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Thread: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

  1. #1
    Stephanie
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    Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Hello all,

    I find myself frightfully irritated on the close of the first day of Ango with the accretions of my intellectual understandings from over the years, like a pool full of stromatolites.

    I understand full well intellectually and can write nicely worded paeans to truth being nothing other than just this moment. But I cannot seem to drop my addiction to looking for something else. Waiting for that magic moment when things click into place.

    Further, I find that instead of looking at or being just the experience of this moment, I am looking at my ideas about being just this moment. I would drop them, but they seem stuck to the sides of my brain with Super Glue.

    I have so many beautiful and refined ideas. My brain never stops coming up with them. For the "brain brakes" to start working and my mind to start to slow down takes much of a whole sitting period, if not a whole period or even more than one. I tend to spend the first fifteen minutes of any sit with hardly any moments of mindful awareness as my brain is moving at 100 miles an hour and dense with thought, like some kind of wacky centrifuge. But even once it slows... then I start looking for "it"... this kensho experience I can't deny wanting to have. Which I know is foolish, but like the rest of my ideas... hard to get rid of.

    I do not wish to stop thinking or having ideas, I quite enjoy thinking and pondering while off the cushion, I just wish the products of such didn't make it so hard to experience anything other than through a thick film of ideas.

    Help? :lol:

    Stephanie

  2. #2
    Treeleaf Unsui Dosho's Avatar
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    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Hi Stephanie,

    I don't really think I can help very much, but I do think you are on the right track. I can only speak for myself, but I eventually found peace in sitting because I'm not looking for a damn thing. And the rest of the time my mind is ALWAYS looking for patterns and meaning. I rarely comment about it because it's hard not to seem like I'm being a know-it-all (as if I've found any great truth...ha!). I really don't think I know squat. But I can say that lately when I see your very long posts...which are always interesting and pose much food for thought...I don't tend to read them because they remind me too much of my crazy mind.

    All I can suggest is to keep working on just sitting there and not entertaining all those ideas. I haven't come across anything tangible as to why that's the key, but I really do think that's it. I don't know that's it whatsoever, but I feel pretty sure trying to figure it out on the cushion is not it.

    If that made any sense, congratulations...and can you explain it to me?

    Gassho,
    Dosho

  3. #3
    Blue Mountain White Clouds Hermitage Priest Taigu's Avatar
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    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Hi Stephanie,

    The very fact that you are aware of this thick film of ideas and constant brain activity is already an amazing achievement. Most people never experience how they filter the world or percieve it through the turning kaleidoscope of thoughts. Thoughts ar not dropped through the activity of dropping them, thoughts come and go freely once you engage fully in the task at hand. You may also use the kind of stuff I recommand in the following vid, sweeping the mind:

    http://www.shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=17403

    Take care, and thoughts or no thoughts, the problem lies in the attachment to it.

    gassho


    Taigu

  4. #4

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Have Patience, thatīs my advice. It takes some time to get used to sitting on regular basis, in case one hasnīt done that. The mind will settle it self, get adjusted to just sitting, IMO.

    Janne

  5. #5

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Quote Originally Posted by Stephanie
    I have so many beautiful and refined ideas. My brain never stops coming up with them. For the "brain brakes" to start working and my mind to start to slow down takes much of a whole sitting period, if not a whole period or even more than one. I tend to spend the first fifteen minutes of any sit with hardly any moments of mindful awareness as my brain is moving at 100 miles an hour and dense with thought, like some kind of wacky centrifuge. But even once it slows... then I start looking for "it"... this kensho experience I can't deny wanting to have. Which I know is foolish, but like the rest of my ideas... hard to get rid of.

    I do not wish to stop thinking or having ideas, I quite enjoy thinking and pondering while off the cushion, I just wish the products of such didn't make it so hard to experience anything other than through a thick film of ideas.

    Help? :lol:

    Stephanie
    Welcome to the club.

  6. #6
    Stephanie
    Guest

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Dosho,

    Thank you for the encouragement. Mind you, I like thinking, and don't think that intellectual activity is something bad or "crazy." Actually, I think our country would benefit if more people valued intellectual activity :wink:

    I just wish it was easier to put thinking in its place. It's not that hard to see thinking as just thinking when it is overt, but it subtly hijacks my time on the zafu because of ideas operating underneath the surface about what zazen should be like.

    The toughest is when the intellectual ideas are "right" but the very idea itself prevents the experience pointed to by the intellectual construct from happening. Being the moment becomes an attempt to model the idea of what being this moment is like.

