Stop Confessing Your Vulnerabilities

Over the years, and most especially during the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve noticed an unsettling trend: people I barely know or do not know at all will send me letters written in the mode of a confession. Completely out of the blue. The writer will not ask after me or mine, nor will he or she in any way include me in what, time was, used to be termed “a conversation.” Instead, the writer, spilling guts onto the page, will speak at me.

What is readily observable is a profound–nay, shocking–level of self-importance together with an inability to even remotely entertain, let alone consider, the life of the recipient. Who is this one to whom I am writing? What is he like, his life like? Would you like to receive this missive shot, yea, from this here cannon? Does he even know me? At all? Why would I spill my secrets onto the page and then hit send without so much as a moment’s hesitation? Why don’t I see anything even scarcely amiss in the whole thing?

Of course, psychotherapists would call this “narcissism,” but here is the rub: I can find no other explanation apart from the near-ubiquity of therapeutic culture to explain this rising trend toward the stranger’s gushing vulnerability.

Take over 100 years of therapy, apply it to urbanites in major cities, and, my God, see what happens. Truth is we are.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any critiques of the therapeutic context that start with something fairly obvious. If someone has grown up going, for years, even decades, to see a therapist, then that person is habituated into an extraordinarily odd, antisocial form of relating to others. The client comes to see that 45, 50, 55, or 60 minutes are his own. He will spill his guts starting at the 1 minute mark and will not think to ask about the therapist, who will not tell him anything about her life anyway. I remember, fairly recently, having an introductory chat with a man who, when I asked him what he’d like to learn about me, said, “I really only want to know what you thought about what I said.” So, I “mirrored” it back to him but not without noting this disturbing request. This man had come to therapeuticize his life and, in turn, others who only figure in his imaginary landscape, one whose center and circumstance is him.

If improperly understood, I submit, the hyper-habituated client will get accustomed to seeing all or most of his relationships (if such is what, to said client, they can still be called) in these terms: the other is here to listen to me so that I can “feel heard,” “feel seen,” and “be understood.” This, after all, is “what I need.” And I’ve learned to “be assertive” and “be empowered” and “use my voice” to speak up for “what I need.”

Oh, you have, have you? Have you ever considered (a) how lonely that existence truly is and (b) how verily you mistreat others in the offing?

Thanks in part to Freud, therapeuticized culture has contributed to secularization in ways that make speaking with priests and pastors about matters of great importance seem superannuated (I don’t mean that this is the only reason why people don’t speak with priests or pastors anymore, only that it’s a significant one). Furthermore, it’s led–not on its own–to the erosion and subsequent loss of civil society (see, e.g., Bellah et al. Habits of the Heart). Neither development has been a beneficial one for individuals and for America.

Apparently, the crucial message–crucial because true–from Fight Club (1999) was never internalized: “You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake.” Amen! Which, of course, is not to say that I am special or a beautiful and unique snowflake either. Nobody is–and that’s the point. Or everybody, in a blander metaphysical sense is, and that too is the point.

After all, what have wisdom traditions urged upon us? At least these: First, that we consider the other for his own sake (e.g., Aristotle, the Book of Matthew, bodhisattva vows, etc.). Second, that we need to cultivate humility in the presence of what is higher (e.g., St. Benedict). Third, that our egoic desires and impulses are not to be indulged, as is so in narcissism, but restrained, retrained, and purified. And, fourth, that our requests, “demands,” and the like are not final–far from it; in reality, they often go unmet and, from this, we gain first-hand experience of our smallness.

All of what I’ve written above bears on the possibility of love. For you see love is not something I get if I’m lucky or “because I’m deserving.” It’s certainly not something “I need.” Love, rather, is what I give out of the fullness of being and with a view to other and others. In love, my cup runneth over. To be capable of loving one and all, I need to empty myself out fully, not fill myself up, and the other I’ve intruded upon, with my truly empty epistles. To be loving, I must be empty so that I can participate in the whole of life. What I really need is to get real.

