Last Saturday I was on my way to Vernon to visit with family, take some photos and grab some sanity-maintenance time. Now that the mountains had fresh snow and the roads were still clear and dry, I started anticipating the drive over the Duffy Lake Road as I was driving past Lillooet Lake. The skies were clear, the air was crisp and around -5 degrees or so and I could see the fresh snow covering the huge massif of Pemberton Mountain to my right. The stretch of highway between Pemberton and Lillooet over the Duffy Lake Road is one of my favourite stretches of highway in all of BC, with the possible exception of Rogers Pass. After stopping briefly to snap a few photos with a polarizer and graduated neutral density filter to darken the blues skies and reduce some of the glare from the mountain snow, I was back in my girlfriends car with tunes playing from my Sansa Fuze plugged into the car stereo. I was listening to some new age music as well as some Gregorian chant’s which often help to get me “in the mood” so to speak. What I mean by being “in the mood” is that I have had the wonderful privilege for most of my life, to do what is often very difficult for most who start off in the practice of meditation. This is the ability to stop thinking. Or, to coin an expression from Carlos Casteneda, to “shut off ones internal dialogue”. “The internal dialogue is what grounds people in the daily world. The world is such and such or so and so, only because we talk to ourselves about its being such and such and so and so. The passageway into the world of shamans opens up after the warrior has learned to shut off his internal dialogue (Casteneda).” Thus began an experimental attempt to meditate, or enter a Zen state, while driving the Duffy Lake Road.
“The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.”
For most of us, meditation (stopping your thoughts) is much harder than it first seems as our minds are constantly thinking about the present moment (keeping the car on the road), what we had for breakfast (McDonalds), what we plan to do in the future (take pictures in Vernon) and all those other simultaneous thoughts and sates of awareness that are often more like sensations, feelings or fleeting images rather than words. So how do we shut down all this internal noise? Just the act of thinking that you want to stop thinking, is still a thought, right? The problem is often illustrated by trying to tell yourself “I won’t think about an elephant”. Most people suddenly realize that the image of an elephant just automatically pops into our heads without even thinking about it directly. This process of shutting off ones internal dialogue, is one of the first challenges for anyone starting off on a meditation practice. For some reason, the state of mind or practice of Zen, seems to have come quite easily, or at least early, to me. I think I may know when, where, and maybe even why I developed this ability.
“The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
As a young boy between the ages of 12 to 16, I grew up in North Vancouver near the top of Mountain Highway on Mill St. just below Grouse Mountain. I literally had Grouse Mountain as my own wilderness playground with trails leaving from my back yard all the way up to the access road which services the mountain. Behind our home there were various trails which were used by the local bears, deer, raccoons and even cougars which I saw on a fairly regular basis. I don’t recall now if it was before, or more likely after I started reading the many spiritual and philosophical writings of Carlos Castaneda, but I would often go into the mountains at night, and alone. Often I would simply hunt for the Sasquatch, but I would also act-out, practice and explore some of the things I had been reading as Carlos Casteneda trained as a Shaman or “Man of Knowledge”. I had spent so much time in these woods that every tree, every rock and almost every sound was intimately familiar and recognisable to me. In fact for most of my 14th and 15th years heading into the wilderness alone was almost a daily ritual, right after coming home from school. During my nightly excursions I would often come across black bears on the trail and never once did I feel threatened or afraid. In most cases after they would notice me, I would slowly move off the trail and let them pass, often just a few feet from me. Since I was never afraid and never reacted abruptly I imagine they just sensed that I was not a threat and just carried on as if I were part of the bush. I was also pretty skinny so probably would not have made much of meal anyway.
My family life was not very “family like” back in those days and so I imagine that my time alone in the wilderness was very much an emotional and psychological escape for me. A place where I could feel safe, among friends (Chester, Ladybird, Sinbad and Wolf) and at peace. I would often head out in the evenings, even when there was very little light like during a new moon. I could always find my way and rarely, if ever, fell. Unless of course I was practicing what Carlos Castaneda called the “Gait of Power”. When a Shaman was in training, he would learn many skills including the ability to run through the wilderness, in the dark and avoid all obstacles with a sort of 6th sense, a special way of “seeing” which involved a sort of non-looking-method of staring just above the horizon and intentionally forcing your eyes out of focus. I was not very good at this and fell hard to the ground on more than one occasion. Fortunately for me I was alone and so there was little embarrassment beyond maybe the bear or deer that would notice me fall and likely conclude with certainty now, yeah-no threat here.
