First off, tomorrow, like almost every other Saturday, I’ll be leading Zen at the Veteran’s Memorial Center 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. All are welcome! It starts at 10:00am not 9:30 tomorrow. There will be yoga led by Nina Snow before zazen.
And next weekend I’ll lead a 2-day retreat at Against the Stream, Nashville co-sponsored by the Nashville Zen Center May 16-17 and I’ll be speaking in Nashville at Against the Stream, Nashville on May 19th. For more info go the the Nashville Zen Center’s website of the Against the Stream, Nashville website.
Oh! And commenting on the blog works again! Hooray!
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Last week a guy asked me about imaginary conversations. He said he spent a lot of energy engaging in imaginary conversations with people he knew. These often stressed him out and made him upset.
I imagine everyone does this. I clearly remember bringing a lot of these imaginary conversations up to my Zen teachers when I’d have private talks with them. But when I did, they always shifted the focus of the conversation we were actually having right then and there on to something more concrete and real. It took a while to get the message that these imaginary conversations weren’t actually very important.
Still, they went on all the time. Some of them kept me awake at night. Some of them gave me bad headaches or indigestion. Some of them made me so distracted I’d forget what I was actually doing and screw things up for myself. Even though the conversations were imaginary, they had real world consequences.
Nowadays I have very few imaginary conversations. Oh sure, they happen sometimes. But not that often and usually only when I deliberately try to have them for some specific reason. Like when I need to figure out how I’m going to explain something to someone with whom I’ll have very little time. Or I sometimes work out what I’m going to say at a public talk. But it’s very rare for me to engage in the kinds of conversations in my head that used to drive me to distraction.
I do recall what might have been the last time I had one of these completely unbidden imaginary conversations that really drove me up a wall. I don’t remember all the details. I know it was my grandfather I was going to explain whatever it was to. This imaginary conversation went on and on, taking all kinds of different twists and turns. I was living in Japan at the time and I was going to see him in a few weeks. When I actually got to Ohio and started saying whatever it was, I realized that my imaginary “grandpa” in my mind responded so differently from my real grandpa right in front of me that it was clear the whole imaginary conversation I’d been having with him had been a complete waste of time.
That realization wasn’t what made the imaginary conversations stop. Merely intellectually understanding a thing like that doesn’t do a whole lot.
What worked was my daily Zen practice.
See, when you do Zen for a long time you start to notice that the conversations you have with imaginary people in your head are a lot like a piece of gum that all the flavor has been chewed out of. There’s just no reason to keep that piece of gum in your mouth anymore, so you spit it out.
It was only on retreats that this understanding began to become really clear. Although the half-hour sittings I did every morning and evening helped a lot.
You’re working with habits and habits are hard to break. You think it’s tough to quit heroin or cigarettes? Try quitting a habit of mind that you learned before you were old enough to even go outside on your own and that is reinforced by just about every TV show or movie you see, almost every book, magazine or webpage you read, pretty much every conversation you have with just about anyone about just about any topic. That takes a lot of work.
Quitting the habit of holding loads of useless fake conversations in your mind will not make you any less able to have those kinds of fake conversations when it’s practical to do so. But it will make you sleep better, digest better and maybe even not screw up so many things you try to do.
And that’s today’s little lesson! Thanks!
Every Monday at 8pm I lead zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. All are welcome!
Every Saturday at 9:30 am I lead zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. All are welcome!
Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website, dsla.info
May 16-17, 2015 Nashville, TN 2-DAY RETREAT AT NASHVILLE ZEN CENTER
July 8-12, 2015 Vancouver, BC Canada 5-DAY RETREAT at HOLLYHOCK RETREAT CENTER
August 14-16, 2015 Munich, Germany 3 DAY ZEN RETREAT
August 19, 2015 Munich, Germany LECTURE
August 24-29, 2015 Felsentor, Switzerland 5-DAY RETREAT AT STIFTUNG FELSENTOR
August 30-September 4, 2015 Holzkirchen, Germany 5-DAY RETREAT AT BENEDIKTUSHOF MONASTERY
September 4, 2015 Hamburg, Germany LECTURE
September 6, 2015 Hamburg, Germany ZEN DAY
September 10-13, 2015 Finland 4-DAY RETREAT
September 16-19, 20015 Hebden Bridge, England 4-DAY RETREAT
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Yep. I think everybody does this. Sometimes they are useful problem-solving imaginations that can have positive results.
The rest of the time (i.e. the majority, in my case) they are useless “I should have said this” kinds of scenarios for situations just past or fear-based rehearsals for upcoming situations.
