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It's Your Thinking That Leads to Your Suffering
The story that follows is a common tale told by Zen monks in the Orient. What I write today is mainly inspired by the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn.
After studying diligently for ten years, the man realized he still didn't understand how to live with a sense of emotional fulfillment. Talking with other disciples, the young monk heard of a highly evolved Zen master living in China. He was drawn to study with this man with the hope of finally realizing his true self. He gathered his meager belongings, crossed the sea of Japan, and started a long and arduous journey across arid plains.
Every day he walked for many hours, and would stop for the evening only after finding a patch of land that had a natural source of water safe for drinking. After traveling in this manner for more than a month, he had the strange sensation of feeling both energized and empty.
One day was particularly hot and dry and the monk walked endlessly unable to find water. As the day turned into a moonless night he finally found an oasis. Totally exhausted, he collapsed onto the ground and began crawling around in the darkness in search of liquid sustenance. He came across a roughly made cup that had been left behind. The custom of leaving a cup with some water in it for the next traveler was quite common. He drank the meager amount of delicious tasting water and felt blessed and at peace with the world. He soon lay down and slept quite comfortably until awaking to the light of the early morning sun.
Upon sitting up, the first thing he noticed was what he had taken to be the roughly made cup the night before. Indeed it was not a manmade cup, but rather the shattered skull of a baby wolf! The moist skull was caked with blood, and a number of ants were crawling around inside scavenging for food to carry back to their colony.
The monk saw all this and immediately began to vomit! He was overcome by several waves of nausea, and as the fluid poured forth from his mouth and nose, he clearly experienced his thinking mind overwhelming his body and his emotions. With no choice but to submit to the moment, he understood that his thinking mind had been overwhelming him his entire life!
The night before the water tasted delicious and he felt refreshed. It was his misunderstanding of the circumstances that led him to feel fine. Upon seeing the skull and the ants in the light of the morning sun, it was his memory of his past actions and not the putrid water that brought about his nausea.
Regardless of whether or not he was understanding or misunderstanding, it was his thinking mind that created the way he felt. This was suddenly very clear to him. He realized that if his thinking was capable of creating suffering, it was also capable of creating peace of mind. He realized that what had occurred in the past was much less important than the way he reacted in the present. Upon understanding this, his journey was complete and he returned home to live his life with a sense of emotional fulfillment.
The way we think, breathe, and use our body plays a major role in our creation of suffering and stress. Indeed we can say that stress is caused by excessive thinking, tense muscles, and a lack of sufficient oxygen to fuel our system.
The thinking mind tends to understand much of life through the filter of "opposites". Right or wrong, good or bad, you or me, easy or difficult, are all created by our thinking. When we view the world with a sense of opposition the world appears to conspire against us.
People desire many things - fame, fortune, power, and success. All of this desire comes from a failure to notice what we do have; the essence of who we are. No matter how hard we try, thinking alone will not help us understand our essence. When we don't understand our essence we misrepresent and distort all who we meet and all we encounter, and thus we suffer.
When we're at peace with who we are we're not attached to winning or losing, succeeding or failing. When we're not attached to the results we achieve, our body stays relaxed, we breathe freely and easily, and we think less. Quieting the thinking mind leads to intuitive action. Intuitive action leads to living calmness. When we don't think we don't know. When we don't know, we learn from everything.
I want to be careful to not give thinking a "bad name" here. Thinking is necessary and can of course also add to the quality of our life. Without thinking nothing would run on schedule, there would be nothing to run on schedule, and I would not be writing this article.
The crucial point to consider is whether or not you're able to think while remaining calm. When you're able to approach the need to adapt and learn while maintaining a state of equanimity, you'll come to appreciate the many challenges life presents you with.
When you rest your thinking mind, relax your body, and breathe fully you give yourself the chance to enter into a state of living calmness. When you're calm, you have the greatest likelihood of manifesting your full power. In Oriental culture you're advised to empty your cup prior to asking for more tea. In the same way, emptying your thinking mind prior to thinking, prepares you to receive new ideas and take on new challenges.
When you're agitated you tense your muscles and restrict your breathing, and your mind appears to be inside your head. This is "small mind". When you're in "small mind" you feel separate from others and the connections you desire.
When you're calm and confident you relax your body and take in copious amounts of oxygen. At such times your mind knows no boundaries, no fixed location. This is "big mind". Everything is inside your mind and your mind is inside everything. There's nothing to be separated from and everything is possible. There's no opponent and thus no winning or losing. This is the state of mind to attain for peak performance. This is also the state of mind to cultivate every day if you'd like to live an emotionally balanced life.
In Aikido we understand that when people are fearful they tense their muscles and restrict their breathing. When you tense your muscles and restrict your breathing you unbalance yourself emotionally as well as physically. All of which tends towards a further sense of fear and stress. It's a vicious spiral!
When you breathe deeply and empty your thinking mind, your muscles relax and you lower your center of gravity. At such times you feel physically and emotionally balanced and your ability to adapt and change is heightened. This way of being is also a spiral, just not a vicious one!
Recently I had a business client who announced she was sabotaging her career with negative thoughts. I asked my client how realizing this important fact could wind up empowering her. At first she seemed a bit confused by my question.
I said to my client, "I agree with your opinion. Your thoughts are having a negative impact on what you're able to accomplish, and how you perceive yourself. Indeed, your negative thoughts lead to a tense body, shallow breathing, and poor quality results on many fronts."
I then said to my client: "You already know your thinking has a major impact on how you perform. This is a great realization to have. What would happen to your thinking if you took several deep breaths, relaxed your body, and talked more slowly? How would this influence how you felt and thought?"
I prompted her to sit up a bit straighter, and breathe deeply as she thought about her possible reply. She changed her posture, took a couple of deep breaths and said the following: "Yes, my breath and my body have a major impact on how I feel and think. When I breathe deeply, relax my body, and talk slowly, my thinking tends to be more positive and I feel better about myself. I'm sure that learning how to calm myself prior to thinking, can dramatically change my career for the better!"
How about you? Can you now more clearly realize it's the way you breathe, use your body, and think, that leads to your suffering and stress, much more so than the actual circumstances and relationships you're embroiled in? Once you realize this to be so, you'll be on a path of emotional fulfillment. I hope we'll meet somewhere along the way!