Listen to my dharma talk here. Warning: it deliberately begins with 30 seconds of silence.
Is your mind wandering? I see people nodding. Mine certainly was. I was counting to 30, I was thinking about the noises I could hear, whether the air conditioning was on. Turns out I was hearing some static from the microphone instead, I think, or maybe the A/C from nearby.
When I started meditating I thought that the point of meditation was to be able to turn this off like a switch, that to be a real Zen student meant never idly thinking. I thought I would have total control over when my mind would come and go.
Almost 15 years ago now, I spent a year at a monastery in Southern California, where I meditated for many hours every day. And I tried so hard to train myself never to let my mind wander. The technique, if you can call it that, that I was applying at the time was to try to suppress thought. It’s as if I were holding down the lid of a boiling pot of water, trying to keep the thoughts down. Part of me was adding heat to the water and part of me was holding the lid down. And guess which part always wins in the end? The lid always blows off. At the end of the year of trying and failing to turn myself into some ideal thing – because that thing would not be a human – whose mind never wandered, I left the monastery so infuriated at myself and my mind and at Zen and it was years before I really practiced again. I showed right up to the Zendo, as soon as I got out of the monastery, but I was phoning it in. It was years before I could really practice steadily again because I first had to forgive.
These days I think of meditation much less as suppressing thought, like making something happen by effort. It’s much more like gardening. We talk about cultivating awareness, but then we don’t cultivate it. We try to force it to be. But I’ve come to understand that it really is a cultivation. You can pot your awareness in good soil, give it some water, put it in sunlight, but the awareness grows like a plant.
Keishin and I went plant shopping a couple of weeks ago, it started me thinking along these lines. We’ve got a little New York City apartment with all of four windows and three of them face north. We’re not going to be growing tomatoes in our apartment any time soon, but we wanted some plants that we could enjoy.
We’d actually had a couple of plants before this. We named them Hayden and Emmerson because we thought it would be funny to name them as if we were ostentatious Brooklyn parents. (Laughter) You can imagine some Park Slope dad shouting at his kids, ‘Hayden, stop hitting Emmerson.’ (Laughter) But other than the names, there wasn’t really very much fun about these plants. They were big, spiny, ugly plants; they never grew, they never died, we watered them, we didn’t water them. Nothing had any effect on them, they might as well have been plastic. We didn’t really have the experience of gardening something. So, we threw Hayden and Emmerson in the compost heap in our basement and went shopping this month to get new plants that we would like. We went to this really adorable shop on the Lower East Side; it’s called The Sill and it’s on Hester and Allen Streets. It’s adorable, it’s this tiny, little plant shop full of tiny, little plants. We got two new plants there that we really like. We named them Hayden and Emmerson again. We’re going to pretend that the previous ones never were. Hayden, in particular, is really pretty. He’s this thing called a nerve plant. It’s called a Fittonia albivenis, albivenis meaning, “white veins”. He’s got dark, green leaves with this filigree of white veins superimposed on it. He looks like an X-ray of a brain. And I think nerve plant is this wonderful name for him.
The shop was staffed by two young women, I think they’re Japanese-American. They are having so much fun there. They’re really enjoying that job because they spend all day potting little plants in little pots, and spilling soil onto the counter and making little messes, sweeping up the little messes with a little broom. All day long, make a mess, clean the mess, which sounds ideal to me. I think they’re also really happy because I think they knew that most of the work that was happening in the shop was not theirs. The plants were growing by themselves.
The question is, is this what meditation feels like, or no? Does it feel like awareness grows by itself and we just cultivate it? Or does it feel like we’re trying to force something to grow?
There’s this whole field of Buddhist psychology called Abhidharma. It’s a bunch of texts that are mostly written around 400 or 500 A.D., mostly in India, that categorize and split up and explain the mechanisms of the mind. The prominent author of Abhidharma is a monk name Vasubandhu, who came from a region called Gandhara, where maybe Pakistan or Afghanistan is today. He was writing around 400 A.D. He splits up the mind in a million different ways. One of them I found useful is this idea of four layers of consciousness, which are mind consciousness, sense consciousness, store consciousness and self-consciousness.
The top layer, mind consciousness, think of this as the top layer of your garden, where you can see the leaves and flowers. Mind consciousness is where thinking and worrying and planning happen. They are the consciousness that we tend to think of when somebody says consciousness. It’s thinking. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a commentary on this. He said, “The brain is only 2% of the body’s weight, but it consumes 20% of the body’s energy.” So, using mind consciousness is very expensive. Thinking, worrying and planning take a lot of energy. That stuff is objectively so, but we add a judgment on to it in Zen. At least I do. I, for years, misinterpreted the teaching to mean that mind consciousness is bad. I am trying to reduce the amount of time I spend there, because it’s bad.