Getting to understand that these kind of subjective experiences are not always so useful but allowing them to happen because they arise spontaneously anyway and knowing how not to “feed the beast” at the same time is a hard-earned skill definitely helped by an ongoing meditation practice and is the beginning of wisdom, in my opinion.
So…thanks for writing about this.
The phrase “imaginary conversations” reminds me of Antoine de Saint-ExupÃ©ry’s The Little Prince.
Also, Katherine Woods’ English translation is the best if you decide to read it.
Yet another reason to say, “Me too.” Thanks, Brad!
What’s the connection with the photo of “I see dead people” and the mind working out resolutions to imaginary conflicts?
Maybe the dead people (that only the boy can see) represent the imaginary conversations (that only the thinker is aware of)?
For the last couple of months I’ve been preparing for a charity concert. I’l be playing flute with, among others, a pianist I last saw and played with about 40 years ago.
40 years ago *Cordelia* was a sweet, charming, posh girl with little experience of the world outside her own very bourgeois mileu. Since then, Cordelia’s carved a successful career as repetiteur and musical director. She is now an opinionated, assertive bossy-boots who only charms when necessary. She knows I dropped out of music college to become a hippy. She also knows I’ve worked with some famous musicians and theatre people, but not many, and not often. So Cordelia knows best. Of course, she doesn’t. I know best. That makes for lots of ‘Don’t you think…?’/’But surely…?’ type discussions. Sometimes we agree. Often we don’t. When we disagree my view has to prevail. Regardless of who knows best, I’m the boss of this project! And to give Cordelia her due, she will, in the end, accede.
So I’ve been having a lot of “fear-based rehearsals for upcoming situations” (well put, mb!) with Cordelia.
I stopped practising zazen over a year ago — as I’ve said before, for no reason I’m able, or can be bothered, to pin down. Perhaps that disqualifies me from having a valid opinion about whether zazen has any influence on the tendency to engage in imaginary conversations. Certainly zazen made me realise just how busy with imaginary conversations my mind could be. I think I always knew that, but I’d not faced it and had to deal with it so directly before.
So have I learnt to stop replaying past injustices, stop imagining myself bounding free from hurt and humiliation by practising zazen? I remember it did used to work during zazen, sometimes. I’d notice myself caught up in a replay and just stop. But then it would start up again – until I noticed and it stopped. Did I notice and stop it or did it stop and I noticed? I think it stopped and I noticed, and there was little I could do to stop it starting again. Coz there’s no ‘I’, right?
Now, in everyday zazen-less life, I fnd it easier to stop the ‘’If only I’d said…’ replays of past hurtings. They’re a waste of time. Maybe zazen taught me that. Maybe I got older and wiser, maybe I just got tired of the same old shit. Noticing myself caught up in a replay, I now do something. Something — anything – else. As for the rehearsal of points likely to win impending disputes with Cordelias, they can be useful. Of course, whether or not I end up saying what I planned to say is a whole other thing. There comes a time when I need to hop on the tube and go rehearse with Cordelia.
Congrats on the gig! Post youtube links if/when available, please…meanwhile:
“When we disagree my view has to prevail.”
I have been struggling in my own personal social-spiritual experience lately with the observation that I tend to often want to be “right.” A knee-jerk reaction to situations based on an accumulation of opinions thought -no, believed- to be “correct” is not always so, depending on the situation (in my humble opinion, I may not be “right” on this point, I understand!).
[P.S. Glad its back and all, but now it takes about 5 min. to load the Bradblog and another few to open the post/comments]
Aha! Somebody with the same experience as me! As mentioned my Mac laptop takes about 4 minutes, but my PC desktop takes about 1 minute, so I’m putting up with that. Everybody else seems to have normal speedy access. You wouldn’t happen to have Verizon as your ISP would you?
I do have a (old) Mac laptop as well but no, I do not use Verison.
The delays are consistent and don’t happen elsewhere…seems to be something with the site, no doubt.
“A knee-jerk reaction to situations based on an accumulation of opinions thought -no, believed- to be “correct” is not always so” – that’s a good point, of course. Does it help to say I was being partly serious, partly sarcastic when I wrote “When we disagree my view has to prevail. Regardless of who knows best, I’m the boss of this project!” (I was approached by the charity to put the thing together)?
I’ve been presented with a rare opportunity to prove that I can put on a concert, arrange music for the available forces and perform with members of top Orchestras (Royal Philharmonic, Royal Opera House). Hopefully I’ll re-establish some credibility in the straight music world and be offered some work.
To be constantly challenged, treated as if I can’t possibly know what I’m talking about because I’ve been out of the professional, salaried loop for some time doesn’t sit well with me. Also it doesn’t make much sense. Other members of the band are responding to my role as MD without preconceptions or prejudice – they’re going along with (most of) my suggestions because they make musical sense. Most – not all – of *Cordelia*’s suggestions are expressions of a desire not to be upstaged by a drop-out pop musician.
That’s how I see it. But I would, wouldn’t I? Doesn’t mean I’m wrong though ; )
I’m very happy for you having this amazing opportunity, Malcolm. You have had others in your career, and that points to your ongoing abilities as a musician. I was just using your example as a way to illustrate my own reflections, nothing more. However, our reactions to other people’s behavior -a beloved Sufi sister once told me everything would be perfect in her practice if it didn’t have to involve other Sufis!- are the mirror in which we observe ourselves.
Thanks, John. The mirror…yes.
I’ve been working very hard on my imaginary conversations in the past week. I’ve known for a long time that I use them to manufacture depression and anger. I just decided I don’t want to do that to myself anymore, and got off my ass to try and do something about it. What I have found is that I am using the manufactured emotions to avoid other emotions that I am having, so that I don’t have to confront the underlying issues.
Thanks for the lesson, Brad.
Brad: YOU’RE VERY WELCOME!
Me: Okay, you don’ t need to shout.
Brad: I’M NOT SHOUTING!
Me: uh, nevermind. Bye now.
Brad: GOOD BYE!
Thank you very much Brad for this post. I (by which is meant this walking, talking, comment typing meat sack) have been gradually realizing that things never seem to turn out the way I strenuously imagine them. On the plus side, if I am worried about something, I needn’t be since things won’t turn out that way anyhow. That’s kind of comforting even in the abscence of a clear idea about how things will turn out. This gradual realization has been happening in the same time period that I have been doing seated meditation so maybe they are related. In the event that they are, thanks for a motivation to keep at it.
108, did you play or jam with members of Yes?
Yeah, Gryphon, the band I played with for a year between 74-75 supported YES on their winter tours of the US (end of 74) and the UK (early 75), and I played on a couple of tracks (one on bass, one on flute) on Steve Howe’s first solo album, Beginnings. The only jamming was on the last night of the US tour when we took the stage with YES for an encore of ‘Roundabout’. I confess I wasn’t familiar with all Chris Squire’s lines – he had to scream root notes at me across the stage and I still made a mess of it. Pretty sure Eddie Offord had my stack switched off, thank gawd.
We’re not worthy!
Yes you are.
I was a sober squeaky pre-teen. I tortured my parents with the music I would crank up on the stereo. Yes was the one group my Mother approved of. One day she asked me, “Who is that you’re playing now?” “They are called Yes” “it’s very positive!”
BTW, Fred – If your YES link was intended as a message of encouragement, I appreciate the thought. Jon Anderson had a lovely voice, but lyrically he was a bit of a soppy sausage, don’t you think?
“but lyrically he was a bit of a soppy sausage, don’t you think?”
I was on drugs, and loved it
I’d like to stop renting people space in my head but I need the money.
That’s great! Mind if I borrow it sometime?
Makes me anxious, to realize I haven’t had any anxiety-provoked conversations in my head in awhile.
Maybe I should have one now.
Khru: “this has got to be THE worst comment thread ever.”
Brad: “your donations support me and the voices in my head, thanks!”
Mark: “pass the pickles.”
Fred: “if no-self passes the pickles, will the kid see it?”
Good luck, Malcolm; looks like you’re part of somebody’s medicine even if you’re not allowed to know the nature of the illness, I’ll hope they will not be part of yours.
Thanks for the good wishes, Mark.
I’m having to handle frustrations and insecurities that have been festering for a few years…maybe for as long as I can remember. Blaming someone else may be the default defence but, as John suggests, it’s me I need to look at. I reckon we’ll put on a decent show.
When I am involved in writing, I find the babble in my mind increases significantly. This complicates my scheduling, as both zazen and writing are best for me in the morning, but it’s better to do the Zen thing first, as otherwise too many pie plates are still spinning on their sticks.
I wonder if Brad needs to consider this as well, or if, at some point, it’s relatively easy to turn off the flow that one encourages by opening to the creative forces that embody themselves as voices in internal dialogue, so that it doesn’t matter which you do first.
Somewhat related, Gilbert Gutierrez, Ven. Sheng Yen’s one American Dharma heir, said in a talk available online [http://dharmatalks.riversidechan.org/ – but I don’t remember where] that the strength of a wandering thought is related to three qualities:
The recentness of the event that the thought is concerned with. Everything fades with time.
