A Zen Story About Dealing With Our Demons

In a discussion thread at Naked Capitalism I found this Zen teaching story about dealing with a troubling hallucination (below). It shows how perceptive and practical Zen discipline strives to be. The master sees the ghost for what it is (a figment of the learner’s imagination), and he thinks of an experimental way the learner can discover for himself where the ghost comes from. Telling the man the truth would contradict his experience and lead to denial. Enabling his own discovery of the truth resolves the problem.

The challenge of teaching lies in having just such ideas again and again, in ever-changing circumstances, for people seeking answers to problems that cannot be resolved because they are sustained by the perception of the seeker himself. Objective answers reinforce the belief behind problem. Insisting on the truth of what one says leads to unresolvable debates–secondary rationalizations employed to win arguments that only obfuscate reality.

Even more challenging is that most of us don’t know what we are looking for when we ask for answers to our problems, as the learners in Zen stories never fail to express in their surprise at what they discover.

Mastery develops when the teacher can be relied upon to enable an effective learning experience for the learner. Even greater ability is demonstrated when he has given up wanting to teach altogether, and begins to respond without purpose as the situation demands.

The larger historical issues addressed in the Naked Capitalism post are beyond individual actors to influence. Change comes through collective experience, to which we can be but witnesses. But to witness is not passive. Collectively, awareness can move mountains.

The Subjugation of a Ghost

“A young wife fell sick and was about to die. “I love you so much,” she told her husband, “I do not want to leave you. Do not go from me to any other woman. If you do, I will return as a ghost and cause you endless trouble.”

Soon the wife passed away. The husband respected her last wish for the first three months, but then he met another woman and fell in love with her. They became engaged to be married.

Immediately after the engagement a ghost appeared every night to the man, blaming him for not keeping his promise. The ghost was clever too. She told him exactly what had transpired between himself and his new sweetheart. Whenever he gave his fiancee a present, the ghost would describe it in detail. She would even repeat conversations, and it so annoyed the man that he could not sleep. Someone advised him to take his problem to a Zen master who lived close to the village. At length, in despair, the poor man went to him for help.

“Your former wife became a ghost and knows everything you do,” commented the master. “Whatever you do or say, whatever you give your beloved, she knows. She must be a very wise ghost. Really you should admire such a ghost. The next time she appears, bargain with her. Tell her that she knows so much you can hide nothing from her, and that if she will answer you one question, you promise to break your engagement and remain single.”

“What is the question I must ask her?” inquired the man.

The master replied: “Take a large handful of soy beans and ask her exactly how many beans you hold in your hand. If she cannot tell you, you will know that she is only a figment of your imagination and will trouble you no longer.”

The next night, when the ghost appeared the man flattered her and told her that she knew everything.

“Indeed,” replied the ghost, “and I know you went to see that Zen master today.”

“And since you know so much,” demanded the man, “tell me how many beans I hold in this hand!”

There was no longer any ghost to answer the question.”

The Psychology of Transformation

“Alas, two souls beat within my breast!” groans Faust, as he struggles to reconcile competing interests in himself—and so Goethe describes the existential condition of us all: we are not one with ourselves! Personal identity is not monolithic, but is the negotiated result—minute for minute—of a complex relationship of often competing psychological parts within our own self. Skill in managing our internal dialogues and arriving at viable conclusions is the precondition for managing conflicts in our environment. But self-awareness training is not part of our schooling, with the consequence that we live out our unresolved issues unconsciously and mostly destructively with each other in the world.

To the extent that we remain unconscious of the self-divided nature of our human condition, we project internal conflicts onto others and the world, to fight them there as if they had nothing to do with ourselves. That is why so many “wars” are doomed from the start to failure, for the problem to be solved lies not “out there,” but rather in the lack of awareness of its causes in ourselves, so that the war is an expression of the problem, not part of the solution. The war on drugs, for example, blinds us to the problems of a society so devoid of meaning that large parts of its population would seek criminal profit or hallucinatory escape from it (witness the destruction of young lives through imprisonment for drug offenses which would be non-issues in other countries). The war on crime lets us act as the just avengers, as if we had no part in creating the criminal environment we feel we need to protect ourselves against (as, for example, the walled-in white enclaves in apartheid South Africa, or gated communities in the US). The war on fundamentalism reverses cause and effect in dealing with the blowback (e.g. Blowback, Chalmers Johnson) we reap from earlier Realpolitik policies of supporting “useful bastards” in the interests of power, about which many people in the world are understandably hostile. The potential list is as endless as the issues facing humanity. We are ourselves the hell we face. Salvation lies not in “winning” whatever war one is in, or in escape to a literal heaven, but in transforming the thoughts and feelings through which we create the world we live in.

The origin of humankind’s self-division lies in brain evolution, in which, according to Antonio Damasio, “self” has come to “mind” through the development of consciousness of our body processes. For Damasio, consciousness is a physical event, which would be both inconceivable and meaningless without the body as its basis. Mind strives, like all of unconscious life, to maintain a viable balance in the body in the face of a changing environment–a process which biologists call homeostasis. Our body, for example, maintains an internal temperature of 36.8 °C regardless of external temperatures, adjusting as needed up to temperature limits it can no longer cope with. The “self” Damasio describes takes this life process as a blueprint to the next level of complexity in creating society and culture. Likely, self came to mind as an evolutionary advantage, allowing human beings to engage in farther reaching social relationships which improved our collective chances of survival. As mind strives to maintain physical homeostasis, so the “self” is focussed on maintaining what Damasio calls sociocultural homeostasis.

Where physical homeostasis happens automatically, sociocultural homeostasis requires active intervention. To maintain our collective balance, we must bring what we think, feel, and do, both individually and as a society, into consciousness. Consciousness expresses itself through syntactical language, in which a subject describes its awareness of an objective world separate from itself, and a complex orientation in time, through which we orient our present in a context of our awareness of a past and future. Both syntactical thinking and awareness of time show the ability of consciousness to reflect upon itself as something added on to immediate experience. Even more significantly, consciousness brings with it the ability to intervene in its experience, and so to become an active force in its own evolutionary development.
The moment we become conscious of space and time, we can change what takes place in them. For example, human beings are the only animals that live in two worlds: the world of facts, and the world of meaning. Meaning is generated by the “frame” in which we view facts. As George Lakoff describes, by “reframing” the debate about facts, we change the way we experience them. What happens in time, also, is subject to conscious influence. Not only can we imagine the “future” in a way which will influence the way it becomes, but we can view past experience through “frames” which change our memory of what took place (“it is never too late to have a good childhood”).

The world our “self” has created is full of wonders. However, the limits of our practical imagination are also becoming brutally apparent. The world of meaning can become a war zone itself, as conflicting cultural values fight it out over which meanings guide consciousness. Conscious influence over our experience of space and time requires that we take responsibility for creating the sociocultural homeostasis that enables our collective survival and development. Looking at the results we generate, we are but infants in our playing with the frames that determine the way we live (the influence of political action committees, talk radio and television, paid scientific research results, and the marketing of brand illusions are just a few of our failures).

The problems we are now experiencing globally are a wake-up call to an unconscious society and culture. A path to greater competence lies in learning techniques to constructively change the way in which “self” maintains its balance, and to make them central to our educational programs, leadership training, political processes and social dialogues.