Zen Self Inquiry

The Root of All Zen Practice: Zazen, Mindfulness and Koan Practice: What they are Really Doing

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Let’s further look at this concept of the reflective self, the self that only knows itself in relationship to something else and not in and of itself. Dr.DeMartino often said, “It’s not that we have an ego, we are the ego!”.  Here ego means the act of separating self from other to know self exists.  It is here that we exist in time.  It causes projecting into the future and ruminating about the past but this ego/self cannot live in the pure present because there is no time to reflect there.  DeMartino called this the ever regressing self.  He gave the example of seeing your shadow and then wanting to know who casts the shadow so you step back, ever regressing but never knowing who casts it. To just stand still does not allow you to know who casts it and to move does not.  You are stuck.  By not moving forward or back mentally you are now impacting the self forcing it into a single state.

This is exactly the point of all of the Zen practices; to stop the regression of the self, to impact the self reflection.  We go through a version of this when faced with extreme conditions where there is no way to not be in the moment.  Some soldiers will confess that even though some battles were the absolute worst moments of their lives at the same time they felt most alive.  Why is this?  Because they were forced to be and do purely in the moment.  This is why some people like to do dangerous things because it temporarily forces them out of the conflictive state of every day consciousness into a more complete state, though not an awakened state.  In a sense they die to their self and all concepts during this state and feel fulfilled.

Masao Abe likens the reflective self to a snake seeing its own tail. It wonders who it is and then tries to grasp it.  It slowly consumes it and finally comes upon its self and in a blink is gone, no longer separate.  In a lecture he once said, “it consumes its own head and then (he laughs) dies!”  This too is the process of stopping the self regression just like the other Zen practices.  There is nothing mystical about this, it can be understood rationally and logically.

In Lao Tze’s idea of ‘before the naming of things’ it is before we set up false delineations of what things are, to see things as they are.

Here you must learn that practices are a means but not the goal. I once heard an interview with a famous studio musician.  He was asked, “How often do you practice?” and he replied, “Never!  When you just practice you get really good at practicing. I play”.  The point of Zen practice is not to become good at practicing but to create the conditions for a radical transformation of the self and to be liberated from the illusion of self.


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