Is it helpful if we label our thoughts during Zazen?
I first came across this with the great Charlotte Joko Beck, who encouraged people doing Zazen who were vexed with a thought to label it as, say, anxiety, or dissatisfaction, or excitement. She seemed to think that if a thought was labelled, it was easier to put it to one side.
There’s obviously a number of separate issues arising here.
One issue is that the risk of labelling a thought is that you’re then caught up in a narrative. So if you label a thought as anxiety, then you’re tempted to ask, “Well, why am I anxious?” and then, before you know it, you’re making up a big story, and becoming disconnected from your actual, embodied experience.
But the other thing is, you might be wrong. Very often people label an emotion in an obviously mistaken way. Very often, people who are angry say that they’re sad, for example. I wonder about the origin of this. Perhaps, as little children, we were upset or angry or whatever, and our mother came to us and comforted us explaining what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. Once we’ve got that explanation, then, in a way, it’s contained–it’s comfortable.
As adults we can do something similar, but of course our mothers’ effort is an effort of translation. And that translation could be mistaken, and our own translation of what we’re experiencing might be mistaken also. In fact it might be impossible to translate our actual experience without making mistakes.
This issue of translation has been very familiar in Buddhism from the outset. In the original enlightenment story of the Buddha, the Buddha originally thought that what he’d understood was too difficult to explain to people. It was only after a lot of reflection that he thought that he should share it.
It’s an issue in Buddhist history how he decided to share that. So, whether he expressed the truth as he experienced it, or whether he expressed the truth by what’s called “expedient means”–expressing the truth in a way that makes sense to the person that you’re talking to.
Although it might seem weird to put it in this way, as it were, we’re all clairvoyant, but clairvoyant with ourselves. We’re always experiencing this flood of “something,” which we then require to make intelligible–first to ourselves and then to someone else.
In Chapter 1 of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha, whilst meditating, shoots out a beam of light from his Third Eye in the direction of the Eastern Lands, illuminating 18,000 worlds. Within all those worlds there are people going through the Six Realms of Transmigration together with the sravakas, the pratyekabuddhas, the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas teaching those people in those lands.
It appears to be a fantastical image, but I think it’s an accurate description of our experience in Zazen. There’s the scale and range and diversity of experience, and expression, and emotion and thought, and all the rest of it. But it’s all contained within this all-encompassing light, emanating from the Buddha. So this incredible, vast and diverse experience is all held within the illuminating space of this awareness.
And that seems to me to be a crucial clue for how we should regard everything, which arises within zazen. So we’re not, obviously, labelling a thought in the sense of labelling a piece of luggage or labelling an inert thing. But generally I can’t recommend it, because it seems to retain the categories of our ordinary, dualistic life. In Zazen, we are always seeing or feeling a momentary ‘something’/no-thing, which has its own life and capacity for transformation, so we leave it be. And if we do so, each thing is everything and so, quiescent.