Coming to My Senses: Confessions of a Recovering Thinker

Rev. Master Mugo’s recent postings about vision, landscape, and soundscape reminds me of one the first articles I read about Buddhism. It was entitled Come to Your Senses!. I don’t even remember the author. It appeared in a poorly printed sort of magazine of metaphysics of the 1950’s that my dad had laying around the house. The article suggested that by properly using the senses one could eventually achieve Enlightenment. This was not standard cultural fare at the time and it caught my attention.

I walked around the house wondering if I was “properly using my senses” and speculating on what being enlightened would feel like. I asked my dad how to use the senses correctly and remember him saying something along the lines of “pay attention to what you’re doing”. Since I was a kid who ran a lot of fantasies in his head most of the time, this wasn’t anything new for him to say to me, so I disregarded it as a parental correction to my normal absent-mindedness. But something germinated.

By the time I went to college, Eastern philosophy was catching on and I enrolled in a survey class. The class was so full that it was moved to an auditorium. There was an excited buzz in the room. The professor ambled out to the podium, adjusted the microphone, and in a quiet tone told us that he was disgusted with the popularity of the class. He preferred the small classes he used to have and, frankly, he didn’t think many of us would get it. He said that the entire course could be summed up like this and, despite his obviously arthritic hands, the professor slammed a fist down on the podium and said: “Don’t think about it!”

Of course I thought about not thinking about it for the rest of the semester and beyond. I studied hard. I learned a lot. I was especially excited about learning that the discriminatory mind was considered a sense. I could justify thinking about not thinking that way. But the professor’s fist striking the podium had a significance that sounded beyond all that thinking and beyond my earnest attempts to acquire understanding.

Over the years, and with the benefit of a Zen practice, I began to see that acquiring in general seemed to get in its own way. It just pushed what I was after further ahead of me, like those old vaudeville comedians who drop their hat and kick it further away when they step to pick it up. Eventually, however, studying Buddhism became less and less an issue of obtaining something and more and more of recognising signposts left by those who went before.

The same evolution has seemed to occur with my senses. Early on, it was natural to reach with my senses, particularly seeing, hearing, and thinking, but none were ignored. Over time, it has seemed better to let them be, to let them do their job, to not push them or cut them off. I’m finding, for example, that relaxed vision sees more, relaxed listening hears more. For me, this non-forced sensory opening up seems to encourage a general open-endedness in my perspective that is beneficial. Not just relaxing, or informative, or helpful, or assuring, but, well, more human. It reminds me that we are not just homo sapiens (those who know) but homo sapiens sapiens (those who know they know).


I’m spending time answering comments this evening, to the sounds of fireworks cracking and crashing in the night.

Reflections On Listening And Giving Advice

The following is part of an email I sent to Adrienne this morning. Since it started to look like a blog post I asked her if I could publish it, with additions. She agreed.

Dear Adrienne,

I have been writing a post in my head this morning about giving advice. Your post yesterday The Trouble with Advice has got me going.

I have also been thinking about listening and how one obviously has ones views and opinions bubbling up while somebody is talking, and hearing ones own thoughts needs to be in the picture also. Further, there is the wider listening. The sound-scape you could call it. Traffic, the hard drive of the computer, cooking sounds, the toilet being flushed – these are in the background, less in ones direct awareness but there non the less. Yes, listening in the sense of listening to what somebody is saying is specific. However my sense is that to really listen/be there, with all of ones senses, the sound-scape is there also. Ones own mind being very much part of the sound-scape to take account of. To own and not give away rashly, if at all.

So….the edge one keeps approaching when listening to somebody (say she is telling you about her day at work) is: allowing the sound-scape yet not rushing to respond when it’s not needed right now, and refraining from saying something like ‘you’ve got to be JOKING’ when she comes out with something bonkers. Those are the times when it’s obvious to keep ones mouth shut…and continue to listen and ask questions when in the sort of position you (Adrienne) are in professionally.

For the most part (this is my view) most people are not actually asking for feedback, advice or comment – or what ever. They, as you say, asking for and benefiting from simply being listened to. Further, when somebody is overtly asking for advice they are not necessarily asking you to tell them, chapter and verse how to live their lives better or how to discipline their children or animals! Advice can be over done especially between friends and even more especially within families! An example from this very morning: I was being waved off by my cousin and family with whom I’d stayed the night. And there I was letting slip several sentences of jolly advice – it’s the process not the product and never mind you saving the world, take care of yourself…! How horrible is that?

The context of the conversation is a good guide. Forums are an advice ‘fest’, because that’s what they are set up for. However the comment section of Jade is not a forum so generally people don’t take it upon themselves to offer advice to other commenter’s, or to me. Which is how I prefer comments to be. Some blogs do have this element but here not. So why is that? For now as a preview, and to remind me what it is I’m going to write about tomorrow, I’ve a thought on what Jade might possibly have become for a few people. A Buddhist temple! If this is so I’ll feel free to respond to comments again, with…spiritual encouragement.

The Trouble with Advice

The other day I was talking to someone about a difficulty I was experiencing; not a major problem, just something that had cropped up that I wanted to talk through. I had hardly started to describe my issue when up came a suggestion, a piece of advice, from my friend. So why did that make me feel uncomfortable?

The wish to help others is there for many people and as Buddhists we train not just for self, but also for others. I have been involved in the helping side of things for many years. My motivation for this is probably quite complicated and rooted in my past. I have asked myself questions; ‘why do I do this work?’, ‘what are my intentions?’ and also ‘does what I do really help?’ Similar to Andrew, I was also influenced by what other people thought I should be doing. And there was more than that; I had wish for fulfillment, approval and even a distraction from my own need for help. I know from experience that acting on these needs and intentions is stressful, tiring and also it lessens the likelihood that anyone is helped. I am not beating myself up here; I am simply recognising some of what has driven me in a particular direction and then wanting to change.

In my early days of working as a helper I frequently offered solutions, and proffered advice, therefore missing what was actually going on for that person because I wasn’t listening. By rushing to solutions I also made assumptions about thoughts and feelings, most probably wrong ones, again because of not listening.

Listening and the wish to help is a skill that requires awareness, not just of the other person but more especially of the self. Some years ago an excellent teacher described this as getting yourself out of the way. Isn’t this what meditation is all about? Are we not seeking to abandon our opinions and our personal points of view, ourselves?

In giving advice what we risk saying to the person is ‘you do not seem to be able to work this out for yourself’. Everyone has the capacity to learn and change and what really helps is being encouraged to talk, being listened to and trust that something happens when given this space to be with our koan ….. when we do our own practice.

The Four Reliances

Rely on the message of the teacher,
not on her personality;
Rely on the meaning,
not just on the words;
Rely on the real meaning,
not on the provisional one;
Rely on your wisdom mind,
not on your ordinary, judgmental mind.

Shakyamuni Buddha:
The Four Reliances

When, and where, would this advice NOT apply?