we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

An Unauthorised Rohatsu Rehearsal

I started writing this on December eighth, my brother’s birthday, but also Bodhi Day, which is taken to be Gautama’s enlightenment day in the Buddhist calendar. In Japanese, this day is called ‘Rohatsu’, and it’s celebrated at the end of a week-long Zen meditation period, or ‘Sesshin’.

I’ve been practising Zen meditation for 20 years now, and for at least 35 years before that I was exploring my ‘bodymind’ as a tradesman well-practiced in ‘thinking non-verbally’. I’m not authorised in any formal way to teach Zen meditation (zazen), but, for what it’s worth, it seems right at this time to make the effort — in honour of Buddha’s Enlightenment Day, and in honour of my brother’s birthday (he’s a rock-climbing buddha) — to tell you something about what I’ve learned so far on my own journey.

So, what am I offering? It would seem like just another pretend-zen frivolity if I was to say “I’m offering you Nothing” because, while it’s true that emptiness is not a thing, it is however, and only, how we practice, and with this understanding it also becomes clear that nobody can give that which we must take upon ourselves. All I can really offer are such models of my own personal cognitive processes as have helped me in my practice, and of course you and I must always remember to allow thoughts and conceptual models such as these to pass away in their natural times — as we experience directly, like Gautama Buddha did on the morning of his awakening, our own unique and yet shared, immediate and yet timeless, and always intimate, just this moments.

My favourite cognitive models began to take conceptual form along with my bodily exploration of the materials and designs I was working with during my many ‘apprenticeships’ as carpenter, plumber, electrician, building designer, and general busybody. And while I attempted to ‘break-down’ these internal models and rehearsals into verbal and non-verbal ‘gestures’ to communicate them to my own apprentices and fellow workers, it was never lost on me that gestures in any form are secondary acts of the body that ‘point’, not only for the instruction of others, but as ‘re-minders’ of our own internal learned behaviours.

Perhaps we should really be thinking of such models as covert re-presentations of a body’s overt interactions with the world around it; and it is our job as practitioners, both of ‘knowledge fields’, and of a more fulsome awareness, never to forget that representations, especially of this ‘interior sort’, are not of the same nature as the living moments they are meant to portray. Covertly rehearsed reactions, explorations, manipulations, imitations (mirror neurons), and transpositions (language) are pale shadows of our living intimately with the totality of diversely focused beings.

The practice of meditation, as Gautama Buddha taught, is to sit in stillness, and to just experience our own being, which of course includes not only our connections to the whole, but also it includes those insubstantial and partial ‘reflections’ which are somehow ‘grafted on to’ our moment to moment awareness of the whole. The man we call The Buddha taught ‘wholesome living’, which must indeed be navigated by the help of thought-maps; but his life-long teaching was simply to re-mind us that if we don’t regard as ‘insubstantial’ the interior busyness we call thought, then we become attached to our thoughts, as if they are the essential ingredients of a substantial ‘self’. Our interior models and maps are intrinsically ‘useful’, for exploring the fully sensuous and uniquely tangible terrain in which we live, but our practice is to live out of awareness directly — which includes our awareness of internal gesturing — and not out of a self-confirming ‘belief’ in this insubstantial conceptual mapping ‘as if’ it were Truth itself.

So how are concepts, models, and covert rehearsals “to be seen” if they are insubstantial? This is where thinking tends to become circular for many of us, like a dog chasing its tail, but perhaps this is also where a carpenter’s insight might be helpful to some of you. When you personally, you my friend and reader, “think about thinking”, are you just applying words on top of words? Or images on top of images? Of course you know from your own experience that this exercise gets you nowhere, so I trust you too can ‘see’ there is much more going on beneath this engagement of mouth and other facial/ocular motions and e-motions. Do you see where I’m going here?

