Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

Tackling Hard Problems, The Easy Way

Everything demands effort. Getting out of bed on a winter’s morning. Making tea. Going to the gym. Filing your tax forms for the year. To do any of these things, to make the effort, requires a good reason to do so.

I began meditating when I was lost, maybe a little depressed and generally feeling unenthusiastic about life. Meditating was a way to fix that situation. It too required effort, but the more I meditated the better my outlook became. The problems I was facing, while not totally eliminated, didn’t hold the same power over me any more.

After a while, meditation still required effort but the reasons I had started were no longer the reasons I needed to continue. So I started to ask, do I need to meditate any more? What’s the reason to continue if you’ve done what you set out to do?

When you’re getting up at 5.30am to sit on a cushion and meditate, you better have some good answers to these questions.

How Do You Shape A Rock?

It was early in the morning on September the 13th, 1501 that Michelangelo stood looking at a lump of marble. Somewhere within this piece of stone was a sculpture and it was his intention to realise it.

The rock itself was imposing. It had been mined from the Carrara quarry in northern Italy some 40 years earlier, weighed in at over 6 tons and was more than 5 meters in height. During the course of the next two years, Michelangelo methodically set to work, chipping away to reveal the form of David. By the time he’d finished, the sculpture was celebrated as a masterpiece. Indeed, if you visit David today in Florence, over 500 years later, the strength and grace of the statue are still captivating. Michelangelo brought a level of artistry and vision to this sculpture which is evident in the power of the final product.

Rewind the clock much further back, to approximately 6 million years ago. Now imagine what the landscape of Arizona in the United States might have looked like. Unless you’re a geologist, it will be difficult to picture. One thing is certain though, there was no Grand Canyon. And despite how different the view would be, you may be able to find something familiar: the Colorado River. Between now and then the river (or some form of the river) has slowly carved through the earth to sculpt the deep canyon we recognise today. This is a geological process so long in the making, that it would be hard to witness even a small part of it in the span of a single human life. It involves the continual flow of water. Hundreds of unknown events. The idiosyncrasies of the rock bed and it’s different strata. But today we have the opportunity to witness the result of all that work, and it’s breathtaking.

Despite this, what we’re seeing is still just a snapshot in time, because the Grand Canyon is still being made today. It’s still a work in progress. I think it would be difficult to pinpoint the moment that the Grand Canyon became the Grand Canyon. Because it isn’t the result of conscious effort and intention, but instead a meandering process that is continually in flux, there is no ‘peak’ Grand Canyon. Unlike the statue of David, it never reaches completion.

Anti-Self-Improvement Tactics

At work, I spend my time trying to maximise productivity and get things done. I’m always busy setting myself goals and then trying to achieve them. For many of us, our success (and therefore self-worth) is defined by how well we manage to do this. I think of this as deliberate effort, which I’d define as a series of calculated actions with a fixed end goal. From work to fitness, to managing my finances, my primary strategy in life has been to apply deliberate effort in order to achieve something. When it comes to how we’re living our lives, this is only one approach among many. And yet, we often act as if it is the only modus operandi available to us.

This is why I found myself staring at the ceiling one morning, lying on my yoga mat, and thinking about how I’d rather be in bed than downstairs trying to meditate. My reasons for meditating regularly had so far been based on the same approach I brought to my work. I was trying to achieve a set goal. The vision in my head was similar to the statue of David: at some point, I would achieve contemplative perfection and acquire a level of grace and serenity previously unknown.

This is, of course, outlandish. But it’s characteristic of what happens when we apply deliberate effort to all areas of our life. Meditation demands something different from us. If you stick with the practice of mindfulness, you’ll eventually have to confront this head on. Meditation is an anti-self-improvement tool. I’ll rephrase that to make it clear: you practice meditation in order to do the exact opposite of self-improvement.

Breathing is a good example. We can, of course, breathe with deliberate effort. But for the majority of our life, we let our breathing happen quite naturally. It happens of its own accord, responding appropriately to our physical and emotional states. There is no end goal in your breathing, save for the continual supply of oxygen into your bloodstream, so it continues in a relaxed and steady manner. As a result, you can maintain the activity of breathing for much longer periods of time! Instead of deliberate effort, we might call this second approach natural-effort, which I define as an intuitive process without a defined point of progression.

Given the fact that many of us first come to meditation via the desire to improve something in our lives, this can be a strange thought to hold. Learning to let go and just sit on the cushion, with no end goal is both disorientating and liberating.

Acting Without Doing

As I lay there on the yoga mat, I was reminded of this passage from the Tao Te Ching:

“Act without doing;
work without effort.
Think of the small as large
and the few as many.
Confront the difficult
while it is still easy;
accomplish the great task
by a series of small acts.

The Master never reaches for the great;
thus she achieves greatness.
When she runs into a difficulty,
she stops and gives herself to it.
She doesn’t cling to her own comfort;
thus problems are no problem for her.”

For me, this captures the difference between natural effort and deliberate effort. And because meditation is a process of natural effort, no amount of strain or energy will make us ‘better’ in a shorter amount of time. Instead, it is a continual activity, one we must return to again and again in order to slowly acclimate ourselves.

There is no right way or wrong way to do things. You can bring deliberate effort or natural effort to any activity. Value is not the product of a single kind of effort, it’s about bringing the right effort for the right path. And your efforts will be best placed if they align with your intentions.

So when you next sit on the cushion, ask yourself, are you here to sculpt a David, or to carve out the Grand Canyon?

