Nothing special

A friend of mine lent me Charlotte Joko Beck’s Nothing Special last week, and I realise I’ve got it backwards in my last post. The point isn’t trying to be aware 100% all of the time — that’s impossible — the point is to catch it when you do and not, as it were, overwork the experience.

On the second day of the conference, I experimented with concentrating on my breath while the verbal ping-pong matches were going on. Yes, I was less upset, but also because I wasn’t really listening to what was being said. I found myself working out other projects in my head. The breath, as I experienced it anyway, was just an escape hatch to hide in until the coast was clear. Remembering to come back to the breath is useful to break any mental reveries we may have drifted into, but it can also be a means of evasion and escapism. I wanted to engage with events on their terms and at the same time slow or eliminate my reactions to them. Beck’s book seemed to have fallen into my lap just as the questions were arising.

In contrast to other writings on the subject, Beck does not recommend that we simply concentrate on the breath as a way out of feeling anger, anxiety or pain. Instead, she suggests that we ‘become the anger itself, to experience it fully, without separation or rejection’ (even if that anger is directed at ourselves). It is a way of collapsing the subject-object dichotomy, in which the subject (usually the ego, the ‘I’) acts upon, or reacts to, an object (usually someone or something we identify as the cause of the anger). And yet, the paradox is that one cannot try and do this consciously — it defeats the purpose.

This is an excerpt in the book from a dialogue with a student:

STUDENT: You say that the true purpose of practice is to experience our oneness with all things, or just to be our own experience, so that, for example, we’re just totally hammering some nails, if that’s what we’re doing. But isn’t there a paradox in trying to achieve even that?

JOKO: I agree with you: we can’t try to be one with the hammering. In trying to become it, we separate ourselves from it. The very effort defeats itself. There is something we can do, however: we can notice the thoughts that separate us from our activity. We can be aware that we’re not fully doing what we’re doing. That’s not so difficult. Labeling our thoughts helps us do this. Instead of saying, “I’m going to be one with the hammering,” which is dualistic — thinking about the activity rather than just doing it — we can always notice when we’re not doing it. That’s all that’s necessary.

Awareness is our true self; it’s what we are. So we don’t have to try to develop awareness; we simply need to notice how we block awareness, with our thoughts, our fantasies, our opinions, and our judgments. We’re either in awareness, which is our natural state, or we’re doing something else. The mark of mature students is that most of the time, they don’t do something else. They’re just here, living their life. Nothing special.

Practice, in other words, heightens our receptivity to these lapses, and reduces the time lag between drifting off and noticing that we’ve drifted off. Practice keeps us — me — in balance.

Since I recently got a car, I am going to attempt a motoring analogy. Awareness, in a sense, is like driving a car: your eyes, your hands and feet move in coordination without having to think about it. The minute you become over-conscious of what comes next, the car either won’t go, or may cause an accident. Of course, it is quite possible to be so completely on autopilot that you drift off and lose your concentration on the road. Awareness is that fine balance between over-consciousness and unconsciousness, the balance that keeps the car going and the pedestrians safe, though the driver must always remember to navigate the bumps.

Charlotte Joko Beck. Nothing Special: Living Zen. Ed. Steve Smith. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.


2 Responses to Nothing special

  1. I received Beck’s “Everday Zen” as a graduation present four years ago, never read the book, eventually lost it, and have had a mild case of regret ever since… She’s a fine teacher and a good writer.

    Your car analogy is a good one; Zen Master Seung Sahn used cars in a similar way to teach. He’d liken the body to a car and the consciousness to the driver; “You must understand your driver!” he’d exhort, using the kong-an (Jap. koan) as the way to focus the attention on “understanding your driver.”

    Oof. If you find an easy way to “not overwork the experience,” let me know. *grin*

  2. hitchhiker72 says:

    Soen Joon Sunim,

    Actually, the phrase to “overwork the experience” was also Beck’s not mine! I like her style. Very no-nonsense. I borrowed both her books from friends, but am thinking of getting my own copies. Maybe I’ll send you one sometime!


%d bloggers like this: