Tuesday, December 22, 2009


In your meditation practice, and in daily life, notice how the mind creates preferences and judgments about things that are essentially neutral experiences. Then witness how the mind insists on clinging to the thing it prefers, and has aversion toward whatever it does not prefer.

One sense object that is particularly useful for this experiment is sound. All sounds are neutral events that arise out of stillness, and return back to stillness. Once the sound has been heard, however, the mind will immediately jump in and categorize the sound as good, bad, wanted, unwanted, and so forth.

Soon we can see that even the naming of a sound is merely a thought. During a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, Jon Kabat-Zinn asked after a walking practice how many us had heard birds. Many of us raised our hands. Then he said, "None of you heard birds. What you heard were sounds. It was your mind that labeled the sounds 'birds'."

There can also arise a strong tendency to take the sound personally. I was meditating one morning when I heard the sound of a leaf blower down the street. Leaf blowers happen to be a sound that my mind always labels "irritable." I heard myself think, "Why is that person doing that so early? It's really bothering me." The truth was, "that person" was not using the leaf blower to bother me, and had no idea that I existed. It was my mind that was causing me to be upset.

The mind can also create amazing stories about sounds, even if we have no idea what the sound actually is. I was leading a class in a yoga studio one morning when there was a very loud bang from the next room. After the sitting, I asked the group if anyone heard the sound, and everyone said they did. Then we shared the stories that our minds had come up with to explain the sound, and all of the stories and explanations were different from each other.

I now welcomed sound during my meditation practice as a great path to insight into how my mind automatically creates preferences regarding how I would like things to be. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with preferences. It is when we cling to them that we cause ourselves suffering. It's not wrong to want to have silence, but we never have a choice about what sounds will arise from one moment to the next. If we are bothered because our children play their music louder than we would prefer, or because the trash collectors arrive earlier than we would like on a Wednesday morning, that is our mind causing the problem, not the sound.

When we begin to let go of the clinging and aversion caused by preferences, and recognize sounds as merely events that have nothing to do with us, we can relieve ourselves from unnecessary suffering. We can then apply this lesson to other experiences in our daily life when our mind creates preferences and stories about things which are essentially neutral and impersonal.

From Hsin-hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind by Seng-ts'an, Third Zen Patriarch (Translated by Richard B. Clarke):
The Great Way is not difficult
for those not attached to preferences.
When neither love nor hate arises,
all is clear and undisguised.
Separate by the smallest amount, however,
and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth...

Indeed, it is due to our grasping and rejecting
that we do not know the true nature of things...

When you try to stop activity to achieve quietude,
your very effort fills you with activity.
As long as you remain attached to one extreme or another,
you will never know Oneness.

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