Finding Your Center
By Rev. Master Seikai
In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi and Qi Gong (which I found and bought in a thrift store), one chapter is devoted to Finding Your Center. The author, Bill Douglas, says the following: “Being in center reduces the melodrama in your life so you can focus more attention on the big stuff. Standing in the center means aligning our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual selves so we function at our very best, using everything we’ve got in everything we do.”1
This reminded me of many years ago when my Zen master, Jiyu-Kennett, talked about “the stillness in the center of your being” and “the center in the midst of conditions.” This was for me a very transformative teaching, which in many ways really set me on the path of Buddhist training. I realized that, without consciously thinking about it, to be centered or to retreat often to the very center of my being is simply how I live life. Years ago it became second nature.
I was delighted to find this teaching rephrased in the context of a slightly different meditative tradition, that of Tai Chi. My understanding of T’ai Chi, which I practice, is that it is to bring a meditative mind into slow, deliberate movements which activate the chi, the body’s natural, internal energy, which circulates in much the same way that blood does. Over the centuries, the Chinese people figured out which movements are the most effective in maximizing the movement of chi in the body. It isn’t the same as Zen meditation, or zazen, but at the same time it isn’t fundamentally different, either.
We would all like to reduce the melodrama in our lives. The modern world, driven as it is by electronic devices and a super-fast pace, has a higher ambient level of melodrama than when I was young—not that there was any lack of it then. There is all the more reason to have resources that we can call upon to help us not get too caught up in the melodramas of politics, power struggles, interpersonal disharmonies, competitiveness. But in the Zen tradition we don’t really make a distinction between the “big stuff” and the “little stuff.” What the author is suggesting is that by not obsessing over little stuff, we can allow ourselves to view a bigger picture in which we keep larger considerations in view. This is hard for most people to do. We humans are chronically short-sighted and forget the big picture easily; or we give up responsibility for the bigger picture because someone else, really, is in control of that.
Bridging this dichotomy involves learning to sit still in the center of your being, and teaching yourself not to get too sucked into little psycho-dramas. You have to let go of the idea that you have the right answer all the time, or that if only people listened to you and did things your way, everything would work out OK. Experience shows all of us that this isn’t true; all we have to do is be willing to look with an open mind. Doing so has an enormously freeing effect. It allows us to function at our very best, using everything we’ve got in everything we do.”
That is actually a very Zen concept. Not trying to be in control, not trying to be the best, not trying to be right all the time allows us to focus on bringing the best we have to any task or situation. Life is kind of like a dance in which we have to learn not to lead the dance, but follow the steps. If you do that long enough, then it becomes more a case of dancing with life without either one being in the lead or following—it’s just a dance. It doesn’t mean that life will always be smooth, like a waltz, but it does mean that whatever happens, we know that everything is teaching us and will be resolved.
The Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & QiGong continues as follows:
T’ai Chi slows us down inside and out. As our body begins to move more slowly, our breathing slows down. As we hear our breathing slow, our mind begins to ride on the rhythm of that relaxed breath, letting go bit by bit of the storming thoughts of the day. As the wind calms, it has a resonant effect on the heartbeat, the blood pressure, and the body’s healing systems. On some level, we begin to realize we are not in a state of mortal danger after all, which is a state that our ancient “fight or flight” response produces in us. It is this response more than the world around us that makes life seem like it is spinning way out of control…. Ta’i Chi promotes that ability to refocus, to disengage, to give the mind and body opportunities to heal so they can tackle real-life problems.
This is the physical side of what we are doing in Zen meditation and practice. Zen focuses more on the mind, the internal discipline and concentration; T’ai Chi is explaining more what goes on in the body when we engage in practice on this level. For myself, I have always looked upon these disciplines as being complimentary, as making up two sides of a whole. If you train your mind, you should have some idea how to also train your body to keep up with it, and if you are practicing ta’i chi, yoga, or some other mindfulness-based discipline, you need to learn how to train your mind to give up its egocentricity.
Body and mind are also paired up in a dance in which we normally allow the brain to lead. Rev. Master Jiyu explained that the brain is really like a computer which presents all the options available at any given moment, but really shouldn’t be in the position of having to make every decision. Decisions of any real consequence need to be made by the heart: in the center of your being. Our higher nature, whatever it is which decides to give up selfishness and live by a more ethically, spiritually sound standard, isn’t really the same voice as the voice of our rambling thoughts. It comes from a deeper place. All we have to do if we wish to hear it is to decide to tune into it, but that involves learning to sit still underneath the constant noise of the brain.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that they need to “turn off” their thinking mind and just sit there with a blank mind. This approach leads you immediately into a struggle in which there is no winner. It is essentially to have the mind divided against itself. What actually works is to focus the mind on something other than thinking; in the case of ta’I chi, the slow movements of the body, or in sitting meditation the in and out flow of the breath. Or, in sitting meditation, it is possible to focus on the stillness in the center of your being without being too distracted by what may be going on in the brain. That is the beginning of deeper meditation.