Monsoon Season In The American Southwest

I wonder what strange beast, growing and purpling, will grope beyond the mountains, tumble down, and spill forth its contents? Or will it?

Peoples living well before us must have tasted the air and looked up at the darkening sky and hoped or prayed or sang or danced. Or all. Will it come this time?, they must have thought.

Rain in the Southwest is always an open question. Even when it seems as if the winds could pick up no more and the clouds droop and crack or crackle no more, still rain may not come. It can feel as if, especially at the height of summer, the sky above is aching to release. And it may not. Or a few drops may fall, with faint promises made, though rarely kept.

Then when it’s least expected, the rain may fall. And keep falling. And the rain barrels and the courtyards and the streets may overflow and the basements flood and the sand and the dirt scurry into arroyos and more than everything wash away.

Too little, they might have said, for too long and then too much too quickly. Were they angry? Fatalistic/ Did they know why they stayed here?

It must have been because they loved it so and anyway and verily.

Meditation IS An Impossible Situation

Listen to Gaofeng Yuanmiao, a Chan [Zen] master who lived from 1238-1295 AD, from Chan Whip: Breaking Through the Barrier:

This matter [i.e., the Great Matter of Birth and Death, also known as the Great Matter of Life and Death–AT] demands that the practitioners have urgency. Only if you have urgency will the real Doubt arise. Struggle with it, doubting away without even the intention to doubt, day and night. Sticking the head and tail together, your practice becomes constant and without a crack. Shake it – it does not move; chase it – it does not go away. Bright and clear, you are always in it. This is when the practice is working. Be certain to work with the correct mindset and not separate from it! Do it until you walk not knowing you are walking and sit not knowing you are sitting. Cold, heat, hunger or thirst – you know nothing of that. When you get there, it is not far from home! Hitting it or poking it – it is but a matter of time. However, now that you have heard this, don’t go and apply your energy single-mindedly to look for it; don’t sit around waiting for it to happen; nor should you just let it be or drop it!

You misunderstand meditation, at least as it’s practiced in Rinzai Zen, if you think it’s about calming down and “cooling your jets.” It’s not! It’s not that at all! If anything, it’s just the opposite!

There’s no genuine point in sitting if you haven’t been existentially opened. Sans existential opening, it’s just a cute thing to do. It’s nice to fart around and cross your legs and close your eyes and, well, make believe. But that’s not meditation.

True meditation begins when the Great Matter of Life and Death is in your face, in your bones, rattling your lungs. Only now, as the Buddha and Dogen knew, does the “noble search” begin.

And sure enough, if you’re earnest and fierce, that life-question–that koan–ripens. It just happens! Sure, sometimes it’s “tasteless” in the mouth, but really it’s a slow, or fast, turning up of the temperature to the point at which you can barely bear it.

See how the situation is impossible? Isn’t this what Gaofeng Yuanmiao is getting at?

  1. You can’t go looking for enlightenment “single-mindedly” because doing so tries to make what you seek into an object, a discrete ‘something.’ Yet it is not that. Can’t be that.
  2. BUT you also can’t wait around for it. Remember the impending mortality? The mortality that you can feel in your bones? The Great Mystery of being and non-being?
  3. And the key, so simple yet also so forceful, is that you can’t leave it alone! You can’t let the koan drop!

The koan demands a breakthrough! Nothing less will do! And “grace” might as well be the best name we could give to that breakthrough. “Grace” or better yet: call this no-thing-ness, this emptiness nothing at all.

Remember: “Shake it – it does not move; chase it – it does not go away. Bright and clear, you are always in it.” This the bowels of meditation.

‘I’ve Stopped–Now You Stop’

The Story

In Middle Discourse 86, “With Aṅgulimāla,” the Buddha says, “I’ve stopped, Aṅgulimāla—now you stop.”

What is the Buddha talking about?

The story goes that Angulimala was once the favorite student of his teacher, but his jealous peers found a way to set his teacher against him. “In an attempt to get rid of Aṅgūlimāla, the teacher sends him on a deadly mission to find a thousand human fingers to complete his studies” (Wikipedia).

