Ten Zen Questions

Exploring the Mind from Within

The horrors of pride

The creeping harm of pride revealed

In the early mornings of our week long Zen retreat we rise at 5.30 and by 6 are all sitting, 60 or 70 of us, in our straight rows looking at a blank white wall as the sun comes up, with hours of meditation ahead of us. We sit in silence and suddenly Reb's clear strong voice is there (as well as I can remember it).

Gaia House Chapel  

"The early morning breeze has secrets to tell
Silent and still.
You have to say what you really want
Silent and still.
Beings are moving back and forth at the threshold where the two worlds meet
The door is round and open
Silent and still."

The rooks and blackbirds are starting up. All 60 or so of us keep sitting. Silent and still? Sometimes wonderfully so, but then rampaging through thoughts, imagined conversations, justification of things I have done - all sorts of rubbish. But now I begin to see it all as driven by pride! I am protecting myself against my own disapproval. I am justifying my actions as those of a good person who is proud of what she does. Pride runs through almost every one of these distracting thoughts. How very strange that I had never noticed this before. It seems so obvious now. And as before, once I see a thought or action as pride the pride seems to lose its powerful grip.

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Pride is one of those being moving back and forth, says Reb, preventing us seeing the round and open door.

The mornings are easy. There are only a few half-hour sits and then the morning service (I cross my fingers in all the religious bits), the work period outside weeding and digging under the trees, and then Reb's long talk and question session. It's the afternoons that are tough. From 2 p.m. until 5.30 there is relentless sitting and kinhin with no break. I make it through every day, missing only one 10 minute kinhin to get a fast cup of tea and go to the loo. Lots of people miss several of the half hours I notice. Ah there comes the pride. I am so much better than them. I don't miss any. And yet the funniest thing is happening. Now that I am noticing and labelling the pride it seems to lose its power. Oh - there it is in a new form - and whatever it is seems to fizzle out as I stare at it. Last year I was SO annoyed by the people who walked too fast or too slowly in the kinhin, or didn't start walking quickly again when the end bell sounded. This time I am not annoyed at all. They still do the same thing but I laugh at myself for feeling superior and thus getting into all that ridiculous anger. It's only slow walking!

Reb drinkingAnd the same is true with the people who clatter their plates when Reb has told us to eat silently. As I recognise the pride for what it is it ceases making me angry with them. I no longer tell the noisy people off in my pathetic little inner conversation. I just get on with my lunch.

I move a little more slowly too. I am always rushing everywhere, both here and in ordinary life at home. I realise that that too is a kind of pride - "I can do everything faster than you can so there!" So I enjoy going more slowly (still probably rushing quite a lot) and feeling all the people around me as all those beings Reb told us we can love - whether we like or dislike them. (I wonder how we do either when we are all in silence and all working hard without looking at each other but then I reflect that my natural reaction to almost anything is first to like or dislike it. It doesn't need to be that way.).
sun shininh through tree dharma flower"When our minds dwell in delusion we are turned by the Dharma flower: when our minds dwell in enlightenment we turn the Dharma flower" says Reb, "Fully appreciating this teaching is the Dharma flower turning the Dharma flower."
This flower is in fact the entire universe, so when we are deluded the universe turns us and vice versa.
I am confused. It feels to me as though I am always struggling to control the universe - isn't that a deluded me trying to turn it? Yet I know enough just to wait and see how these difficult ideas clarify as we go along.
Though I am horrified by finding all this mass of pride I am grateful for the chance to practice watching it. Three days to go seems like forever but now I want to keep practicing.

Susan Blackmore, Ph.D., is a British psychologist, writer and broadcaster, and author of The Meme Machine and Conversations on Consciousness.

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