    Any tips you've got on how to deal with this conundrum would be much appreciated :wink:

    Gassho,

    Stephanie

    __________________________________________________ ____________

    Taigu,

    Thank you very much for your teaching.

    I remember finding that talk helpful, I should watch it again.

    I have gotten better at dropping the attachment to thought in day to day situations, not giving as much credence to my thoughts and opinions as I used to (though of course I can still get quite caught by them!). Where I find the thinking especially burdensome is that it seems impossible, once having had an idea of what sitting should be, or awakening should be, to "just sit" without these ideas operating on some deeply subtle level. I fear that I will spend my life on the cushion unable to stop "leaning" toward what I have been conditioned to expect.

    Any advice?

    And thank you for the encouragement.

    Gassho,

    Stephanie

    __________________________________________________ ____________

    Janne,

    My sitting practice has been inconsistent for some time now, and I have confidence that my commitment to Ango at Treeleaf will help get that daily practice going again.

    The funny thing is, though, that even during the periods of time when I've been sitting daily--I pretty much sat daily from some point in late 2004 or early 2005 to the beginning of 2008--my mind does not slow down much. It does slow down on the cushion, over the course of a sitting period, but immediately ramps back up to a high level of activity as soon as the period ends. Intensive sits of multiple periods can help but even with that my brain seems to have an endless momentum.

    I am grateful to have the active mind that I do. It has given my life great richness and has helped me succeed in the academic and working worlds. I am not one of those Zennies (though I was at one point in time) who want to make my mind stop, or drop thinking completely. I have accepted that my brain may always be like a hyperactive two year old bouncing off the walls no matter how much I sit.

    I just wish, as stated above, that my brain's brilliant ability to grasp concepts intellectually didn't "jam the works" when it came to understanding non-intellectually. I wonder if this brain and its cleverness will prevent me from ever truly seeing and waking up.

    I feel like my intellectual understanding becomes such a close framing of a correct view that it becomes almost impossible to dislodge. My thinking helps aim me in the right direction in many cases, but then becomes like a pair of distorting glasses I can't remove.

    I suppose all I can do is keep recognizing it when I recognize it, and dropping it when I see it constructing my experience.

    Gassho,

    Stephanie

  7. #7

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Good morning Stephanie,

    I have noticed much the same thing, with the exception that my mind doesn't necessarily "slow" when sitting. For me, whether sitting or walking, standing or lying down, when I lose mindfulness, and it seems the mind is careening at breakneck speeds, I say "smile, breathe and go slowly."

    I don't remember which book it is in, but the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh said this, and saying it as a gentle reminder to myself usually helps to keep things from getting out of hand.

    Perhaps this works for you, or maybe I've just trained myself like one of Pavlov's dogs. In either case, I sincerely hope that this helps you.

    Much metta,

    Perry

  8. #8
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    I would suggest not worrying or thinking about "brain brakes" and just letting your mind go at 100 mph and watch the scenery until your mind runs out of gas and... slows.... down..... of...... its....... own........ accord......... until.......... it........... stops.
    Onlytostartupagainofitsownaccordafteramomentortwo! !!
    But... eventually.... it..... will...... slow....... down........ again.......... and.......... stop.
    Keep repeating this process, because it is NOT an outcome you are after (even though it feels like one to you).

  9. #9
    Treeleaf Unsui Dosho's Avatar
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    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Quote Originally Posted by Stephanie
    Thank you for the encouragement. Mind you, I like thinking, and don't think that intellectual activity is something bad or "crazy." Actually, I think our country would benefit if more people valued intellectual activity :wink:
    I wasn't saying that the intellectual activity itself is "crazy", just the mindset that keeps bringing it so forcefully to the surface during zazen. The best metaphor I can offer is letting those thoughts just slowly percolate and then evaporate as we sit. We aren't trying to stop them from rising, perhaps just reglulating their ascent. Or something like that.

    I just wish it was easier to put thinking in its place. It's not that hard to see thinking as just thinking when it is overt, but it subtly hijacks my time on the zafu because of ideas operating underneath the surface about what zazen should be like.
    The wishing is the most difficult part to "overcome" I think...you could try letting it hijack your sitting time for awhile without any thought of "I wish..."' but I'm guessing you've tried that.

    The toughest is when the intellectual ideas are "right" but the very idea itself prevents the experience pointed to by the intellectual construct from happening. Being the moment becomes an attempt to model the idea of what being this moment is like.
    That is exactly right since the ideas are tempting and interesting. I always used to write things down, but until I just let them go even though they might be profound I was very stuck. If they are important, I figure they'll rise again.

