Full transcript of Zen teacher Bodhin Kjolhede presents Meditation: Change Your Mind, Change Your Life at TEDxFlourCity conference.
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Bodhin Kjolhede – Abbot and Director of the Rochester Zen Center
I’m going to start by talking about a study that was done in the 1980s. It was a study on happiness, and it was applied to two populations: one were people who had just been diagnosed HIV positive, and the other were lottery winners — some of you may have heard about this. They came back four years later, and they tested them again, and they found that the people who had been diagnosed HIV positive four years earlier reported higher levels of happiness than the lottery winners.
Now, what this points to, as I see it, is that the mind determines our experience of life. That yes, there are circumstances and conditions, of course, that are important, but largely, our experience of life is determined by the mind. And this is supported by many hundreds or thousands of true stories of people who transcended extraordinarily difficult circumstances, in prison camps and prisons and many other things. We have this tremendous ability to change our experience of the world.
There are two ways of understanding this: one is as a matter of perception — and this is something that neuroscience also supports, it points to — is that what we think of as reality is really our interpretation of it. That each one of us, our mind is like a filter that filters out what we don’t want to experience and gives us what we do want to experience. This is enormously important. It’s a matter of perception.
And the second thing is a matter of function, where we learn through meditation, through how to direct our attention, that we have a choice as to where we direct our attention. The image I like best is a flashlight; we can use the mind like a flashlight. A flashlight has a beam — say we’re in the dark — you can flick that beam in any direction, and this has enormous consequences. Because where we pay attention will also determine our experience. The great Spanish philosopher and writer José Ortega y Gasset said, “Tell me to what you pay attention, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Most people don’t use this tremendous tool, this flashlight, of how to direct attention. But when you do, you confirm what Ortega y Gasset was saying, which is that the quality of our life is not determined so much by what we do, as what we are. What we are — how we use the mind. And related to that, of course, is the way we respond in all situations.
Now, I’m guessing that what I say from here on out is going to be true, perhaps, of many kinds of meditation. Zen is just one kind, but I’m going to talk about Zen particularly, first of all because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life — is practicing Zen meditation, but secondly because Zen can be done, Zen meditation can be done without the use of any religious elements. You can do deep Zen meditation without any religious images, ideas, beliefs, dogma. It’s kind of a generic kind of meditation at one level.
So, then what is the work of Zen meditation? Primarily, just to keep it simple, it’s learning to detach from thoughts. That thoughts, our thoughts, are just one aspect of our mind, our consciousness. Now I’m not suggesting that we have to abandon thinking. Thinking is obviously a marvelous endowment that we have as human beings. We need to use our thinking minds in analytical ways, in valuative ways all the time.
But, what we would say in Zen is we need to balance that function of the mind, that discriminating function of the mind, what we call the higher functions of the mind, with this other realm of consciousness that opens up when we learn to detach from our thoughts. So what happens? Well, first of all, I would say that of course, meditation, and I’m talking about not meditation once a month, but daily meditation, regular meditation, it reduces stress. Any kind of meditation, I believe, would reduce stress, make you more calm and centered.
Consider the image of a snow globe. You shake a snow globe, and this is the condition of a mind before meditation. And in Zen, what we’re doing is just setting it down. Just setting that snow globe down, allowing thoughts to settle. Nothing very exotic, just letting thoughts settle.
Another thing that I should think would be assumed by anyone is that meditation would stabilize your emotions, would help you with your whole emotional life. It does this, as I see it, in my experience, by, again, enabling us to detach from our thoughts. So, consider anger. There’s the initial experience, the triggering experience that may provoke anger in us, but then beyond that, so much of what gets us into trouble with anger is our thinking about the person that provoked this, thinking about what we might say back to the person or do to the person. It’s the chewing on what has happened. And the same whether it’s anger or it’s anxiety, or fear, or sadness, sorrow. It’s human, of course, to have these kinds of emotions, but what we don’t have to do is cling to them. That’s where we really wreak havoc in our emotional life.
A third, I should think obvious benefit of meditation, is that it develops concentration. And anything we do with stronger concentration, we’re going to do more capably, even eventually, more masterfully. Now, in addition to these things, which will make you a more stable, more competent person, there’s a whole different level of benefits that come from meditation, and these have to do with the way our perspective is changed through meditation.
So consider — I’m going to throw another analogy at you — consider thoughts, errant, random, irrelevant thoughts, the kind of thing that flits through the mind all the time, consider this as the waves on the surface of the ocean. A lot of turmoil. A lot of buzzing of the mind. You know, when I say this, the problem is that many people don’t know how much their mind is buzzing all the time. It’s like being on the surface of the ocean and just bobbing all the time and not ever experiencing what it is to get underneath the waves into the depths of the ocean.
Now, what this does for us, first of all, through this accessing a different realm of consciousness, we find that we can get underneath problems. So, what kind of problems? Ethical issues. What are the thorny problems? Ethical issues — what is more complex than ethical issues? We also find that we can face life decisions, that is, whether to get married, whether to take this job or that job, and so forth, this too, by meditating on it, we can get underneath the surface waves, and a whole new world opens up to us. And then, in the same way, we tap into what I would call the ‘source’ or the ‘womb’ of mind, of creativity, actually. In doing that, we also find we can open up resources we never knew we had.
When I’m writing an article, and I’m getting all tangled up in some, ‘What am I trying to say here?,’ I find that if I just sit down, cross my legs, in no time, I’m underneath all of that discursive thought, and somehow, things suddenly become much clearer. It feels like cheating to do that, but it really works very well.
One other aspect of this changed perspective, is on a much more, say, macro level, which is, it changes our way of understanding our place in the world. So, in Zen we understand that as long as we’re using just this discriminating mind, what most people think of when they call ‘mind,’ as long as we’re doing that we tend to see things fragmented, we see things divided. And especially we see things in terms of ‘self’ and ‘other,’ ‘us’ and ‘them.’ When we get under those waves, then we experience the unity of things, and this has tremendous implications, because the truth is that within all of our differences, and of course everyone is unique, every single person is unique, within those differences, there is a sameness.
And in meditation, then, we are not denying our differences, we are not denying the world of discrimination, but we’re balancing it with this other aspect, in terms again of the ocean, it’s the depths of the ocean, it’s the silence in these depths that unite us. And this reveals, ultimately, through awakening, or enlightenment, this reveals what is beyond the ego and its way of dividing the world. And of course this has tremendous implications — awakening from this nightmare, this dualistic nightmare of self and other, us and them, this is ultimately what’s possible. Thank you.