If you have ever taken instruction in meditation, you have probably become aware of a whole-body sort of covert ‘leaning’ (this is a term all meditators become familiar with early on) that sometimes happens during those moments in-‘sight’. This is especially evident as the associated ‘thought’ begins to slip away, and you automatically try to ‘grasp it’; or perhaps more accurately, and in keeping with the whole body theme, you are ‘inclined to follow it’. Of course such covert motor responses, and even our ‘e-motions’, characteristically show up as impulses and tensions throughout the body, but it’s worth mentioning at this point that the human face is unique in the animal kingdom for it’s extremely complex musculature. We all use this human adaptation for communicating with one another, but I for one have always found it curious that we exert considerably more control over such facial activity than might be expected if overt expression was it’s only evolutionary purpose. With this in mind, might we not entertain the notion that those internal movements we call ‘imagination’ are the real adaptive purpose for the rich ‘landscape’ of a tool-making animal’s facial musculature? After all, if H. Sapiens sapiens’ covert ‘busyness’ evolved to support ‘thinking about tomorrow’s mammoth hunt’, then this inner activity would likely conflict with his/her ongoing vegetable chopping for tonight’s supper if he/she hadn’t also evolved the ability to re-present it in a less ‘relevant’ set of muscles, right? Evolution might have needed to provide us with more than ten fingers!

Perhaps it’s more physiologically accurate to say that we are not really ‘seeing’ our conceptual world during our meditative moments of in-sight after all, but rather we are ‘feeling’ it? Or even (in body locations either directly appropriate or conveniently displaced so as not to conflict with our everyday overt activities) we are covertly, but intentionally, ‘fabricating’… it?

Perhaps our internal concepts, models, and maps are not so insubstantial after all. And it’s just the covertness of these bodily manifestations and rehearsals by which we re-present our overt experience that sets up an intentional confusion around ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.

I’ll try (keeping in mind our commitment to always re-member, moment to moment, that conceptual models are just so much gesturing) to elaborate on this:

If we can say “Self” manifests as an illusory gap between inner and outer realities, and if our ‘inner world’ is just a constellation of covert behaviours that ‘reflects’ the outer world (by way of motional or e-motional responses to all five sensory impressions plus ‘deep touch’ i.e. kinaesthesia), then just what ‘is’ there beyond responses and feelings? What is our being other than intimate — and if we truly recognise our judgemental dissociations as delusional this is also to say, ‘compassionate’ — direct experience? Can we say too that it’s only when we “reach out with our feelings” that we can truly see the intimacy of our being in connection with the whole? (Sorry, there is, and I suppose and hope there always will be, a little Obi-Wan Kenobi in me.)

My own meditation studies suggest that there can be many levels to any model of cognition-as-covert-behaviour, and I’ve explored these in detail elsewhere. [for an introduction to my personal view of these categories: reaction, exploration, manipulation, imitation (mirror neurons https://www.extremophilechoice.com/2022/08/01/old-buddhas-gift-part-5-the-sympathy-of-bodymind/), and transposition (language https://www.extremophilechoice.com/2022/07/26/young-buddha-speaks-part-2-a-far-more-voracious-creativity/) you can follow the link: https://www.extremophilechoice.com/2022/07/21/old-buddhas-gift-part-4-young-buddha-explores-the-subtle-body/ or, for what it’s worth, you can find a fuller treatment using the Table of Contents in the pdf file: Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice – Fifty Short Essays on What it Means to be Human in the Natural World; second edition– Oct. 2022, which is available free at this link: https://www.extremophilechoice.com/extremophile-publishing/ ], but, for the purpose of this, my Bodhi-Day “offering”, I will only suggest that you make a start at exploring your own covert behavioural landscape, always remembering of course to distinguish the map from the direct experience, the covert rehearsal from the ‘overtly substantial’ act, by trying the following exercise:

Go for a walk.

Become aware of covert movements in, or even just in-effectual impulses directed at, your tongue that ‘accompany’ your less symbolic (that is, your more behaviourally relevant but still covert) thought behaviours.

To be clear. In my own case I feel this ‘covert language behaviour’ only as a very truncated version of what I would use to communicate my thoughts to others. Rather, extremely subtle impulses are just initiate a word, or perhaps even a mumble, and this is enough to give a little push to a much greater and fuzzier ‘wheel of rumination’ to keep it spinning.

