Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Repression Vs Letting go

How can I know if a thought has been let go or has been repressed?
I kinda thought this was obvious: When I repress thoughts/urges they come back stronger, so I can tell which ones I've repressed.
But then I realized that sometimes repressed thoughts often take ages to re-surface.
So how can one know if one is on the right path and not just repressing everything again?
(I hope this makes sense. And I hope I'm not the first to post m(..)m )


At February 15, 2006, Blogger Bob J. said...

What a great question to start with! Seriously, I mean. I was just thinking about how in our eclectic (leaderless) Zen group, people are all sitting in (more or less) "zen postures" but the mental exercises they are doing (or not doing) are all different. I had long ago given up on all forms of meditation, because I thought I was cheating because I couldn't do any of the "mind tricks" that seemed to be involved. When I read Brad's book and a bunch of his posts about shikentaza I felt inspired to try again, and that worked for me.

It seems to me that all the "tricks," like counting the breath, not to mention all the focused meditation techniques, just added more noise to a mind that was noisy enough. On the other hand, trying to repress a thought is worse than useless, because it is exactly as you say, PA: Try not to think of a white elephant, and bam, there's the white elephant.

So I came to the observation that stopping the mind is impossible. I can no more stop my mind from spinning than I can stop breathing. So I just let it spin. Occasionally I have to intentionally bring my mind back to the room and immediate situation I'm in (and I'll admit I use the occasional loud mental breath to clear out the really rackety thoughts), and I do intentionally focus on my spine straightening and posture (Brad and Nishijima's "doing gymnastics without moving.")

In general, I find it better to let the thoughts burn themselves out than to focus on them and try to not think them. I think this is the main benefit of longer sits and retreats; the mind runs out of fodder, or at least slows down. So when I finish, hopefully some of the chaff has been eliminated.

Of course I think that your mind is gonna do what it's gonna do anyway, no matter what we try and make it do, so it's easier to just let it and try not to identify with it.

I hope this makes since, but you hit on something my mind has been using to obsess on lately.

At February 15, 2006, Blogger PA said...

When you say, "try not to identify with it." what does that mean, actually?
Recently I've kinda realized that my thoughts aren't me, at all. But that the awareness of them is what makes me. Like, I may have the thought to steal a pack of gum but the fact that I don't because I feel it's 'not nice' to steal is what makes me, me. Is this what 'not identifying' with thoughts means?
Thanks again.

At February 15, 2006, Blogger Bob J. said...

Usually all "I" can do is to observe that the thought is there. That serves to distance me from it; ideally, this would occur with every thought and perception, and there would be no "me" left.

In terms of your example, I imagine that teachers might say that neither the thought about not stealing the gum, nor the "act of not stealing" is you, and that "you" come into being only when you reflect on it.

I really should proof myself before I post: "hope this makes since"?

At February 15, 2006, Blogger Ed said...

I read someone make the analogy of seeing off friends at a train station: you hug them quickly, say goodbye, and they're on their way.

This is similar, the person was saying, to what we try to do with our thoughts in zazen: we briefly acknowledge them and send them on their way, and that's that. We don't drag ourselves onto the train with them and sit with them. We hug them quickly, and let them go.

At February 15, 2006, Blogger ryunin said...

one extreme is that we let our thinking flourish, like letting weeds grow all over the garden -it can be quite difficult to walk

the middle way as far as I know is that you concentrate on the actions of every day life, without trying hard to be a better person, nor ignoring your silliness completely, so later you naturally find satisfastaction in simple actions of everyday life, like this you will never become perfect, but you will live in harmony with the universe, that is not perfect either, just real

in zazen, as we also just cut through the two opposites of thinking too much and not thinking at all, in zazen we concetrate on JUST NOW and in the action of zazen just now we are back NOW - it is never finished, every moment something new and every moment is another chance to be back in present again - and the present is so short that it is beyond thinking or not thinking, so every moment is satisfying as long as we notice it is there - at least this is how i understand it and how it has worked for me

At February 15, 2006, Blogger ryunin said...

oops, i deleted the other extreme by mistake, which was a totally moralist, rigid approach when we try to supress any kind of bad idea, evil, crazy something that comes up in our mind or life- like that we can hardly move and hardly live realistically - we believe that we can be perfect, but that is not possible - the universe is not perfect either, so there is no reason to be better than the universe, or better than God, if you like

At February 15, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

I have tried dismissing some particularly dumb thoughts by mentally saying "next thought.." because there will alway be another dumb thought coming to replace the previous one.

