Flexible Focus #62: Discipline your Thinking

by William Reed on July 21, 2011

Monkey Mind

One of the most delightful, and most confounding aspects of our mind is that it is undisciplined. The mind is so susceptible to distraction, so easily seduced by its surroundings, that this aspect of the mind is referred to in Zen as the monkey mind. While it is very much a part of our everyday experience, we rarely sit down to confront and discipline this creature of consciousness. Try sitting still for even 10 minutes without any purpose other than to sit, and you may come face to face with the monkey, who will try to distract, persuade, or plead with you to let it run free.

However, this freedom is an illusion, because the monkey is in fact bound and attached to anything and everything that comes along. One purpose of Zazen, or Zen meditation, is to discipline the mind so that you actually realize more by thinking less. This seems counter-intuitive when convention dictates that you have to think more to understand more, and do more to achieve more. However, you can set that concern aside by realizing that much of what we call thinking, is actually mental flotsam and jetsam, unoriginal and unproductive. It is worthwhile to spend some time each day freeing yourself from this by entering a deeper level of mindfulness.

The Roots of Zen

As you engage in the practice of Zen meditation, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of its roots. Many books have been written on the subject, but I particularly recommend starting with Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. This is a remarkable book and a perennial classic of Zen writings, including 101 parables of Chinese and Japanese Zen Masters over 5 centuries, the 13th century Gateless Gate collection of Zen Koans, the 12th century commentary on the Ten Ox Pictures depicting stages of awareness on the path to enlightenment, and a 4,000 year old teaching from India on Centering, which may be considered the roots of Zen meditation.

This was the book that got me started on Zen in my teenage years, and I still refer to it today as an ageless resource. On revisiting this book, I found such fresh inspiration in the Ten Ox Pictures that I reviewed the book in a six video series, adding my own commentary. These videos are posted on YouTube at:

Zen Flesh Zen Bones I

Ten Ox Pictures II-a (1~3)

Ten Ox Pictures II-b (4~5)

Ten Ox Pictures III-a (6~8)

Ten Ox Pictures III-b (9~10)

Zen Flesh Zen Bones Summary IV

Zen Flesh Zen Bones is available on Amazon.

The Practice of Zazen

Ultimately however, Zen is about practice. It is a place to be, not just to visit. It won’t do you much good if you dive into it, and then quit because you find it too difficult, or you give in to the monkey. Keep it simple, and practice in such a way that it easily becomes a part of your daily practice. Of course you will face hurdles, as people have over the centuries in reaching deeper levels of mindfulness.

An excellent invitation in how to practice Zazen is through Higanji’s Zazen Application, an iPhone App called Undo (雲堂, meaning Cloud Hall). The App is free and available in the iTunes Store, and explained on the Higan website at: http://budurl.com/adj5

There is also a video in English showing a simple and sustainable way to integrate Zazen practice into your daily life at: http://budurl.com/pr4d

Zen is described as a direct transmission beyond words. It can be experienced, but not adequately described. At the very least, you will find that 20 to 30 minutes of daily practice can be wonderfully refreshing, and will clear your mind of mental cobwebs.

The Circle of Ensō

A symbol used to express the process of enlightenment is called the Ensō, or form of a circle. The circle is painted with a brush, is actually the form of a circle rather than a perfect geometrical circle, and is only somewhat connected at the end of the stroke. These elements of imperfection suggest openness and discovery, which is organic rather than idealistic.

The circle represents the universe, and this brings us full circle, for Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle. Try drawing such circles yourself, on various surfaces, and using various materials. Even drawing the form of circle in the air with your finger can give you a sense for all that it includes.

The practice of Zazen is a discipline for mind and body, but one which joins them in a higher degree of freedom. As you develop deeper mindfulness, the monkey mind will become servant rather than master, and you will become the creator rather than the victim of circumstance.

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