To be clear: I find that my lips. jaw, and throat are also involved in verbal ‘thinking’, but for the purpose of this exercise focusing closely on the tongue is probably best. In my own case I feel this ‘covert language behaviour’ only as a very truncated version of what I would use to communicate my thoughts to others. This is because only extremely subtle impulses, that just initiate a word, are enough to give successive little pushes to the bigger and fuzzier ‘wheel of rumination’ and keep it spinning.

To be clear. In my own case I feel this ‘covert language behaviour’ only as a very truncated version of what I would use to communicate my thoughts to others. Rather, extremely subtle impulses are just initiate a word, or perhaps even a mumble, and this is enough to give a little push to a much greater and fuzzier ‘wheel of rumination’ to keep it spinning.

Now that you can actually ‘locate’ this thinking process, this ‘knitting together’ of your more intuitional concepts, you might find it much easer to interrupt thinking’s momentum by constantly bringing your awareness to the tongue, and relaxing its ‘incipient movements’. (It might help to simply shift your attention to “breath moving” in the same anatomical area.) Practice doing this interrupting of covert speech as you ‘reach out’ with your ‘other feelings’ to ‘contact’ your surroundings.

To be clear. In my own case I feel this ‘covert language behaviour’ only as a very truncated version of what I would use to communicate my thoughts to others. Rather, extremely subtle impulses are just initiate a word, or perhaps even a mumble, and this is enough to give a little push to a much greater and fuzzier ‘wheel of rumination’ to keep it spinning.

Go easy on yourself: You may need a little ‘faith’ here. In the beginning you don’t have to distinguish the underlying conceptual patterns in detail yet; they should just fall away naturally as the words that ‘entrain’ them are aborted. And of course, don’t expect the covert speech impulses you are interrupting to be a complete mapping of your ruminations to begin with, as long as the covert rehearsals they ‘refer to’ keep spinning.

Also, don’t be disappointed if ‘covert mumbling’ (lip involvement) or ‘covert humming’ (throat and breath involvement) becomes insistent when you feel a need to ‘fill the emptiness’. I often still feel this after many years of what I suppose will always be ‘practice’.

To be clear. In my own case I feel this ‘covert language behaviour’ only as a very truncated version of what I would use to communicate my thoughts to others. Rather, extremely subtle impulses are just initiate a word, or perhaps even a mumble, and this is enough to give a little push to a much greater and fuzzier ‘wheel of rumination’ to keep it spinning.

But wait, do feelings really “contact your surroundings”? Is there any ‘thing’ being surrounded here? Where is “past” and “future” even located?

Now that you can “see the insubstantiality” of these verbal bars on your conceptual cage during these, perhaps brief, non-verbal moments, is your ‘internal world’ just a little less ‘cut off’ from the ‘external’?

Then congratulations, from one buddha to another, you are ‘doing’ walking meditation. Carry on.

Come to think of it, the word enlightenment isn’t a good gesture at Gautama’s ‘awakening’ is it? When we are asleep, the body becomes very ‘numb’ (to minimise the risks and disruptions that might, and sometimes do, result from an overt manifestation of our covert dreaming), and it’s only after we awaken, possibly with a little help from a cup of good strong tea or coffee, that we once again become aware of our embodiment as a ‘wholesome’ extension of the world.

And again, like all models, my “carpenter’s insight” must always be incomplete. Where do the ‘passive senses’ come in? I’ve chosen to focus on ‘behaviour’ because our attachment to re-called actions is the definition of ‘willed action’ (at what point can we call this ‘habitual’?), and that’s where delusion shows up (and where, being ‘seen’, it can naturally disappear) as the focus of our practice. But the sensations of sight, sound, smell, taste, and light-touch are often the triggers for action, and can even come along for the ride as we rehearse internally our covert-behavioural thoughts. Though only a few people seem to “see internally” beyond shades of gray in the fully conscious state (Charles Darwin said he could recall faces in full-colour detail). I only experience such “visions” when I am just waking up after a good night’s sleep. When my body is yet overtly still; for then sights and sounds play out ‘un-willed’ as experiences of a fully aware but covertly focused bodymind; I can even “feel” covert actions “just happening”. It’s impressive! But of course our moments of being fully awake, ‘reaching out’ (or flowing out?) as a fully embodied expanded being, are a more wholesome experience I’m sure you will agree.

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