We can presume that this is the backdrop to MN 86, which simply begins:

Now at that time in the realm of King Pasenadi of Kosala there was a bandit named Aṅgulimāla. He was violent, bloody-handed, a hardened killer, merciless to living beings. He laid waste to villages, towns, and countries. He was constantly murdering people, and he wore their fingers as a necklace.

What ensues sounds like something from Aesop’s Fable:

The bandit Aṅgulimāla saw the Buddha coming off in the distance, and thought, “It’s incredible, it’s amazing! People travel along this road only after banding closely together in groups of ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty. Still they meet their end by my hand. But still this ascetic comes along alone and unaccompanied, like he had beaten me already. Why don’t I take his life?”

Then Aṅgulimāla donned his sword and shield, fastened his bow and arrows, and followed behind the Buddha. But the Buddha used his psychic power to will that Aṅgulimāla could not catch up with him no matter how hard he tried, even though the Buddha kept walking at a normal speed.

Finding it impossible to catch the Buddha, Angulimala exclaims, “Stop, stop, ascetic!”

And now the stunning reply: “I’ve stopped, Aṅgulimāla—now you stop.”

Now, what is the Buddha talking about?

Wandering Mind and Self-effort

Ostensibly, MN 86 is about Angulimala’s violence. He must learn to show compassion and lovingkindness for all sentient beings. This is no doubt true.

Yet from a Zen point of view, the story is about the nature of wandering mind and the limits of self-effort.

For the nature of finite mind just is to (a) wander and (b) objectify. By “wander,” I mean that mind is the placing of attention on this or that. By “objectify,” I mean that the “this or that” is taken as ‘something.’ The mind is that which is always looking at or for ‘something.’ Mind is no other than this restless searching.

Ever vibrating, ever restless, ever anxious, mind can never, by dint of self-effort, come to rest. This much is revealed in seated practice, especially as one goes deeper and deeper. Deeper and deeper–there too is subtler and subtler vibration and agitation!

Therefore, it can truly be said: “I, ego-self, cannot stop. I, ego-self, cannot make myself stop, no matter how hard I try. I, ego-self, am, in this sense, like Angulimala, who tries and tries to catch Buddha (Buddha nature) yet somehow cannot. For me, ego-self, Buddha nature is unattainable!”

Where does this leave the seeker?

The Objectification Approach and the Great Leap Below

Here, helpfully, is Matsao Abe from Zen and Western Thought (1985):

[T]he true Self recedes, step by step, as we repeatedly ask about ourselves. This process is endless–it is an infinite regress. And yet, while increasingly compelled to engage in this endless process of grasping, we are also forced to realize that that which can be grasped is never anything more than an objectified, dead self.

This is the reason why, referring to the realization of the true Self, Nan-ch’uan (Ja: Nansen) says: ‘If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it.’ Lin-chi (Ja: Rinzai) also says: ‘If you seek him, he retreats farther and farther away; if you don’t seek him, then he’s right there before your eyes, his wondrous voice resounding in your ears.’ The endless regression implied in the ‘objectification approach’ indicates the futility and inevitable collapse of this approach.

Thus the true Self as a genuine Subject cannot be attained through this type of approach, no matter how rigorously we pursue it. Faced with infinite regression, therefore, we cannot help but realize that the true Self is unattained. No matter how many times we may repeatedly ask ourselves [Who am I? etc.–AT], our true Self always stands ‘behind’ [or ‘beneath–AT]; it can never be found in ‘front’ of us. The true Self is not something attainable, but that which is unattainable. When this is existentially realized with our whole being, the ego-self crumbles. (Zen and Western Thought, p. 7)

Accordingly, practice needs to go deeper and deeper into restfulness (Great Trust), sinking further and further ‘back’ into samadhi. Wandering mind will never ‘find “it.”‘ Period. And the Zen koan provides ‘the final push’ because becoming one (samadhi) before the arising of wandering mind is still not enough. The ground must ‘reach up’ into this relative rest and subsume everything and ‘me.’