The layer below that is sense consciousness. It’s very straight forward, but the Abhidharma cuts it up a little bit more. It says that there is an organ of sense, like an eyeball. There’s the object that’s being sensed, like the sight of the floor. These make contact and from this arises vision consciousness. And all of the other senses have these same components within the sense consciousness overall. From the beginning, I’ve thought of sense consciousness as good. And that the project of meditation was to spend more time in sense consciousness and less time in mind consciousness. Think less, feel more. Or perceive more. Again, I think that this judgment is extra. I now think that this is a mistake, to judge these layers this way.
You can think of mind as the thinking, senses as the stems, then there’s this wonderful idea of the store consciousness beneath. In Sanskrit, this is called alaya. This is the dirt of our garden. All the seeds are down there in the dirt. The seeds of fear, anger and ignorance are always down there, ready to spring forth. The moment they get watered, the moment that the circumstances are right for them to sprout, they come. The seeds of wisdom, compassion and awareness are also there. If we cultivate them, they also grow tall and strong. But we can’t make any of this happen, and neither can we remove and of these seeds – they’re all always there, it’s a question of how we cultivate them has downstream consequences, in terms of which ones manifest or not into our actions and our thoughts.
Now, there’s this fourth layer called self-consciousness. This is one that I’m still having some trouble wrapping my head around. This idea that self-consciousness, the belief that we are separate, lasting, precious things that must be protected and promoted, this is a fourth thing. Thich Nhat Hanh describes it as, “Imagine that a vine puts forth a shoot and then the shoot turns back and embraces the dirt.” In there in the store consciousness, as result of ignorance in fear it gives rise to an energy that turns around and embraces store consciousness, makes it the object of its love. It sort of Gollum-y, like, ‘Precious.’ All the dirt that makes me, everything about me that is in any way durable, the self-consciousness turns around and says, ‘This is me, it’s precious and it must be preserved.’
And again, I’ve come away from my initial training thinking this is bad. A lot of the descriptions make me sound that way. It’s bad, it’s twisted, it’s neurotic. The point of training is to uproot this and throw it in the compost in the basement. But again, I don’t think that this judgment is useful. All of these four layers are always there. To be human is to have a garden shaped like this. Eventually, everything will fall away and rot and die. But while we’ve got it, let’s not make ourselves suffer even more by saying, ‘Thinking is bad, self-consciousness is bad. Senses are good, let’s spend more time in there.’ It’s just the garden that we’ve got. Let’s just cultivate it so that it grows things that we want more of.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of neuropsych papers about this really cool idea called the brain’s default mode network, which is what your brain is running when it’s not doing anything in particular. So, the network is composed of half a dozen different parts of the brain that all activate and connect to each other and pump a bunch of blood whenever you’re not using your brain to accomplish a particular task. The parts of the brain involved are mostly associated with thinking about ourselves, remembering autobiographical information like facts about our lives, thinking about other people, thinking about relationships, planning and forecasting, so simulating what we think is going to happen. Does this sound familiar? This is that top layer; this thinking and worrying and planning.
Now when we’re accomplishing a task, the parts of our brain that are mostly associated with that task mostly activate. So, if I’m trying to pick a friend’s face out of a crowd, then maybe my visual and spatial systems and the facial recognition subsystem are all lighting up, but then researchers found that within half a second of completing a task, the activation pattern switches and we go back into default mode. This is not, I think, a surprise to any of us. We experience default mode activation as mind wandering. I certainly know that my mind can begin to wander within less than a second of my completing some task.
It reminds me of an experience when I first meditated at Sing Sing, many years ago. I visited there for the first time with Ryotan and we down into the little room we use as a Zendo there. I was looking around at the men there, mostly big guys who have been in Sing Sing and working out every day for many years. I knew also why they were there, mostly drugs, violence, murder. I was thinking, ‘This is a pretty incredible place to do Zazen.’ No guard around, just us and these felons. And then for the next period, I daydreamed. And when I caught myself, I thought, ‘This is really messed up that under circumstances these, I choose to daydream. There’s got to be something wrong with me.’ But I really don’t think so. We vary, but I think all humans, to some degree, check out. A lot.
