When he said something was dimensionally different from something else he usually meant that the two things couldn’t even be compared reasonably because they were too unlike each other. And while that might be taking things too far, I feel like it may help explain some of my approach.

If you set out in life to be a spiritual teacher, you’re fine with conforming to the normative expectations of the job. But since I never had such ambitions the notion of wanting to conform to those expectations is utterly alien to me. I made some efforts to do so initially. But now I’ve abandoned them entirely. I figure if you want to study with me, I will let you know as clearly as possible what I’m like and you can decide if that works for you. Which I think is a pretty fair deal.

I tried to bring some of that out last night. But I’m not sure it was conveyed clearly or not. I think some in the audience were trying to figure out what a Zen monk was like. But I don’t know if I’m such a great example of a Zen monk. Except, perhaps, as an example of the fact that the Zen orthodoxy allows for an almost complete lack of orthodoxy.

I think one of the key aspects of this practice is that it allows people to totally be exactly what they are. This, I think, is very important. We all have to be who we are in order to make this world work properly. When we try to conform to something we think is “normal” we make ourselves and those around us miserable. There is no normal.

Of course, as social beings, a certain degree of conformity is required of us. We have to stop at the red lights and go at the green lights. We have to use the toilets and not pee in people’s cars. We have to be able to interact socially in order to get done what needs to get done.

kogirlBut we also have to be who we really are and not always what others expect us to be (except where required, see above). I can recall the day I started liking Nishijima Roshi. At the start of one of his usual Saturday lectures he said, “As I was walking here today I passed by a group of teenage girls who were dressed very strangely.” And I thought, here it comes. Here comes the old Zen master telling us how we should be normal and conservative. He was, after all, in his 80s by then. And Japanese fashions in the 90s were pretty outrageous.

But he didn’t say what I expected him to. He said, “I think this is a very good thing. It shows that Japanese people are starting to express themselves and not simply conform to what others expect.” I loved him from that moment on.

I think that often this aspect of Zen gets lost, especially in larger institutions. The larger the gathering of humans, the more there is a need for everyone to conform to a certain degree, simply to make sure everything goes OK. The mistake is when the members of such institutions start to internalize that conformity. They start to imagine that internal conformity is necessary. But, in fact, it’s not only not necessary, it can be positively destructive to real practice.

Here’s what’s still to come on my never-ending tour:

• 18-19 October Zen Retreat    /    20th October  Public Talk in Hebden Bridge, England

http://hebdenbridgezen.org.uk/brad-warner-weekend-retreat-october-18th-20th/

•  23 October 7pm, I’ll be speaking in London.
Caledonian Road Centre
Basement
486 Caledonian Road
London N7 9RP
http://www.zeninlondon.org/calendar/event_display.asp?date=10-23-2013#393

• 24 October, 8pm, I’ll be speaking in Oxford

Merton College, Oxford
Hosted the Neave Society (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2203213006/)

**Oxford University students only**

• 25 Oct In Conversation 7pm-9pm  / 26 October Zazen Day

Merchant City Yoga Centre Glasgow, Scotland

http://www.merchantcityyoga.com/index.php?option=com_fabrik&view=table&tableid=4&calculations=0&resetfilters=0&Itemid=6

• November 8-10 Zen and Yoga Retreat at Mount Baldy Zen Center in Southern California (1 & 1/2 hours east of Los Angeles)

*   *   *

I am self-financing my current tour. Your donations help a lot. Thank you!

18 Responses

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  1. Fred
    Fred October 18, 2013 at 11:19 am | |

    Wikipedia:

    “That a trance may be “light” or “deep” suggest a one-dimensional continuum of trance depth, but Erickson would often work with multiple trances in the same patient, for example, suggesting that the hypnotised patient behave “as if awake”, thereby blurring the line between the hypnotic and awake state.

    Erickson believed there are multiple states that may be utilized. This resonates with Charles Tart’s idea (put forward in the book Waking Up) that all states of consciousness are trances and that what we call “normal” waking consciousness is just a “consensus trance”. ”

    In terms of this what is normal, or conformity?

    That my trance matches up with your trance?

  2. mtto
    mtto October 18, 2013 at 12:04 pm | |

    I don’t know if this actually happened, or if it is just a good story.

    A radio DJ interviewed concert goers outside a Cure concert.

    Q: “Why are you wearing black?”

    A: “Because that’s what nonconformists do.”

  3. Fred
    Fred October 18, 2013 at 12:11 pm | |

    The conformity of the path

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_aYX9vk5Qg

  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm | |

    As long as no one expects to become a monk or a Zen teacher studying with Brad, then the titles bestowed by the Soto-shu don’t matter. However, I think most people who decide to study Zen for any length of time under one teacher do so with the thought of possibly becoming ordained and maybe someday being acknowledged officially as a teacher themselves.

    This is where being an unorthodox teacher can become a stumbling block for the students. Witness the fact that at least according to the last postings I read on the Antaiji website, Antaiji is not recognized as having training periods that can qualify it as a sodo or training monastery, which means advancement past Osho is not possible at Antaiji. Meanwhile, Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, in its 40th year of existence now, has only just become qualified as a sodo, and that apparently due to Demian Kwong having done six months at Eiheiji.

    Of course, the importance of the qualification as a sodo is that it allows a temple to be officially passed on to someone who has completed the training there. At least, that’s the way I understand it. So Demian can officially at SMZC, if his father decides to pass on the abbacy, because he completed six months at Eiheiji. And others can qualify to officially take over temples in the USA because they completed a practice period as head monk at SMZC.

