…the challenge is to recognize that thoughts are a strategy, a coping mechanism, and that in our sitting we must therefore be very kind with them and with ourselves.
About the challenge of surrendering to the Tao, of delivering ourselves into the hands of the Tao; of allowing all our trouble, surrendering to it, letting it be; not having too rigid an approach to our meditation; or at least having enough flexibility that sometimes our meditation may be intensely focused and at other times gently and deeply receptive…
I remember once going to a fireworks display in a park on a hill in England, when our two sons were around four and five. When the first bangs went off, suddenly I looked round and my older son had gone. Fortunately I caught a glimpse of him running off through the crowd. Leaving the younger son with my wife, I ran after him, and as the crowd thinned out I could see him ahead of me, tearing off as fast as he could down the hill, away from the terrifying display, with explosions in the night over his head, and the Catherine wheels whirring and fizzing behind him. In fact he was so scared that I had to run hard to reach him, and only caught up just before he got to the road at the edge of the park.
It was a natural place for him to stop, just inside the gate. I hugged him and asked him why he didn’t like the fireworks (yes, a dumb dad question). But the fireworks were something I thought we had all been looking forward to.
All he wanted to know at first was that I wasn’t going to try and take him back up the hill. Actually, that was precisely what I had been hoping to do – a few words of reassurance, I thought, and I’d talk him round, he’d realize there was no danger, and we’d go back up to the display hand in hand and enjoy the rest of the evening. But that was the last thing he wanted. That was my agenda; his whole agenda was just to get me to drop mine!
Fortunately he succeeded. I realized that I had to forget about the fireworks. He could feel when I let it go. The air changed. And at that point he could open up and tell me how frightening he had found it. So we stayed down by the gate, far away, near where we had left our bikes, waiting for his mother and brother to come down when it was all over.
We could actually still see a lot of the rockets exploding in the sky, and once he knew he would not be taken back up, he could watch without so much fear, even with some fascination.
So in our sitting we need to acknowledge to ourselves when we have hit something that we find hard. Just to whip ourselves and say, Keep focusing! is not very kind or helpful. At the same time, it’s also true that to sit lost in thoughts and daydreams for hour after hour is not necessarily what we need to do either.
So we stay focused on our breath or our koan when we can, until the koan or breath excavates some piece of bedrock that needs to be softened and released. At that point, we can dissolve into what the koan has found, until it is fully allowed, and then can take us deeper. Then calm and clarity may return, and we pick up the koan again, and continue the journey deeper and further.
In other words, our comfort zone is continually expanding, but when we reach its border, and we’re uncomfortable, at that point our typical habit is to pull back, away from what hurts, and to hide in the realm of thoughts. Thoughts are like bushes that we can pretend to hide in, imagining we are avoiding some difficulty we have just encountered. They are an effective way of deluding ourselves, on many levels. They really do “take our mind off” whatever is the new-found unease. So the challenge is to recognize that thoughts are a strategy, a coping mechanism, and that in our sitting we must therefore be very kind with them and with ourselves. We should not attempt to suppress them. If a child is hiding in the closet because it has heard a loud noise and is afraid, you don’t drag it from the cupboard and scold it for being silly. You respond to its fear. Oh darling, you’re afraid. I understand. That noise was loud. It is frightening.
Rather than beating and berating ourselves, we can see whether we can gently explore what is going on underneath our thinking, beneath the impulse to run and hide in thoughts – that’s the key. What is the feeling? Once we open to the feeling, the healing can begin. That’s how we surrender to the Tao.