You can begin to realize that there are multiple layers of consciousness. Underneath the thinking brain there is a calmer place where you can reflect upon life, and reflect on the contents of your own mind without getting involved in the content. Underneath that layer of consciousness, the deeper stillness in the center of your being is a place of not holding on to anything—just letting water flow. That flow of water is sufficient unto itself and can’t possibly have anything added to it or taken away from it.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide describes meditation as being analogous to viewing a glass of clear soda from the side, with little bubbles rising to the surface from the depths of the glass. The depths of the glass are like the unconscious mind, from which so much of our lives issues forth. Bill
Our quiet meditations place us sitting on the side, observing the true depth of life. Here we see that experiences are really end results rather than big surprises. Events in our lives are actually results of patterns or habits we have below the level of what we usually see and feel. We set ourselves up for success or failure by how we think of ourselves every day. If we think of ourselves as valuable human beings capable of success, then we’re much more likely to form bubbles that pop on the surface of our lives in the form of success stories. Likewise, if we continually think of ourselves as bad or worthless, we will probably create bubbles to reflect that worthlessness in the form of relationship problems [and] we will attract people into our lives who will reinforce that reality.
Unlike a “man cave”, which is an escape from the cares and pressures of everyday life, the cave in the center of our being, which in the Zen tradition we often refer to as the temple of our own heart, is a place where we can confront those pressures without fighting them, and let them dissolve in the flow of water within meditation. That place of calm and acceptance is our birthright, the place where everything can be, just as it is; the true resting place.
Douglas, Bill; The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & QiGong; Third Edition, copyright 2005; Alpha Books, New York, NY 10014; pp. 48-57.
Reflections on Perfection
By AnneMarie Mal
As I wipe down the kitchen counters in the Buddha house after morning meditation I contemplate my inclination toward perfectionism. I seem to have a habit of looking for what can be improved and taking initiative toward improving it (whether or not anyone else thinks it needs improving). Usually, I then proceed to point out to others what I’ve done, beaming with self-satisfaction.
The energy behind it is “Look how amazing I am. I saw this needed doing and I did it and now we all get to benefit. Especially me, who gets the double benefit of being recognized as a superior being for my keen eye, talent for cleanliness, and initiative”.
What I have realized while sitting on the cushion is that I cling to perfectionism as a way of creating purpose and self-worth for my life. When I can do something perfectly, I equate it as a reason for my existence. It is my cry to be seen, validated, valued by others; to be wanted for what I can provide: a space of perfection.
What I have learned in my short time on this planet is that when a human being is not willing to let go of what they are clinging to (in my case perfectionism), life has a way of creating circumstances in which we are forced to give up that thing. I want to change before I am forced to change. I sit in the conundrum of asking: How do I complete an action perfectly, without any attachment? How do I not cling to that sense of triumph upon which my self-value sits? How can I approach each activity with the intention to do my best, understanding that the outcome means nothing about me? I contemplate the idea that I do not have more or less value whether or not I complete something perfectly or imperfectly…
In the mirror of the Sangha, I see the impact on those around me who are expected to constantly applaud my perfection. I might imagine that it would be exhausting for people to constantly have to thank me for things they didn’t know they wanted or needed. It is also impossible to match or keep up with because my yearning for validation and valuation is unending.
Perfectionism also hits its limits when I cannot actually live up to my idea of being a perfect person. I see this in relation to wanting to be the perfect daughter, granddaughter, and niece. In my mind, the perfect daughter is there for her family whenever they need her. However, I have not been able to live up to that expectation. I watch my mind immediately spiral into distress at the thought of not living up to my ideal. The thing I use to measure my value against is in shambles because I cannot possibly be and do everything for everyone while getting my own needs met.
The scripture Sandokai comes to mind: “Lo!—With the ideal comes the actual, like a box all with its lid;…Lo!—Hear! Set up not your own standards…”
Friends have said that they look to me as an inspiration. This is most dangerous to me because it encourages me to be further self-sacrificing in the service of my imaginary standards. It feeds the perfectionism monster and leads to a life in which I am never relaxed. This is because I am always striving for new levels of perfection that inevitably cannot ever be reached as I constantly move the bar of measurement higher.
I am left on the cushion, facing the wall of perfectionism I have adopted that at once serves everyone and no one. I wonder if I sit long enough if I will get a breakthrough, or if it is a life-long challenge for me. Is there room for me to accept myself as I am: a perfectionist? How do I wipe the dirty glasses I am wearing that are smudged with perfectionism so I can see reality clearly?
At the same time, how can I have compassion for the being that is me that desires love? Does the cat not meow, asking for a head rub? Is it not our basic human desire to need and ask for love? Though elaborate, this mechanism was put in place borne of that basic desire. A normal, healthy call for love.
I imagine how I might ask for love without this elaborate game. “Hello, please love me. I am an imperfect person, and I will obsessively strive for perfection in the hopes that you will see value in me and respond with praise. This praise will then encourage me to continue my perfection-based, value-seeking activities indefinitely until I cannot possibly become more perfect and have a mental breakdown. During which I will hide from all of you so that you dare not see how deeply imperfect I see myself to be. I will gather myself up after a period of time and pretend that nothing happened and the whole program will ensue once more”.