Yet trying to summon that next thought immediately is as impossible as trying not to think about the white elephant.

So there is a “no thought” space in between thoughts that is present for a while. That is the space I try and stay in.

But I don’t know if that little mind trick is better than letting your thoughts unwind more naturally or not.

At February 15, 2006, Blogger me said...

I suspect the original post was asking not so much about crazy thoughts that pop into our heads which an experienced zen adept will 'acknowledge and let go' but something more along the line of emotional scars or obsessions that one can't break free of but wishes that one could. These are the things that people struggle with to let go but often end up simply ignoring them (supressing them) which allows them to fester and perhaps resurface later to mess up one's mind.

I'm no psychologist but this seems to get more into that speciality. I suspect zen can be helpful but it is no simple cure, especially for the big big problems. I wonder if it is a matter of degree? I mean that the bigger the problems one has in one's head the more zazen and serious zen practice one should do to be free of them. Just sitting a little each day probably won't do it for the biggies.. thoughts?

At February 15, 2006, Blogger Jules said...

I agree with Ryunin. When sitting, we'll notice all kinds of thoughts coming up. Some of these might lead you into daydreams ("good" thoughts) while others lead to a repressive reaction of some kind ("bad" thoughts). Just watch what comes up, and pay attention to what comes up. Be compassionate towards yourself. Honor your feelings. Face your fears. Be honest with yourself. Be present with your thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. Relax.

I think the difference between letting go and repressing is that in repressing something, some part of you has a feeling that what you're repressing is important, but you're pushing it away because you don't want to deal with it. I think letting go is an act of shifting priorities. Maybe some things aren't as important as you think they are, and other things are more important than you would expect.

But that's just what popped into my little brain, I don't know nuthin'. :-) Best wishes, PA.

At February 15, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

My Godo gave us some good advice on this recently. He had spent many years trying to stop his thoughts, but later realised that this was a flawed practice.

Who judges the thought as 'bad'? Who is there to repress or permit it? Repressing a thought is another act of personal mind (/ego) and thus is just reinforcing that mind. Instead of stopping the thought, just observe it in a detatched way. Thoughts exist of course but their reality is a virtual reality. When you get caught up in that virtual world, just stay present, being aware in a non-intellectual way of what the thought is and where it came from. See it arise and see it fade.

At February 15, 2006, Blogger lkjlkjlkj said...

Very good question!

This is why having regular one-on-one meetings with personal teacher may be so good. You may struggle years with these problems alone and one little advice can solve it in one second.

Funny thing is that what teacher tells you may depend from your current mindset and attitude. Sometimes he may yell at you: "Don't be lazy! Push with your body and mind as hard as you can! Get grip! Don't fool yourself! Don't think!" Some other time (s)he may say gently: "Don't push so hard. Softly, softly. Let everything just be as it is. Give up. There is nothing you can do. If there is toughts, let them run their course."

At February 15, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Thoughts arise and depart. Don't deny them. Don't dwell on them or chase them. Just let them be.

You do the same thing for every other sensation that arises in the body.

Words are useless here, but don't try and run away from what happens in either mind and body. Float in the ocean. Bobbing along with it. Not worrying about where you are floating or whether it is right or wrong or too wet or too stormy. Just float in awareness.

At February 15, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Nice answer John!

At February 15, 2006, Blogger ryunin said...

ah, biggies, big problems and scars...

although i had practiced zazen every day for a decade, i had biggies and i had no idea how to solve them, i thought i somehow has to get to used to them

the problem is that we can look a tour life on large-scale level and we have large-scale levels ideas and images that we sometimes call big problems - for example my problem was that i knew very well that i was far away from the ideal of "a real buddhist", no matter if it was true or not, this ideas bothered me for years - i wanted to write about buddhism as i loved buddhism but how can such a bad person like me write about something so pure? this was one of my problems, biggies - or you may have a big scale problem having no job or losing both your parents or having been raped or having killed somebody and such big scale images haunt us day and night