The intensity of the event. The louder the boom, the stronger the echoes.
The degree of personal involvement. A fight between people one doesn’t know is much less disturbing than one which involves people close to oneself.
I’ve found this useful in observing and recognizing the dynamics of my distractions. Also a good caution against watching, say, Game of Thrones before my main practice.
soppy sausage lyrics
“Two million people barely satisfy.
Two hundred women watch one woman cry, too late.
The eyes of honesty can achieve.
How many millions do we deceive each day?
I get up, I get down.
I get up, I get down.
In charge of who is there in charge of me.
Do I look on blindly and say I see the way?
The truth is written all along the page.
How old will I be before I come of age for you?
I get up, I get down.
I get up, I get down.
I get up, I get down.”
What does Zen see, past the blinkering blinders of conditioned programming and deceptive prescription.
Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, show me where you are
What Brad’s saying is true, but it certainly isn’t easy. And I’ve fallen out with Zen in my head today.
I know it’s true… if I sit regularly, the pointless brain chatter dies down, and my emotions become more balanced and stable. By the end of a retreat, the chatter is pretty much gone, and then it gradually re-inserts itself, over a few weeks or months back in the real world.
But I’ve been awake now for a couple of hours, with insomnia, nursing a pretty drastic imaginary conversation: a full-on, self-righteous, rage-filled one: and I’m not even sure I shouldn’t be nursing it.
My ex-wife’s moron live-in boyfriend has been verbally harassing my 12yo daughter. It’s low-grade, but persistent: demeaning her and obliquely threatening her. He’s been doing it on and off for a year or so, and it’s affecting her badly mentally and physically. It’s not obvious enough to be able to prove anything if I called the cops or child protection… but it’s bad. There’s no point trying to speak reasonably, or even harshly about it with my ex or the guy: they’re just not the kind of people who’d respond to that. It might even worsen the situation. The ex is quite happy to harm and neglect her kids (up to a point) to antagonise me.
And so I lie in bed rehearsing angry, threatening tirades to throw at them. And imagining fantasy murder scenarios. I know this just gives me some false sense of control – that it’s a defence against feelings of powerlessness, guilt or despair. I know it will wear me out if I keep it up. I know life can be painful, and that I can’t imagine away my own pain or another’s. I know I have to accept my life situation, and take practical steps to improve it where possible.
But how important is my own peace of mind, really? Is it decent to live in some tranquil balanced state of Buddhist equanimity, while a vulnerable person I have responsibility for is being abused? If I go and sit cross-legged for an hour now, I’ll calm down, get a good night’s sleep, and it all won’t seem so urgent when I wake up tomorrow. I won’t feel the pain so much, and I’ll be less likely to act on it constructively. Zazen balances the nerves, and draws attention away from egoic pre-occupations. But, sometimes, doesn’t preoccupied make a lot of sense? Don’t tension, stress, and anger have a place (and the imaginary convos that go with them), when energy and focus are needed to deal with something?
And before anybody comes back at me with any trite platitudes, FUCK Gotama, who abandoned his family to go on some seven year self-indulgent walkabout. And FUCK those superstitious Tibetan cultists who take 3 year old kids away from their parents, to maintain a pathetic reincarnation-fantasy-based social control mechanism. And FUCK any tuned-out hippie non-attachment concept that lets people opt out of social responsibility.
I really don’t know. At the moment part of me is on-program with the Zen thing, and another part of me is saying it’s nothing more than opium for the conscience.
If your ex really feels that way about letting your daughter getting stressed to get back at you, it should strengthen your influence. Twelve is a good age to learn something about the dynamics of assholism. I hope you can see her often enough to encourage her to see it as positive training.
An ex can be an asset – they know sides of us we often would rather ignore. Too bad our culture so often makes the new form of relationship adversarial.
I wonder, SC . . . did she change over time into someone you could not live with, or was it your perception. Or something else?
Sincere good wishes for all involved.
Thanks for that minkfoot.
What you’re saying is true. I don’t usually vent stuff like that on the Internet. But it seemed appropriate yesterday when I was in a fizz.
I always knew what my ex was like, but it’s amazing what we can overlook or rationalise when in love. We live and we learn!
Just talked to some “demons” in a lucid dream, made them my friends and had a couple of nice erotic dreams in the following nights as well as an improvement of a physical problem. And: Don’t underestimate talking to yourself. I remind you of that zen guy who asked himself everyday if he is well. Anyway, it is the same, as talking to others in your mind means talking to yourself.