Researchers have noticed two big fluctuations in our attention that are associated with the default mode network. One of them is that we connect and disconnect from our senses. So, I might be walking down the street, I’m aware of the buildings, I’m aware of the noises and then I disconnect and I have what they’re calling stimulus independent thought. It does not matter where I am or what I have witnessed, I’m just thinking about something. Probably a continuation of the conversation I had when I last checked out a few minutes before. This disconnection is very real.
They’ve got a study where you have to read for 45 minutes and they measure the rate at which your eyes are scanning the page. When you’re reading, the eyes speed up and slow down, so you spend more time looking at an unfamiliar word or a complex sentence. Then a few minutes in, you check out and your eyes just start moving perfectly evenly. The experience you have when you catch yourself later on, that you’ve been reading without seeing the words is very literally true. At some point, you come back. You can either come back because you realized your mind was wandering or you might just come back. I’m not sure whether we can come back knowing our minds were wandering, I think we can. If researchers interrupt subjects and say, ‘Is your mind wandering?’ people can accurately say, ‘Yes.’ But that doesn’t mean that we are able to catch ourselves of somebody doesn’t ask from outside.
We know this to be true, we are not in control when we begin wandering. There are theories as to why the executive function that chooses to use the mind in one way or another gets recruited into the default mode network. It’s doing other things, participating in the thinking, planning and worrying, so it’s not available to catch us. And that might be the reason or it might not. I don’t want to oversell neuropysch.
What we’ve discovered about ourselves from sitting and facing the wall, what Buddhist teachers have been investigating for thousands of years is no less factual than this neuropsych research. Neuropsych gives us another way of speaking and another method, but don’t let it confuse you; what you know about yourself is just as true, and just as untrue.
So, thinking and planning and worrying, it’s always growing in our garden. It’s a probably innate part of being human and I think that everybody does it. And it’s not bad, right? Certainly, a lot of my best ideas have come in the shower. I’m glad that my mind wanders. I don’t think I’d be very creative if I never daydreamed. But we do do it too much, and we don’t have intention about when our minds are wandering and when they aren’t. So, I do think that there’s a few things that we can do to kind of master our mind wandering, rather than letting it master us. One of them is that when we have an opportunity to let our minds wander, we should take it. Lately, it’s become particularly epidemic; an epidemic of people not letting their minds wander. I do this too. I check my phone when I’m waiting for the elevator. I listen to a podcast when I’m doing the dishes. But I am trying to be much more conscious about, ‘This would be a good opportunity to daydream, I’m going to take it.’ Because I think that mind wandering is kind of like sleeping. We don’t know why but we do need it and if we don’t let ourselves have it, it will happen. You can’t decide that you’re a Zen student, so that means you don’t sleep anymore. You will fall asleep. And you also can’t decide that your mind is going to stop wandering. You will experience a lapse of attention sooner or later, so it’s probably a good idea to set aside time for it.
We can’t always be on task or in some incredible state of mindfulness where we’re only in sense consciousness. There’s a whole other portion of our lives where our minds are wandering. We are disconnected from our senses, we’re off in the clouds. We have to accept that that is part of being alive.
Researchers had this annoying sounding study where subjects carried apps around them randomly interrupted them and said, “Is your mind wandering?” as they went about their days. And yeah, it’s about 50%. Paul Simon has a lyric, “Half of the time we’re gone and we don’t know where.’ It’s funny because he estimated, he published that song in the ‘60s and it turns out to be remarkably accurate.
So, one thing is let your mind wander when it’s a good time; another is meditate. Again, it comes as no surprise, our own research has already confirmed this fact, if you spend years training yourself to be aware, your mind wanders less and you have more choice. People who have meditated are able to keep their minds on task for longer periods. The last thing is, set aside a time to cultivate awareness in your garden. Sesshin is designed for this purpose. Sesshin is the dirt and the water and the sunlight to allow your awareness to grow strong. At the end of a week of sesshin, my mind wanders certainly much less and you can see why. I don’t have to plan anything, the days are the same. I don’t have to think about myself and others because I’m not interacting. I’m not checking my email, I’m not reading, I’m not watching TV. There’s nothing to process and this naturally allows us to grow big and strong. Then you have to re-pot it in your ordinary life when you come back and that’s not easy. But giving the plant a chance to grow in ideal circumstances is still worthwhile.
So, keep this in mind. Let’s relax our judgment about whether mind wandering is good or bad. Let’s make space for it and let’s understand that cultivating awareness is not forcing something to be. It’s creating the circumstances in which it will actually grow. If you do this, I have faith for all of us, that we’ll grow big strong nerve plants.