How exhausting! No wonder I sigh with exhaustion everywhere I go! I am on a merry-go-round of an unwinnable game! And the hopelessness of it has me at once want to give up and try harder! How laughable our human existence!
Despite it all, I can see something in my mind turning away from this. There has been a development of distaste for gratitude given to me as a result of my compulsive perfection-based contributions. I don’t want to give in a way that expects gratitude. I want to be a contribution in a way that actually helps people in that they feel like they don’t owe me anything. Rev Phoebe says, that which recognizes error is not itself in error. Maybe there is hope for me yet…
I think about how my control issues go hand in hand with my perfectionist tendencies. Control for me always shows up in décor and design. When I cannot see or control the future, the only thing that seems to give me peace of mind is arranging my immediate environment into a place where I feel safe and comfortable. I am reminded of a dog adjusting his pillow until it is sufficiently fluffed and settling back down to relax upon it.
The moment I enter into an environment, I’m immediately looking at what I would change to make the energy flow better, feel more relaxed. In fact, I cannot relax in an environment until I have arranged everything to its maximum efficiency of use and highest level of organization and best energetic flow. It is a gift in a way, being able to intuitively create environments that feel like a warm hug. It is also a curse in the sense that I have difficulty relaxing in what I perceive to be incongruous places.
There are times it can also be annoying for the people around me to have environments moved around that they are already comfortable in. They know where everything is and have gotten used to it the way that it is. This push and pull process can create resentment, and the resulting discomfort of those around me can be at the expense of my comfort.
I wonder to myself: How do I make room for my self-expression without judging it as a “bad thing”? How do I let myself be good at what I’m good at? How do we all get our needs met when our needs for comfort are competing? I think of the chairs in the Sangha house. I vacuum and put them in a straight line. Order, Clean, Zen, I think to myself. Rev. Phoebe comes by and arranges them askew. She hates straight lines, she says. I laugh inside. The thing I do to make myself comfortable, to gain myself merit as a valuable contributing member of the community is not always the way things are done here.
I’m left grasping at emptiness and returning to beginner’s mind. The form I cling to for comfort is not available. I return to my cushion. I let all the questions float away. I breathe in and out. From the ocean to the shore, the waves of thoughts arise, form, crash, and retreat again.
THE SCRIPTURE OF AVALOKITESHWARA BODHISATTVA
I have sung the Scripture of Avalokiteshwara hundreds of times at the Temple, at the Abbey and at home. The Scripture makes the wonderful promise:
“When people hear his (Avalokiteshwara’s) name, and see his form,
And think of Him not vainly in their hearts,
All forms of ill, in all the worlds, shall cease.”
This is breathtaking, “All forms of ill, in all the worlds, shall cease” if I take Refuge in Avalokiteshwara. I meditate daily and work to deepen my practice. I could do even better if only these pesky fears and doubts in my mind and chronic aches in my body would just go away.
The Scripture goes on to describe a number of circumstances, from being pushed into a fiery pit to being oppressed by the military and says that if the victim thinks on Kanzeon’s (Avalokiteshwara’s) great power, they will not suffer harm.
At times I thought of these results as physical miracles achieved by Buddhas or Great Saints. They are inspiring, encouraging me in my practice. However, I could not imagine that I could think on Kanzeon and when thrown off a mountain would remain aloft.
I also thought of some of these terrible circumstances as metaphors. For example:
“If, wishing harm, an enemy should try to push another in a fiery pit.
The victim should, on Kanzeon’s great power, think, and straightway
That fiery pit shall be transformed into a cool and silver lake.”
I regarded the “fiery pit” as a metaphor for anger inside of me or directed at me and, if I remained still and thought on Kanzeon’s compassion instead of reacting, I could remain centered and at peace as in that cool lake.
But I realized there is more. One morning while singing this Scripture the following lines stood out:
“If, bound in chains, in prison, let a man just
Think on Kanzeon’s great holy power,
At once the shackles will then set him free.”
I realized that it was the shackles that set him free, not the prison guards. The shackles could be those mental fears and physical aches I thought were impediments to practice.
The Scripture was saying that these “impediments,” when regarded in Truth with the mind of Compassion, would set me free. The promise is that if I trained with them, accepting my body and mind, doing the best I can, not fighting the fears and physical aches, they become a door to deeper understanding.
“All forms of ill, in all the world, shall cease” takes on a new meaning. To the extent that I face and train with my “impediments” with the mind of Compassion, they become gateways to a deeper understanding, and they are no longer “forms of ill”. They have ceased.
I went back and reread the following teachings with deeper understanding:
Reverend Master Seikai: “If we want to know the deeper truth of things, if we want to know the Buddha Nature, we need to begin with seeing it in our own suffering. To see it within our own heartache, sense of failure, sense of inadequacy, is the way to open up the heart.”
Reverend Master Kinrei: “The deepest solution to all the problems we face lies not in changing and manipulating circumstances, but in finding the Buddha within everything.”