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Taking The Path Of Zen (Book Summary)

One Sentence: An essential primer on the practice and philosophy of Zen.

In Summary: In this short book, Robert Aitken packs practical advice and philosophical insights on the journey of a Zen student. Illustrating everything from breathing exercises to the different schools of thought within Zen, there’s enough depth for both beginners and seasoned students alike.

The Takeaway: Meditation practice is an essential responsibility that lasts a lifetime.

A Quick Introduction

While Alan Watts was in New York learning about Zen, Robert Aitken was in an internment camp in Japan during World War II. Despite this experience, Aitken began a lifelong interest in the culture and practice of Japanese Zen Buddhism. By the early 1960s, he’d begun holding meditation sessions and would eventually go on to found the Koko-an zendo, later the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, in Hawaii.

This was an important time for American Zen and as one of the early practitioners, Aitken was uniquely placed to translate the culture for a Western audience. Holding an MA in Japanese and spending much of his life back and forth between the US and Japan, he had first-hand experience of dojos (training centres) and rōshis (Zen masters).

Aitken made use of these experiences by founding and teaching through the Diamond Sangha as well as writing several books. His works are both accessible and comprehensive. I find that, in true Zen spirit, Aitken maintains a sharp efficiency with his words. He gets complex points across easily. Which is no mean feat in the worlds of Buddhism and Zen.

Themes & Quotations

There’s a lot in this book. Reducing it to several snappy paragraphs means I’m choosing to omit some of the areas Aitken addresses in favour of giving an overview. With that said, I’ve made a selection of passages I found illuminating on 3 different themes.

The first theme is Technique. Zazen places a particular emphasis on posture and breathing, so these guidelines are a great start for beginners and a useful refresher for those who are practising regularly.

The second theme is Mindfulness. Aitken uses this word just once the book – but there are many thoughts that those familiar with modern mindfulness practices may find useful.

The final theme is Mindset. One of the things that Zen cultivates quite strongly, is a particular outlook on life. It’s one of the things that has drawn me to Zen practice and as a result, I’ve chosen a few passages that illustrate this way of being.

“We may take our model from the posture of a one-year-old baby. The child sits bolt upright, with spine curving forward slightly at the waist, rather than completely straight up-and-down. The belly sticks out in front, while the rear end sticks out behind. Sitting with the spine completely straight at this age would be impossible, as the muscles are still undeveloped—too weak to hold the body erect. Curved forward, the vertebrae are locked into their strongest position, and the child can forget about staying erect.”

“Sit with your back straight, and count “one” for the inhalation, “two” for the exhalation, “three” for the next inhalation, “four” for the next exhalation, and so on up to “ten,” and repeat. Don’t go above “ten” because it is too difficult to keep track of higher numbers. You are not exercising your thinking faculty in this practice; you are developing your power to invest in something.”

“You will find breath counting to be a useful means throughout your life of Zen training. Whatever your practice becomes, later on, you should count your breaths from “one” to “ten,” one or two sequences, at the start of each new period of zazen. It will help you to settle down, and will serve to remind you that you are not just sitting there, but sitting with a particular practice.”

“If your monkey-mind will not let you examine each step in a simple sequence of breaths, then how can you sustain the attention necessary to see into your own nature?”

“If you listen as a member of an audience, you may tend to listen passively, as though I were simply expressing an opinion, not necessarily for you. This is not the act of pure listening. It is important to listen as though I were speaking to you alone. It is the same with reading. These words are your words. They form in your mind as they appear on the page. Go with the words and you will find yourself in a natural process of acceptance and rejection that does not involve conceptual judgement.”

“When you are driving a car, just drive, keeping yourself alert to everything. When you answer the telephone, devote yourself to the caller. Likewise, move from circumstance to circumstance with this same quality of attention. Practice awareness.”

“All of us fear failure, to one degree or another, and prefer not to try something that seems too difficult. This device of adjusting your goal to your present capacity is one by which you can avoid unnecessary frustration at the outset of your practice. However, it is important to understand that Zen training is also a matter of coping with failure. Everybody fails at first, just as Shakyamuni Buddha did. Zazen, for anyone who is not completely mature, is a matter of checking delusion and returning to the practice, checking and returning, over and over”

Zen Mindset
“Zen practice is a matter of change from ignorance of Buddha-nature to its realization. This involves letting go of the self and uniting with the object of attention”

“You will not be successful if you just try to block your thoughts. You are trying to block yourself, you will end by tiring yourself out, and the fantasy will be as feisty as ever. It is important to sit with a mind that is open, as open as the air.”

“Yasutani Roshi used to say, “The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose I am here and you are out there.” He would point to himself with “here” and to his listeners with “out there,” miming the division conceived by self-centered people.”

“We need to find the Middle Way. The Buddha learned, and we learn also, that lengthy fasting and other kinds of excessive self-deprivation only weaken the body and spirit and make the practice more difficult. And, as the Ts’ai Kên T’an tells us, ‘Water which is too pure has no fish.’”

“At first this inner creature seems more like a monkey than a lion, greedily snatching at bright-coloured objects and jumping around from one thing to another. Many people blame themselves, even dislike themselves, for their restless behaviour. But if you reject yourself, you are rejecting the agent of realization. So you must make friends with yourself. Enjoy yourself. Take comfort in yourself. Smile at yourself.”

“Zen Buddhism is one path among many. I have heard it said that all paths lead to the top of the same mountain. I doubt it. I think that one mountain may seem just a small hill from the top of another. Let one hundred mountains rise! Meanwhile, you must find your own path and your own mountain.”

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