    Any tips you've got on how to deal with this conundrum would be much appreciated :wink:
    I'll give it some thought! :lol:

    Gassho,
    Dosho

  10. #10

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Its not like we don't have a choice, you can come back to the present moment or you can wander off into your thinking. We stay with certain thoughts and feelings because we believe they are important. Most of it is complete bullshit and a waste of time but we can't see that. If we just let it go we would know what to do when the time is right. The problem isn't that thoughts keep popping - they always will, the problem is we don't want to put in the time and effort practicing letting them go and returning to the present.

    /Rich

  11. #11
    Stephanie
    Guest

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Thanks for the feedback, all.

    Each in your own way, you helped point me to my tendency to fight with myself on the cushion.

    I remembered how much easier it all is when I stop fighting with myself.

    Stop trying to fix my experience. This isn't about forcibly stopping, but stopping the attempt to stop.

    Gassho

  12. #12

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Sometimes when I'm sitting I see places in my body where some kind of perpendicularity (is that even a word?) is taking place. And let go of it.

    Sometimes I physically open a large space in my mind where acceptance fits in, because my mind space was too small for acceptance. Sometimes this imagining has a physical sensation, or hurts or feels strange.

    I've also found that when I am feeling too mental, physical exercise is an answer. That burns up a lot of crapola.

    I used to sort of coast on being able to do well in school, with my academic or intellectual side if you will. But recently I noticed the whole thing works better if I work really hard too. It's great to have great ideas, but one of the reasons I chop wood and carry water anyway is because what if I have a really great idea about how to chop wood and carry water? But then I try it, I actually do it, I try 449 different ways to chop wood and carry water, well, which way worked? What kind of wood was it, what time of year was it, what kind of fireplace was it? Was it really on my neighbor's side of the fence, and what did they have to say about it?

    The marriage of my mind and body is like the marriage of the particular and the absolute. On a razor's edge, alive and shimmering. Being too mental is one drug I use to get off that edge when it's too intense, because being too mental is a comfortable place for me. But then I get on my bike, and ride under the stars, and scrape my knees when I fall down, and realize that things are 10,000 times 10,000 different ways than I imagined, and that I should try wearing a helmet when bike riding.

    Ach, it's so hard to put these things into words. Hope this is helpful.

    Manatee

  13. #13

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Hi Stephanie,

    I'd like to help, but I really don't know how without making things worse. Maybe if you are thinking too hard, you can shift focus into your body more? Try to be aware more of how your body feels, how it is sitting, where the weight and pressure is, what is aching? That's not to solve anything in itself, because it just brings the awareness of your body into your thoughts and there isn't really any difference between our attachment to intellectual thoughts and our attachment to thinking about our bodies. But maybe body-thoughts will arise more slowly than thought-thoughts - if slowing down is what you're after right now.

    But if you have nice, slow thoughts, odds are you will just become attached to the new luxury of having time to pick each one up and tell yourself that you are not attached to it. The issue of racing thoughts or slow thoughts might just be a distraction, the mind does what the mind does. Don't shy away from thought, don't bin the ones you have, don't be happy when you find a clear patch, don't be unhappy when you're gazing at a mental motorway. If you're aware of them then that's enough.

    Just one final thought to add to all the other thoughts trying to create less thoughts: if you're aware that your thoughts are coming at 100mph, then that's only because you're aware that they are moving in relation to something. So somehow you've always been aware of the thing you're looking for.

    Jundo, Taigu and anyone else can rush in with damp tea towels and smother this if it's going to make matters worse!

    Gassho,
    Monkton

  14. #14
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Here is a really off the wall suggestion to get you out of your mind, so to speak :shock:

    Sit with a fan on low and have that fan blowing air on you, then focus your attention on the sound of the fan and the sensation of the air blowing on your body. Whenever you start thinking thoughts, just drop them and focus back on the sound of the fan coupled with the feeling of air crossing your body. That combination of mind-sound and air-moving-body is the present moment. Right there you can realize it! It's really that simple, though using a little bit of a mind trick to get you "there."

    I came up with this because I sit where the AC comes on and blows cool air on me, and in those moments when it is on I can get very aware of just the sound and the sensation. My mind drifts, but it it always comes back because I have sound-sensation to remind me of the present moment, which right then consists only of sound-sensation, as best I can explain it (you really DO have to BE there). But if your mind wants to do something, this will give it something to "do" so that you can just BE with that moment.