solution is - and of course, it won't work like pushing a button and getting a drink from a vending machine, anyway, solution is to look at our life not as something large-scale but as something that consists of billions of present moments - i would call it a present moment attitude to life - now we all know about this but i noticed in my own case, that when i realised that my biggies are 90 percent empty concepts and that my real life now i s something real, i gradually learned to appreciate my life on the moment to moment basis - not that i never think about future or big things - but the beginning is to realize that the large scale attitude is based on ideas and very very little on reality, but at the same time this big scale, or say dramatic attitutude toward life leads to real problems in this moment

so realizing that keeping images of myself and feeling inferior in the buddhist world is junk thought and prevents me from being a free, content person in this moment and at the same time when i notice that i am free and content in this moment, i support this attitude toward life on the long term basis , so i don't stop to practice zazen and don't stop to live in the present, moment after moment - having said that, i don't know about any biggies in this moment and I don' worry about my own image as a good or bad buddhist any more

don't ask me whose work and effort helped me to realize and actualize these things, the name is ubiquitous around the bunch of us

At February 15, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I have dropped all forms from my practice. I sit and wait. Sometimes it gets very intense, but other times it allows things to come and go. I know that I have allowed something to come and go when it no longer gets a rise out of me in everyday life. I can't think of exact examples, but say if someone is really rubbing me the wrong way, and I just roll it around in my head, doing the usual noticing why THEY are making me feel like this, it will continue to bother me. But when I can catch the actual feeling coming up and just "feel" it, kind of sink into it without fighting it, it seems like it evaporates. I started doing this when I was young, in the dentist chair. I would pay very close attention to how that drill actually felt and it's very weird how the pain turns into something else. It isn't that you don't feel it, but when you aren't bracing against it, it isn't as intense. So, sometimes this works and I'm amazed that I no longer have a gripe with someone and that I feel really liberated within myself. Other times I think that I have allowed myself to feel and not fight and maybe not right away, but at some time the bad feeling comes back. I think these may be the deeper issues that I haven't gotten to the bottom of yet.

At February 16, 2006, Blogger PA said...

Thanks very much for the comments.
There's some really inspiring words there. The most important thing I got - a little like that story of the Buddha telling a mother whose child had just died to visit a house where someone had not died - was that everyone does indeed fight the same battles. When I feel it's just me it can seem quite intense.
In Zazen it seems a lot easier to just sit and watch the thoughts come and go. When I face the world and try to do it, my mind is all over the place and goes silly :-)
I suppose I should just watch my mind go silly,eh. And let go of the idea that my mind shouldn't be silly...
Anyways. Thanks a lot!

At February 16, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

Instead of trying prevent thoughts arising during meditation, you should maintain an alertness that notices them as soon as possible after they arise. After noticing them, return to whatever your meditation practice is.

At February 20, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

I posted this link on Brad's blog also, but it is actually *on* topic here. It is an interesting article on a technique in modern psychology that uses zen/buddhist techniques to treat everything from anxiety to schizophrenia. It is notable that the words "zen" or "buddhism" never appear in the article:,10987,1156613,00.html

At February 22, 2006, Blogger earDRUM said...

For "biggie" problems, I suggest seeing a psychologist.
We are not born with the tools to deal with everything that comes into our lives. If my toilet explodes, I am not about to learn everything there is to know about plumbing. I'll calll someone who knows. If my car transmission fails, I take it to a garage.
I think that we should think the same way about mental (thinking) problems.
Zen masters might know how to help... but they also might not.

Years ago, when I was going to university, I couldn't study. My mind was unfocused, and wandered all over the place. I had lots of repressed issues. Big, serious issues.
So I saw a psychologist. In 3 sessions, she turned my life around. She made me aware of some assumptions and thinking habits that I probably would not have discovered on my own (through zazen, or whatever). I had done these things all of my life, and was not aware of them.
An example: One little thing that she made me aware of was that I could control my emotional reponses to anything and everything that happened.
For instance, say the radio stops working. I could get angry, sad, whatever. But it is my choice. Back then, I felt justified in my emotional responses to things. But, armed with this new tidbit of knowledge, I suddenly found myself examining my emotional responses to everything that happened during my days. My life changed... for the better.

Just a suggestion.

At February 24, 2006, Blogger Spider63 said...

Does everyone have to be a clone of each other in order to participate? Do we all have to ape the traditional Zen party line? Is there any Zen that breaks free of the stereotypical Zen?


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