When I was not falling on my face trying to run wilderness trails in the dark, or hunting for the Sasquatch, I would often hike deep into Grouse Mountain and sit at the intersection of what were clearly game trails. We (humans) make a great deal of noise as we stomp into the woods, no matter how quiet we try to be. However, if you stop and sit very, very still for at least 10-15 minutes keeping as quiet as possible, a very wonderous thing begins to happen. All the creatures and sounds which went quiet as you entered the bush, slowly start to return and if you catch it at the right time, such as dusk or dawn, you will be immersed in a symphony, a cacophony of wilderness and earth sounds. Small birds, the wind, deer and bear will all carry on with what they were doing before you abruptly interrupted their space. And soon, if you remain calm, quiet and at rest, they will carry on around you as if you were not even there. If you have never experienced this, it is truly remarkable, truly an epiphany as you feel totally immersed in the wilderness around you. A part of something bigger than your sense of self. Almost a lack of individual or personal self and a metaphysical realization of unity, of totality. Similar to what Joseph Campbell would call an “intelligible sphere who’s center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere”. Now did I think of it this way back then? No, of course not. But I did “know” that this state of mind was safe, calm-abiding and illuminating of some form of “truth”. For as long as I can remember I have always been a deeply introspective person and this calm-abiding and illuminating state of mind, especially during my adolescence, was profoundly meaningful to me, even then.
On more than one occasion, after sitting still for some time, deer or even bear would graze around me, pulling at roots, branches and sometimes they would even take a closer sniff of me and then just carry on as if I were not even there. Even as young man of 14 or 15, I could literally sit for hours, in silence, without moving and simply becoming deeply and intimately aware of the present moment. Most of my “thoughts” were in visual or emotional form and without language. We all start off this way before we acquire language and it seems for some reason, possibly the necessity of my painful family life, combined with the writings of Carlos Castaneda, I was able to learn a deep meditative practice long before I even knew the word, or what it meant. All I knew for certain and with every fibre in my body, was that I was at peace, felt no fear and only a profound, deeply intimate and personal sense of belonging. A sense of being a part of something much larger and more importation than myself. I had no idea what this was back then, or that it even had a name. But now I can say I had the privilege of learning Zen, and understanding deep meditation practice, at a very early age. I believe this is the single greatest privilege I have ever experienced and likely contributed to my reasonable success at surviving a tough adolescence.
Most of us have heard the word “Zen” and many of us have even read the 1974 book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig. Pirsig’s novel describes a 17 day motorcycle journey with his son, across the United States, where he talks about a variety of philosophical topics but more specifically he goes on to describe his views of reality which he calls the Metaphysics of Quality. This view of reality which Prisig describes as a “non-intellectualizing, non-conceptualizing, Zen-like direct viewing of the Universe” is at the heart of the basic notion of Zen. This notion of “Zen”, living in, and experiencing the present, has crept into the popular language of our culture under many guises. The phenomenally successful book by Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, is really just about The Power of Zen.
So what exactly is Zen? What does the word mean and what does it have to do with driving along the Duffy Lake Road? The word “Zen” is a Japanese word for a Chinese word, “Chan”. And the Chinese word “Chan” comes from the ancient Sanskrit word “Dhyana” which translates simply as “meditation”. Therefore the word Zen often conjures up images of motionless Buddhist monks sitting in deep, silent, contemplative mediation. The fundamental purpose of most meditative techniques is simply to shut off ones internal dialog and focus on the sublime, still and wordless moment of the present. The mysterious image of those monks becomes somewhat less mysterious or strange when you realize they are simply focusing intently and silently on the present moment, the here and the now.
According to Zen, true existence is found in the silence of the mind (no-mind), past the noise and chatter of our own thoughts. Some of us have also heard the Hindu word “AUM” or “OM” as it is often spelled and pronounced in the west. AUM is the most sacred sound in Hinduism and the mantra is also considered holy in Buddhism, Sikhism and a few other eastern traditions. The AUM sound is sometimes called “the 4-syllable Veda” (Sanskrit literature/writings). When correctly pronounced, AUM is said to have four sounds: “A” emerges from the throat, originating in the region of the navel, “U” rolls over the tongue, and “M” ends on the lips. That’s three and so where is the fourth syllable? The silence from which the word comes forth, and then returns. It is exactly this silence, this Ground of All Being, this transcendent and metaphysical state, which is at the heart of nearly ALL the worlds non-theistic religions and philosophies and has been identified with the “Collective Unconscious” of Carl Jung, the “Perennial Philosophy” of Aldus Huxley and many more writings, teachings, philosophies and mythologies around the world for millennia.