    That I now make use of this sound-sensation is quite ironic, because I used to complain that the AC really messed up my zazen. It and my refrigerator were evil-doer zazen demons :twisted: or something like that :roll: But over time I have developed a way to use these things as helpers, as teachers of zazen. So I pass this along hoping it's not too crazy, knowing I will get smite down by Jundo or Taigu if it is :wink:

  15. #15

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Quote Originally Posted by Stephanie
    Thanks for the feedback, all.

    Each in your own way, you helped point me to my tendency to fight with myself on the cushion.

    I remembered how much easier it all is when I stop fighting with myself.

    Stop trying to fix my experience. This isn't about forcibly stopping, but stopping the attempt to stop.

    Gassho
    Gassho

    I don't think trees complain when the wind rustles their leaves, or when the leaves all fall off in the winter. But then again, we aren't trees!

    More and more I aim to be more aware during zazen, still I often go on the "AHA! I have a perfect metaphor for this experience! Blah blah blahhhh..." then it's a snap back to awareness, or sometimes a fade back in. No fighting, I think too much and honestly, I would lose :P

    It's just your nature to think 10,000 thoughts more than the average person, I think about 10,000 too, I think :mrgreen:

    It's hard to pass through the waterfall when we're already on the other side. Then again, I'm young and foolish

    Gassho
    Taylor

  16. #16
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    I wrote:
    Sit with a fan on low and have that fan blowing air on you, then focus your attention on the sound of the fan and the sensation of the air blowing on your body. Whenever you start thinking thoughts, just drop them and focus back on the sound of the fan coupled with the feeling of air crossing your body. That combination of mind-sound and air-moving-body is the present moment. Right there you can realize it! It's really that simple, though using a little bit of a mind trick to get you "there."
    Stephanie and anyone else that this might appeal to,

    I thought about this for quite a while before deciding to post it, just wanting to be sure it was ok to share as a technique. Because it isn't something I set out to do, rather something that just happens when I do zazen, I wasn't sure about recommending it. I decided it was fairly harmless, but now that it is posted I have been thinking about it more and want to mention two Big Cautions:

    One, zazen is about accepting things as they are, not about manipulating the environment so you can accept it that way. This "trick" is meant to possibly help the mind slow down, or maybe stop, and is not "true" zazen.
    Two, if you do this and it works, great; but make sure this is a temporary thing you do. Care must be taken you don't condition yourself into "needing" a fan in order to experience "good" zazen. You don't "need" anything for zazen other than maybe a posture, and refer to Jundo's post about right/wrong/good/bad zazen.

    Also, I think to struggle is good. As I mentioned above, with time my hindrances became facilitators, and that process involved lots of struggle. I think if you observe (without participating) the struggle long enough it will eventually transform into something else or drop away entirely.

  17. #17

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Quote Originally Posted by AlanLa
    two Big Cautions:

    One, zazen is about accepting things as they are, not about manipulating the environment so you can accept it that way. This "trick" is meant to possibly help the mind slow down, or maybe stop, and is not "true" zazen.
    Two, if you do this and it works, great; but make sure this is a temporary thing you do. Care must be taken you don't condition yourself into "needing" a fan in order to experience "good" zazen. You don't "need" anything for zazen other than maybe a posture, and refer to Jundo's post about right/wrong/good/bad zazen.

    Also, I think to struggle is good. As I mentioned above, with time my hindrances became facilitators, and that process involved lots of struggle. I think if you observe (without participating) the struggle long enough it will eventually transform into something else or drop away entirely.
    Hi Alan,

    I am very glad you added this, and it all sounds fine to me. Sometimes, on those days when the mind is really really storming, we may use a trick or two ... such as counting the breath ... until things settle down. Then, we return to open, steady awareness focused on everything and no thing at all.

    Our way is not to be completely without thoughts, however, but rather to not be attached and clinging to thoughts and emotions, not tangled or stirring, letting them go ... sometimes seeing the space between ... sometimes seeing through thoughts and emotions in clarity and translucence. As Al says, "observe without participating" ... and the sea will "transform ... or drop away entirely"

    One might say that the way of the sea is not to be without waves, flat as glass (although that may happen once in awhile too), and the sailor must sale the ordinary waves and storms ... for they too are the sea. Sometimes we dip in to where all the waves vanish ... and we vanish too ... but most of our sailing must be where sea meets sky and life ... all whole.

    On some days though, when the typhoon blows, he may have to take some special steps to get back to the open sea, battening down the hatches and mast, avoiding the rocks and reefs. All until the storm blows past.

