A friend of mine’s wife is going through chemo therapy. He told me, “I’m mostly stressed: cancer stress, work stress, news stress, etc. This is why I can’t do zazen — sitting still means obsessing about all the things I can’t deal with. Or focusing on all the stuff I need to do.”
That was precisely what zazen was like for me when I was going through my divorce and the death of my mother, which were happening at the same time (see my book Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate for the full story).
Every single sitting was full of obsessive thoughts about what I should have done before, what I should do next, what I wish I’d said, what I wish I hadn’t said, and on and on and on. I also got into weird ideas about developing super psychic powers like those yogis you read about in trashy paperbacks, then going out to Dallas, laying hands upon my mother, and magically healing her Huntington’s Disease.
This stuff played over and over like a broken record. It developed into a kind of looping pattern where the ideas would come in a sequence that would move through certain well-established stages before going back to the beginning and repeating. Any attempt I made to fight my own unwanted thoughts with logic or with positive thinking only seemed to make the initial thoughts even stronger.
Still I sat.
I’d been doing zazen for a while by then. So I knew a bit about how my brain worked. I’d seen through a lot of the basic stuff. But this was a whole new level.
My first teacher had told me that when you have a problem, the best thing to do is to sit with it. At first that seemed like the worst advice in the world. Sitting with problems seemed to make the obsessions grow.
Yet I stuck with it. I guess I trusted Tim. I didn’t think he’d lie to me. He’d done this Zen stuff too, and for way longer than me. He’d sat through his own obsessions, his own stress, his own tragedies. It seemed to make him steadier. It seemed to make him more flexible.
It didn’t make him perfect. It didn’t make him magic. But it made him more balanced.
As I sat with my divorce and my mother’s death, I watched my obsessing start to turn in on itself. It began to feel like I was chewing a piece of gum from which all of the flavor had long since gone. At that point I was able to focus on the action of chewing itself, rather than on the flavor. And I noticed I didn’t have to keep chewing that gum.
The gum metaphor begins to break down here. You can’t exactly spit your obsessions out, wrap them in a piece of paper, and toss them in the trash. It’s not quite that easy. But you can learn to stop chewing on them. Or, at least you can learn to stop expecting any new flavor to come out once you’ve chewed it all away.
I think many of us are afraid that if we stop obsessing over something that means we no longer care. Whenever I try to write about this, that’s the backlash I get. I understand. That was precisely my own fear.
In reaction to that fear, we develop certain habits of thought. Every time one of our obsessions starts to weaken, we get in there and poke at it. We stir it up to keep it active. I watched myself do this hundreds, maybe thousands of times. We think we need to do this in order to care. But that’s not true.
To a certain extent, obsessive thoughts seem to appear in our minds without provocation. But that’s only because we are unaware of the mechanisms we use to provoke them. Some of those mechanisms are beyond the reach of the conscious mind. Which means they’re outside of our ability to consciously control them.
Yet obsessive thinking does not occur by magic. Those subconscious mechanisms of the mind have to be set into motion somehow. For the most part, the way we set these subconscious mental mechanisms into motion happens deliberately. There are exceptions, of course. All sorts of mental habits are formed in early childhood. Some may even be present at birth. Some may be part of our genetic history going back generations.
Still, the conscious — or at least semi-conscious — habit of poking the brain to stir up our specific obsessions is a major part of how this stuff works. Zazen can be a way to see how you, yourself, do this in your own unique and specific way. No one can know your obsessions as well as you can. And no one can know how you set them into motion as well as you do.
Once you learn to stop poking and stirring, you find that you care exactly as much as you ever did. You just don’t constantly prod your mind into working on unsolvable problems every time there’s a lull in the day’s activities.
There are certain things in the external world that you can do something about. But most of the stuff you encounter on a day to day basis is outside of your control.
You can’t change the weather. You can’t force people to agree with you. You can’t alter the past. You can’t make people love you who don’t love you. You can’t solve most of the problems your friends on Facebook serve up again and again and again — poking and stirring your brain as they poke and stir their own.
There is much more outside your area of influence than inside it. This is true no matter if you’re a two-bit writer of trashy Zen blogs or Leader of the Free World. None of us has very much individual power to control the external world. That’s another one of our silly illusions.
You can, however, learn how to change your habit of obsessing about stuff you can’t change. And what’s really ironic is that it is when you stop obsessing, you can actually start making real changes. Not big dramatic changes, usually. But big, dramatic change may also be another illusion.
This doesn’t make the external situation better in a flash. It doesn’t instantly change things like imaginary Guru Brad did in my mind when he instantly cured my mom’s disease. That’s just a fantasy.
But it can make your own internal situation much easier. And that has a very real effect on the external world.
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