This silence, this Ground of All Being, this Fourth Syllable, along with the koan “what is the sound of one hand clapping” or what Joseph Campbell calls the “sound NOT made by two things rubbing together” is what we connect to when we meditate, when we practise Zen, when we shut down our internal dialogue. Or in Sanskrit, “Anahata” (also the fourth chakra in Hindu Yoga)– the sound of the celestial realm. So as we can see, Zen, meditation, AUM, Anahata, the Fourth Chakra, shutting down ones internal dialogue, the power of Now, the collective unconscious, the perennial philosophy: these are all the same thing, identical, or at least metaphorically referring to the same thing, the same state, the same concept, the same Truth. “The truth is One, the sages call it by many names ” (Rig Vedic).
So back to the Duffy Lake Road. As I was listening to the chanting of Gregorian monks and gradually shutting down my thoughts and trying to enter a meditative Zen-state, I managed to slip in the idea, the thought, that if I continue I may lose track of where I was and what I was doing. With a sheer rock face to my right and a steep drop-off down to Duffy Lake on my left, this could present a problem with regards to my journey. Not to mention a problem for my girlfriend since it was her car. But somehow I started to realize that I really did not need any words, or language in my head in order to maintain control of the car. In fact driving is fundamentally a visually driven skill and unless you are using one of those modern voice-activated navigation systems, language really is not necessary. So off I went into the realm, and mental state of Zen. Although the occasional image of plunging into the lake did pass by my observational consciousness, it soon passed as I continued to open my mind and expand my awareness of all that was within my visual field, and beyond. Observation without explanation, without judgement, without didactics and without words. A calm-abiding state of epiphanous road travel only occasionally interrupted by sharp corners which refocused my attention not on the larger surroundings but on the smaller task at hand, negotiating a corner.
“Words and concepts can be useful, but mistaking them for reality is a big mistake. Concepts about reality are not reality. The menu is not the food. Dissolving all ones preconceptions, beliefs, concepts, and judgements about ourselves and the universe, can be a very liberating experience.” (Rafael Espericueta)
Zen (meditation) is simply a way of truly experiencing, and knowing, at the deepest and most genuine level of our sense of self and awareness, that we are all one and the same. It is a rational, introspective and consciousness-expanding method of experiencing the “true nature” of reality and our own true nature. We are all connected and the separateness we experience is a psychological by-product of the unfortunate, but necessary, cognitive and metaphysical throttling, or dumbing-down, of our inner experience of “reality”. This “simplification or filtering of the world” is not unlike the physiological limitations of each of our senses where our experience of say light, is restricted within a range which our minds and bodies are capable of surviving, but more importantly, comprehending. Therefore, it is not unrealistic to consider the possibility that our own cognitive, spiritual and metaphysical capabilities, our capacity to fully “know” things as they truly are, our ability to formulate a rational and complete world view, is also limited in order for us to realistically comprehend what we may be experiencing. The fundamental nature of reality, is for most people, either an intractable problem without an answer understandable by us; or, not a problem at all and simply the smallest physical particle extending in three dimensions-fundamental materialism. Personally I fall into the former category and believe, like many others, that the true, fundamental nature of reality is beyond all human categories of thought and comprehension. However, it is not entirely beyond our grasp and much like the emergent properties of consciousness or art, we can touch a bit of this ultimate reality through meditation and at least infer or connote its existence in every-day life, even driving.
I know this blog was a bit scattered, and long, so I will try to end with a far more eloquent and better written explanation of what I am trying to say about finding, and utilizing Zen in everyday tasks and situations.
“In the midst of our lives, hungry, thirsty and often weary, there comes a moment when we stop and wonder, Is this all there is? Is there another way to live my life that will bring the joy and contentment that eludes me? Caught in the patterns of our lives, each of us has an intuition of something beyond the way we are now living. This something has the power to dispel sorrow and transform our lives into one of wholeness and joy. This is what Zen offers. This ancient practice has the power to heal division and offer the strength, compassion and refreshment we all desire. The truth about Zen is that it is simple, and best practiced right in the midst of our everyday lives. This presents a unique opportunity. We now have the chance to grow like flowers, planted in the soil of our daily concerns”. (Brenda Shoshann)
So enjoy life, be aware of and recognize your dependence on, and interconnectedness with, all living things and whenever you can, even while driving, connect with the beauty and the sublime essence of the world around you. And remember, although “The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it” (Gospel of Thomas), Zen might help us get a glimpse once in a while, even while driving.