    Something like that.

  18. #18
    Stephanie
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    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Thanks again for the great posts, everyone.

    Taylor, I don't think you're young and foolish, just young and almost impossibly exuberant and upbeat :wink:

    AlanLa, I quite liked your suggestion about the fan, prescient as it's something I've already done. Given I have no air conditioning, on hot days, I aim the fan at me while I sit, and occasionally focusing my attention on the sensation of the breeze from the fan blowing on my skin can be very grounding. That moment of grounding can do a lot to slow the momentum of my whirling centrifuge of a brain. I'm definitely not trying to stop my thoughts, rather I find it almost impossible to have any sort of awareness if the thoughts don't drop below a certain density. Sometimes it takes 15 minutes for this to occur, sometimes a whole sitting period. Though the amount of time for the momentum to slow has historically been reduced when I've been sitting consistently every day.

    It's definitely really bad after a day at work, which includes navigating a long commute full of incredibly aggressive drivers, as well as a day full of emotionally exciting and finely tuned interactions with others.

    Back to the fan--this reminds me of something I heard in a talk a woman gave at a symposium on perception at my college. She was a Buddhist, I forget who she was, but the talk was great. She talked about how her teacher had taught her to let the sound of a gong or bell pass through her. It was a very vivid way she put it--of letting the experience of sound pass through you with no resistance or reactivity to it. Letting the whole body and mind ring. The sensation of air blowing on skin can be the same, I've noticed. You can let the whole body take it in, it becomes body-fan.

    The main thing I'm seeing is that I am wired toward life very aggressively. I set things up in my head in terms of fighting or overcoming obstacles. Part of what happens when I sit is that this aggressive mind takes over the zazen, and turns the zazen into a battle against something--a racing mind. Waking up is upheld as the outcome of a successful battle with myself. I see this, and its absurdity, and when I can just let go of it and stop fighting, there is no issue.

  19. #19
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Just watch the battle, don't take sides, because there are no sides. And it takes a loooooooong time of consistent sitting to get to this nowhere-to-go place where the battle finally subsides. At least this is how it was for me, and hey, it's not like I'm any good at getting to this nowhere-to-go place at all. If I gave the impression I no longer struggle, that would be wrong, because the struggles just change over time. My hindrances mentioned became facilitators, only to be replaced by new hindrances, like waves that keep on coming, and so I am still a pretty crappy surfer. But I do my practice diligently, and even more so during Ango.

  20. #20

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Hellos to all posting here

    Many people said many things

    Stephanie said "I wish it were easier putting thoughts in their place"

    Nothing could be easier! they already are

    kinda like saying I wish I could put farts in their place: they arise where they arise and dissipate where they dissipate


    I remember once telling the head of the group I sat with (Lone Star Sangha in Jifu Gower's home) that I liked my mind: I mean as much trouble as it got me in, it also helped me through some tight places. (I forget what she told me at the time--I do recall she did not discourage this--but I don't remember what she said, it was 15 years ago or so...)

    Nowadays with the middle age brain glitches--the total blankness of brain where just a second before a whole convoluted thought was standing in the wings about to go public...
    well!




    well, well, well....

  21. #21

    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    Quote Originally Posted by AlanLa
    Just watch the battle, don't take sides, because there are no sides. And it takes a loooooooong time of consistent sitting to get to this nowhere-to-go place where the battle finally subsides. At least this is how it was for me, and hey, it's not like I'm any good at getting to this nowhere-to-go place at all. If I gave the impression I no longer struggle, that would be wrong, because the struggles just change over time. My hindrances mentioned became facilitators, only to be replaced by new hindrances, like waves that keep on coming, and so I am still a pretty crappy surfer. But I do my practice diligently, and even more so during Ango.
    It also takes not even an instant to arrive at this "no where to go place" ... when one realizes that even the battle is/was the "no where to go place" ... that the struggle is the hike ...

    ... thus the battle over, the struggle over ... even as we keep pushing on up the hill to right here.

    There are no crappy surfers, and no right or wrong surfing. Nobody stays standing on the board forever, and we all take a dip. Surfing is not only the time you feel like you are standing on the board feeling balanced and in the zone. It's ALL SURFING!

    viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2816

  22. #22
    Senior Member AlanLa's Avatar
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    Re: Intellectual understanding as an obstacle

    I may have been a little overly hard on myself in describing my surfing. More accurate would be that I am still very much learning how to surf. I can find my board regularly, and I need to because I fall off regularly. Other than that, yeah to all you say Jundo.

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