Psychological vs. Spiritual Insight
I'd like to return to the story of Chao-chou's first encounter with his teacher Nan-ch'uan. Chao-chou would go on to become one of the most famous and most quoted of all masters, but in this story, he is a beginning monk, asking his teacher for instruction. "What is the Way?" he asks. Nan-ch'uan replies, "Your ordinary mind is the Way." If we think of the Way as something special or lofty, what could be further from it that our ordinary mind? That's the basic paradox we're all here to resolve. Chao-chou doesn't understand, so he persists, asking, "Should I direct myself towards it or not?" And Nan-ch'uan answers, "If you try to direct yourself towards it, you betray your practice." The story goes on, (and culminates in Chao-chou's first great kensho) but today let's stop here and just discuss what was said so far.
If our ordinary mind is the way, how do we practice? Nan-ch'uan says if you "direct yourself towards it" you betray you practice. Why is that? Well, because you will have already immediately set up something outside of yourself that you're pursuing, and your practice will be contaminated by this dualism. That's what they used to call riding a donkey looking for a donkey.
But this is how Chao-chou and everyone of us initially comes to practice. So our practice of just sitting is designed to bring us back, over and over, to where we already are, rather than helping us get somewhere we imagine we ought to be going. But it can take a long time to recognize that that's a donkey we've been riding on all along.
When we come into therapy, instead of pursuing some ideal, we may be trying to escape some part of ourselves. Our anger. Our depression. Our sexuality. Then we think that analysis must be a kind of mental surgery, cutting out all those disagreeable aspects of our minds and leaving behind only what is calm or compassionate. But neither therapy nor our Zen practice works that way. The mind can't escape itself. That would be like riding a donkey fleeing from a donkey.
In therapy, we gradually come to the awareness that the mind that's seeking to do the escaping is no other than the mind it wants to escape. A mind of likes and dislikes, of preferences and distinctions. When we try to escape some aspect of our mind, we are perpetuating the very likes and dislikes, the very distinctions and dualisms we say we're trying to eliminate. The only way out of that paradox is to leave our mind alone; to fully accept the mind that we have, anger, dualisms and all. And when we no longer judge ourselves or try to emotionally neuter ourselves, the internal tensions and conflicts gradually begin to die down. We might say that this is the most basic psychological insight: I can't escape myself; I must come to terms with the mind that I have.
It's a little harder for most people to realize that not only is the mind that I'm trying to escape the only mind I have, but that the mind that I'm seeking is the also the mind that I already have. The perfection that we're so busy pursuing is to be found nowhere but right here in this very momentregardless of its content. This is the most basic spiritual insight that we can have. This moment is it! What we've desperately been seeking is already here.
All of practice, whether in therapy or in Zen practice, can be said to come down to these two basic insights: There's nothing to escape. There's nothing to gain. How do you put the two of them together?
No matter how many clouds gather, the sky is always big enough to contain them all.