Thoughts are like birds—flying, circling, pecking, perching, singing, and crapping on stuff.
Like some birds, they tend to flock together. At least that’s how it is for me, your experiences may differ. My thoughts tend to circle perceptions, memories, and feelings. They usually keep circling until I can get them in writing. That’s why this blog is so busy. If I didn’t write, then the things I write about would just clutter my mind indefinitely.
I’ve tried working with that over the years, but nothing’s really cleared it up; it’s been this way for decades, and it’s tough for me to imagine that changing in any long-term way. It’s like a cerebral form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Someone with OCD has a thought or impulse they can’t get rid of until they perform a certain behavior. For me, that behavior is writing.
Sometimes thoughts circle around something positive or inspiring, sometimes it’s something horrible or heartbreaking. Either way, they just turn and turn until I can spew them out onto the page.
Some people read and write because they enjoy it, and I do too. But I also do it because I have to, because if I didn’t, then the void would threaten to swallow up all of the meaning and purpose I’ve given to life.
Derailing the Affliction Train
Last night I was thinking about thoughts, about their circling nature. I asked myself, “Why can’t I just flow and rest? My mind’s always circling, always moving, always busy.”
Then mindfulness waltzed in and asked, “Is that bad?” and I paused. Good and bad are always dependently arisen value judgments, not absolute truths. True good and true bad are truly imaginary.
Remembering that, I could only respond, “No.” Then I laughed, and it was like this huge weight was carried off. The thoughts didn’t stop circling, really, but they might as well have because their circling didn’t bother me anymore.
In six years of Zen practice, no good and no bad is actually proving to be the most revolutionary teaching for me, to the point that I wanna share it with everyone.
Picture this scenario: you’ve been lonely for years. You feel unloved and unwanted, and you’ve never known the bliss (and madness) of a long-term romantic relationship. Depressed, you decide to go to a hermit sage who lives in a hut in the woods.
The sage asks, “What’s wrong?” and then you tell your story, both you illuminated by flickering firelight as the sage listens attentively the entire time.
At the end, you say, “So, I’m just so fucking lonely, and so, so, sad.”
Maybe the sage takes a drag off a pipe and asks, “Is that wrong?”
You reply, “Uh, is what wrong?”
“Is it wrong to feel that way? Is loneliness bad?”
“It feels bad.”
“Yes, but feeling and truth aren’t the same thing. The only truth there is to a feeling is that it’s a feeling. Sunlight keeps us alive, but it can also burn us if we’re out in it too long. So, sunlight isn’t good or bad, it’s just sunlight. It’s the same thing with everything else, including loneliness.”
“But I don’t want to feel lonely, I don’t want to burn.”
You pause and stare into the bonfire. Then you ask, “So, if nothing’s really good or bad, then what’s the point?”
“The point of what?”
“Of doing anything. If life isn’t good, then why keep living?”
“If life isn’t bad, then why stop living?”
“So there’s no reason either way.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“If there’s no point, then there’s no point in listening to you either, no point in seeing things as neither good nor bad.”
“Where’s your loneliness?”
“You came here with a heavy burden, fixated on loneliness, do you still feel lonely?”
“That’s the pointless point of seeing no good and bad. It interrupts all the thoughts, feelings, and impulses that depend on the view, ‘Good and bad are real.’ It takes the mind in a different direction, makes it examine itself rather than the things that appear before it. And that’s just by thinking it over for a few minutes. Imagine what living with it could do.”
“Loneliness isn’t bad.”
“And togetherness isn’t good. So there’s no need to run from one to the other. There’s no goodness to grab, and no badness to escape. Just this awareness is truly good.”
That little story just addressed loneliness, one negative feeling, one burden. Now picture applying it to all negative feelings, all negative situations, all negative facts, thoughts, and beliefs. Good and bad are empty of reality, but this emptiness is real. It’s spacious, bright, and seems to be identical in everyone who glimpses it.
But the magic of no good and bad isn’t in the philosophy, but its moment-to-moment application. When we’re aware that good and bad are just judgments, not truths, then we can be mindful of whenever we see ourselves mistaking them as truths, and mindful of whenever we don’t make that mistake.
At the same time, we become aware of how often others make this mistake. It becomes clear that it’s what’s behind most of the problems in the world.
Then, once our minds are free of all views of absolute good and bad, we can ask, “Who am I?” or, “What is this?” and if your mind is truly not bound by good and bad, you’ll experience illumination on the spot. Then the possibilities are endless. You’ll be Linji’s “True person of no rank,” able to stay or go without hindrance.
A Buddhist is someone who, actualizing no good and no bad, chooses to do what’s good anyway. They’re just no longer fooled by their own thoughts and feelings. After waking up under the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha considered just staying there for the rest of his life. Instead, he chose to get up and spend the next 45 years teaching.
He didn’t have to do that. Selfishly staying there and being at peace for the rest of his life wasn’t bad, and selflessly helping others wasn’t good. Fully aware of that, moved by compassion, he decided to do what’s considered “good” anyway. That’s complete enlightenment. That’s freedom from ourselves.
So, for just a day or two, I recommend being aware of four things: 1) Aware of how often we consider things truly good or bad, 2) Aware of how that view affects us and others, 3) Aware that things aren’t truly good or bad, that good and bad are just empty judgments, and 4) Aware of how that view affects us and others.
This applies to positive things just as much as negative ones, but it’s probably more helpful to focus on emptying out the negative first, that’ll ease affliction. But emptying them both out is what clears the path to clarity.