“Nowadays I have very few imaginary conversations. Oh sure, they happen sometimes. But not that often and usually only when I deliberately try to have them for some specific reason. ”
So Brad, How do you come up with fantasies for books like “Gill Women of the Prehistoric Planet” or some trippy song lyric? How do you access your subconscious for ideas.. Do they only come when you put pen to paper. No spontaneous nuggets while driving across town or taking a shower?
Having an imaginary conversation is way different than plotting a book or coming up with a lyric.
A conversation is a two way dialog. If you are rehearsing what to say to someone or trying to replay (and win) an old argument, that is an imaginary conversation. It’s a usually a waste of time, since the imaginary person you are talking with in your head will rarely react the same way as the real person. That’s my typical experience.
I’m fairly new to zen practice and I’d say that I am having fewer imaginary conversations. I’m also quicker to notice when I’m having one and I then have the option of dropping the subject.
A spontaneous nugget (creative thought?) is just a thought. Thoughts will always happen, zen practice or no zen practice.
minkfoot, I think Gilbert Gutierrez is very right when he says “that the strength of a wandering thought is related to three qualities:
The recentness of the event that the thought is concerned with. Everything fades with time.
The intensity of the event. The louder the boom, the stronger the echoes.
The degree of personal involvement. A fight between people one doesn’t know is much less disturbing than one which involves people close to oneself.”
Brad says zazen is useful for seeing imaginary conversations for what they are; keep sitting and imaginary conversations are less likely to negatively impact moods and behaviour and will eventually lose their grip. I agree…that’s very possible. But that sounds so much like (what I understand to be) the method and purpose of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy that I wonder why so many zennists insist that Zen/Buddhism has nothing to with ‘mindfulness’ and is certainly not ‘therapy’. I used to say that kind of thing a lot. Now I think I may have just been spouting the party line.
I know the feeling of spouting the party line. I’ve been there many times and expect to return many more.
I think the crucial difference between zen as it is and “mindfulness” or “therapy” is that zen at it’s purest has no purpose. Sitting zazen has no point, no goal. It’s not useful in any way…
Both mindfulness and therapy are usually seen as tools used to reach some goal. In general, that goal is to make yourself into a better person.
Zen, to my understanding, is (in part) about clearly seeing the world as it is. Liking or not liking that reality is beside the point.
Alan – I’ve replied in the comments on the next post.
Why would you drop the subject (mind-talk to yourself)? Because someone says it’s not right? Would you practice the coitus interruptus because you know that sex is empty? Why take the fun out of one thing when not doing it with the other? A conversation that is imaginary is not more imaginary than a lecture you give.
I had all sorts of imaginary conversations with you, Brad, concerning this post. Or it was more like a conversation with the words and going over what my thoughts were.
But I couldn’t post because the load time is incredibly slow. Your webmaster apparently needs to sit a bit more. Or something 🙂 (I see others have mentioned it–I’m on Mac OS 10.7.5 and tested on Chrome, Safari, and Firefox plus my Nexus 5 Android–still slow right now: early Tuesday morning).
Anyway, to get this out of my head 🙂 I have imaginary conversations all the time. Some of them are a waste of time, I ignore them, and they go away. The big ones are almost always about conflicts, though. Family, for example, who doesn’t understand me and says mean things. Ex-husband who has said mean things (I’ve had to have contact with him via email). Veterinary residents at vet hospitals (I’ve had medically involved pets) who were bullies (not my word; it’s what a hospital director called it when I called to complain). Doctors I’ve had for myself with serious attitude problems.
And since I’m not quick to respond in a way that turns the conversation into a more productive route or shuts the person up or whatever, I end up with unspoken things or things I wish I’d have said or could have etc. So I hash and rehash (in imaginary conversations in my head) how I could have handled it differently.
It helps me to handle things better next time in a similar situation. For example, I’ve learned to not expect a completely professional attitude or good communication skills from vets or doctors–they can be assholes like the rest of us (Newsflash! Hey, I didn’t know, what can I say.) So, since I have to deal with them, might as well learn better skills myself. So by rehashing and doing the imaginary conversation thing, I can play out various possibilities in my head so I can be more effective next time.
Granted, sometimes it’s a waste of time, and sitting does help. Or just focusing on breathing and what’s in front of me in the moment while doing something relaxing can help, too, when it’s really loud (a nice, relaxing bike ride helped this evening while my head was chattering). But I don’t think it’s always something not-so-great that we shouldn’t have. For me, it helps me figure stuff out.
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