Why Zen and Not a Modern Mindfulness Practice for Me?


Print by Claudia Hosso Politi Sensei (teacher at the Black Scorpion Zen Center in Mexico)


If my goal was only to be a little calmer and improve my day-to-day life, a modern mindfulness approach would be easier than Zen practice. There is a mindfulness center at UCLA where I work. It looks really good judging from the website and a couple of brief conversations I have had with the staff there, and would be much more convenient than driving across town to a dicey neighborhood to the Hazy Moon Zen center. Mindfulness practices are certainly less demanding than a sesshin (a very formal and intense meditation retreat, usually lasting 3-10 days). Maybe it would even be a good career move; I could be the mindfulness eye doc without this Zen baggage!

I love mathematics; it is deep abstract poetry, philosophy with practical applications in a combination that only be marveled at. I am clearly a fan of evolution on all levels, even if I don’t think the mechanisms are quite as well understood as some biologists think and even if I place it in a larger framework. I have no reason to question that quantum mechanics is the best description of how things go bump in the night (and day of course), that relativity theory allows us to have GPS and is necessary for astrophysics, and that climate change is real and human made (or at least exacerbated by our overpopulation and greed).

I appreciate the newest evidence of inflation in the cosmos and the Higgs and the standard theory of particle physics as being quite awesome in the real sense of the word. I am in awe. I am also in awe of the sheer vast scales of things, large and small.

I am overwhelmed at the awe-inspiring facts of life, the splendid dance of the diversity and complexity of life.

The large Hadron collider that found evidence of the Higgs is one the most beautiful of human creations. It is a work of art, perhaps the ultimate performance art or kinetic sculpture.

I see that our karma, who we are as humans on earth, is a product of biologic and environmental conditioning, that our brains and bodies can and will break and who we “are” in our lives changes as our internal and external environment changes (well, that is pretty Buddhist, this lack of a permanent self or eternal essential individual soul).

But I have this itch. I don’t think that we can measure reality, that science can be complete for that purpose.  I consider it likely that there is an encompassing reality beyond and beneath the realm of the things that go bump that I think one ignores at the peril of missing out on some really cool stuff. I don’t think neuroscience, quantum field theory, M theory, multiverses, the universe as information, as hologram, or as mathematics, quite captures it, can encompass it!

We can not get outside all of this to measure it. Science will always comes down to, as I have heard in lectures on the philosophy of science and metaphysics (the philosophy of what is, the interpretation of observations, including scientific measurements), some “brute fact.”  Something that is defined or assumed; no definition, at least in math and science, can exist without referring ultimately to a perceived shared experience or just some agreed upon premise that can’t be proven.

Just what is the most core “brute fact” and can I experience it directly? Can I know it in my gut?

I find it awesome that Zen men and women, many very far from me in time, culture and language, as well as some I interact with quite often, seem to have explored this territory. It inspires me.

And they tell me that core brute fact is my life. It is Mind.

Then they remind me that those are just words and concepts that will trap me further if I am not careful. Brute facts, coarse and ungainly, like all the others. Easy to indulge in the comfort of  mental masturbation, but that won’t help me or anybody.

They remind me not to over think it. It isn’t a matter of thinking about it better and deeper. Whatever great thought or observation you make, there will be another brute fact beneath that. Wheels within wheels, layers upon layers, of more and more refined brutes, but brutes nonetheless!

Not only will over thinking not help, at some point, it will hurt, they counsel me. Just fancy footwork to distract from what is really going on and an effort to find the illusion of peace in the illusion of knowing.

And I am starting to believe they are right!

So I do the Zen thing. That covers mindfulness and teases me with more.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


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