"Common Sense Zen" and Happiness
Here's a practical treatment of Zen as discussed over a few beers with a friend...
I was talking to my friend after a long Memorial Day weekend of debauchery on the Jersey shore.
I said I felt like, from a spiritual perspective, I took several steps back this weekend. Given the chasing girls, partying, and general mischief I feel like I’m all the more invested in vanity and a need to impress people. For context here I’ve been a meditator for about 5 years and trained for 4 months as a Zen monk. So much of my “spiritual development” over the last few years has been becoming less attached to ego and vanity.
I’ve gone from being a vain, narcissistic a--hole to, perhaps generously, an above average person in this regard.
But my friend pointed out that for most people, a Zen approach to happiness focused on renunciation of ego and removing all desires isn’t very practical.
In fact, when I talk this way people barely know what the f--k I’m talking about. It’s more practical to consent to people doing things that make the ego feel good – e.g. enhance self-esteem – but without becoming overly tied to it. For example I might say “yeah I want to be better looking so I’m going to start working out”. But I’m not going to take steroids and lift weights for 3 hours per day…
It’s a middle way.
That feels like a practical push coming from a friend: a blue collar steel mill worker who enjoys having a few beers — to me: a neurotic, overly idealistic Zen guy. So courtesy of my friend Grant, I present to you happiness and “Zen for the common man”.
Here’s my humble attempt at a one line, common sense definition of the Zen way:
Zen is developing healthy non-attachment to “self” and preferences through mental training.
Your Video Game Character: Non-attachment to Self
What do I mean by healthy non-attachment to self?
When I use the word “self” I’m referring to your ego as this sort of character that each of us creates and presents to the world. I often think of life as a role playing video game (RPG). There’s Jackson (that’s me) who has this set of interests and tendencies. I can think “oh that’s something Jackson would say” or “Jackson would never do that”. Jackson the video game character dresses a certain way, talks a certain way, and takes pride in all these different things he knows about.
But I’m not the video game character. At the deepest level, “I” am the one playing the video game. I’m the one aware of the experience of being “Jackson”.
So, healthy nonattachment is being aware of this distinction and not being overly fixated on the video game character.
When you’re overly identified with this video game self, there’s a lot of unhappiness there. That’s where you get people obsessed with self-image. They’re self-conscious. They’re the types who become totally absorbed in some character role. Think of the business type: maybe a 50 year old Chief Financial Officer who has spent his whole life playing the role of “businessman”. Think of the college kid who is super into his or her fraternity or sorority. They are fully lost in playing the role of “frat star”.
I’m not saying that all executives or fraternity folks are this way. They’re just examples of extreme cases of over-identification. I’m talking about the ones who have no idea that they’re playing a game and they are completely absorbed in this character they’ve created.
I say healthy non-attachment begins with simply being aware of these created selves. It’s recognizing the multiple motives that go into something. For instance, maybe I want to read a book on psychology so that I can be better with my social skills. I want to do this because it’ll make me more confident, better at making friends, and have a better romantic life.
Now there are healthy, practical motives there. I want to be more capable and more effective in helping people. But at the same time there’s some more “toxic,” egoistic motives here (e.g. I want to impress girls and be cool). The important thing is being aware of all the motives at work and trying to limit the more ego-intoxicating ones (to the extent possible).
I’d go as far as to say it’s okay to play the game, so to speak. It’s okay to improve yourself or even have fun playing the game. The problem comes when you lose sight of the fact that it’s a game. And you mistake your video game self for your real self.
So practically speaking, the Zen recipe for happiness begins with a healthy non-attachment to self. It’s creating a little separation from the video game you.
Sweat in the summer, shiver in the winter: Nonattachment to Preferences
This video-game-character self is governed by a strict set of preferences and deeply held ideas.
It sets up rules and standards about how the world should be. It directs your behavior by making you pursue what you want and avoid what you don’t want. Again I think there’s often a misunderstanding of what we might call “purist Zen” or “harcore Zen” where folks think that the ultimate outcome is transcending likes or dislikes.
But that’s not practical and probably not even possible. Again what I’m talking about here is a healthy nonattachment to preferences. As a teacher of mine told me – Zen isn’t about not wanting things to be a certain way, it’s about how you react when things don’t turn out that way.
What happens when you’re overly attached to preferences? Imagine that you have your sort of comfort zone that represents having everything the way you want. This is living in a way where you completely focus on avoiding discomfort and seeking pleasure.
You’re like a dog with an invisible fence. The dog wants to be free to run around – to come and go as it pleases – but when it gets to the edge of its “comfort zone” it feels a little shock. So it knows not to go over there. And in this way its fear of discomfort keeps it squarely inside it’s little area. Now imagine if that dog were to say – “I’m okay with some discomfort”. “It’s okay that this won’t feel good”. “I know this is going to hurt but that’s not a problem”. It could courageously run right through its invisible fence.
Most of us (myself included) are often trapped in this invisible fence. But instead of an electric collar it’s attachment to these fixed ideas – preferences and aversions – that limit our experience of life.
Again I don’t think it’s possible to transcend likes and dislikes completely. Further, even if you could I don’t think you’d want to. You’d be like a ship without a sail: with nothing to stimulate you. Similar to the video game analogy, the way is to play the game but remember you’re playing the game - and enjoy playing the game. When you have skillfully considered what you want, then go for it, and if you get it you should be very happy. But when you don’t get it, or when something bad happens, there’s no problem.
Great teacher Suzuki Roshi tells the story of a student who asked if there is a place beyond like or dislike, beyond hot or cold. The teacher said, in the summer we sweat, in the winter we shiver. There are bad times when you should be a sad, suffering Buddha. And there are good times when you should be a very happy Buddha.
I want to be happy. I want things that bring happiness. But when I’m suffering and I don’t get what I want then I’m just suffering. There’s no problem.
This is not removing preferences; it’s just not being dominated by them.
Cultivating Healthy Non-attachment through Mental Training
So how do you create this bit of distance from the “self” and preferences so that you are not dominated by them?
This is where mental training comes in. To keep it simple, think of going to the gym. You might do strength training, cardio, and flexibility work. Each of these is building a certain physical capacity. All of these capacities go towards the broader goal of improving your physical fitness.
You can think of the mind in similar terms. To continue the metaphor, think of things like awareness, compassion, focus, non-attachment, etc as mental capacities. You can engage in targeted training for each one to improve your mental fitness.
Say you want to be a better runner. You run for a few miles per day and build up over time until you can run a marathon.
Say you want to be better with non-attachment to preferences. Every day you practice meditation for 20 minutes. During this time you practice labeling thoughts and emotions as they arise: “planning,” “craving,” “anxiety,” etc. In this way you’re building awareness and your capacity for non-attachment. You build up over time until you can run your non-attachment marathon (so to speak).
Zen is about cultivating awareness through mental training. The style of meditation in Zen is “Zazen” which is often explained as just sitting. It is sitting and experiencing whatever arises in the present moment without judgement. It’s simply awareness of your direct experience right now.
Through practice you thus build your capacity to be aware of your “video game self” and the likes/dislikes that are constantly pushing and pulling at your mind. And so Zen is fundamentally a process of mental trainings with the aim of cultivating healthy nonattachment through mindful awareness.
I say the common sense, practical treatment of Zen in the context of happiness is not transcending all wants, desires, or aversions. It’s not renouncing any sense of self. Rather it’s not being dominated by self and preferences. It’s happiness that is not contingent upon ego or preference.
It’s not saying you can’t “play the game”. It’s just realizing that you’re playing the game: and not being overly identified with the game.
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