    Brad is looking to do something else, I think, and it remains to be seen whether Zen in America will be about weddings and funerals or that something else that Brad doesn’t have in mind.

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 18, 2013 at 3:16 pm | |

    Thanks for that about Erikson and Tart, Fred.

  6. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 18, 2013 at 3:25 pm | |

    Exactly, man, exactly!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_H._Erickson

    “Erickson maintained that trance is a common, everyday occurrence. For example, when waiting for buses and trains, reading or listening, or even being involved in strenuous physical exercise, it’s quite normal to become immersed in the activity and go into a trance state, removed from any other irrelevant stimuli. These states are so common and familiar that most people do not consciously recognise them as hypnotic phenomena.”

  7. Caodemarte
    Caodemarte October 18, 2013 at 5:22 pm | |

    A side note_ There were several times that Chogam Trungpa provoked big public scandals. Sure, he was open about his behavior and at least did not seem guilty of hypocrisy. That did not get him a free pass then and should not now, not that he ever indicated he wanted one.

  8. Fred
    Fred October 18, 2013 at 5:48 pm | |

    “I think one of the key aspects of this practice is that it allows people to totally be exactly what they are. This, I think, is very important. We all have to be who we are in order to make this world work properly. When we try to conform to something we think is “normal” we make ourselves and those around us miserable. There is no normal.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utjLlBbXCdg

  9. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 19, 2013 at 7:11 am | |

    “Normal?” How about Jimi reborn as a pant-less Polish Playboy model???

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=io4P3FS8VlM
    This almost makes me long for an old Robert Palmer video. Almost.

    And IMO anybody who comes with expectations of whatever kind deserves to get burned; maybe they will learn something, or maybe not, going on and on and on, like Jimi up there.

    Or they will roll for years smiling the smile of self-satisfaction accumulating ego experiences going from stage to stage hearing the applause, thinking, “I never wanted to be a ……..”

  10. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 19, 2013 at 8:04 pm | |

    I love this guy!

    “I go into trances so that I will be more sensitive to the intonations and inflections of my patients’ speech. And to enable me to hear better, see better.”

    “So he abides fully conscious of what is behind and what is in front.
    As (he is conscious of what is) in front, so behind: as behind, so in front;
    as below, so above: as above, so below:
    as by day, so by night: as by night, so by day.
    Thus with wits alert, with wits unhampered, he cultivates his mind to brilliancy.”

    (Sanyutta-Nikaya, text V 263, Pali Text Society volume 5 pg 235)

    “Erickson maintained that it was not possible consciously to instruct the unconscious mind, and that authoritarian suggestions were likely to be met with resistance. The unconscious mind responds to openings, opportunities, metaphors, symbols, and contradictions. Effective hypnotic suggestion, then, should be “artfully vague”, leaving space for the subject to fill in the gaps with their own unconscious understandings – even if they do not consciously grasp what is happening. The skilled hypnotherapist constructs these gaps of meaning in a way most suited to the individual subject – in a way which is most likely to produce the desired change.

    …Scottish surgeon James Braid, who coined the term “hypnotism”, claimed that focused attention was essential for creating hypnotic trances; indeed, his thesis was that hypnosis was in essence a state of extreme focus. But it can be difficult for people racked by pain, fear or suspicion to focus on anything at all. Thus other techniques for inducing trance become important, or as Erickson explained:

    … long and frequent use of the confusion technique has many times effected exceedingly rapid hypnotic inductions under unfavourable conditions such as acute pain of terminal malignant disease and in persons interested but hostile, aggressive, and resistant…

    Handshake induction
    Among Erickson’s best-known innovations is the hypnotic handshake induction, which is a type of confusion technique. The induction is done

  11. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 19, 2013 at 8:09 pm | |

    sorry, the last “…” above is an almost-invisible link to the section in the Wikipedia article on “Handshake induction”, if anybody would like to amuse their friends and baffle their neighbors.

  12. Mumbles
    Mumbles October 19, 2013 at 8:18 pm | |
  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 19, 2013 at 8:22 pm | |

    ‘Erickson thus used this as the basis for suggestions that deliberately played on negation and tonally marked the important wording, to provide that whatever the client did, it was beneficial: “You don’t have to go into a trance, so you can easily wonder about what you notice no faster than you feel ready to become aware that your hand is slowly rising…..”‘

    Fred, don’t go there.

  14. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 19, 2013 at 8:24 pm | |

    with the original emphasis: “”You don’t have to go into a trance, so you can easily wonder about what you notice no faster than you feel ready to become aware that your hand is slowly rising…..”

  15. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel October 21, 2013 at 10:43 am | |

    Brad wrote:

    ” The mistake is when the members of such institutions start to internalize that conformity. They start to imagine that internal conformity is necessary. But, in fact, it’s not only not necessary, it can be positively destructive to real practice.”

    This is, I think, a very important distinguo. Because often the refusal of conformity will end up in some sort of worse even conformity, and this is probably the very mechanism of it.

    This is also exactly what Brad described in his first book about so called “punks” who’d chide him because he didn’t arbour the look of a punk.

  16. Harlan
    Harlan October 21, 2013 at 2:44 pm | |

    Q: “Why are you wearing black?”

    A: “Because it’s Saturday.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=351wGhomUNI

  17. fregas
    fregas October 30, 2013 at 6:51 pm | |

    The fact that you do not conform to others’ expectations is exactly what makes you a good teacher and writer. You can buy BS anywhere. I’d rather hear what you really think.

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