(transcript of a talk given to The Sitting Frog Zen Sangha on Sunday, August 16, 2009)
Most of us not only believe that there’s such a thing as free will, but we believe we actually have it. I want to talk a bit about what Joko calls core beliefs. I just call them beliefs. Beliefs of any kind are false. There’s no true beliefs and false beliefs. Any belief, by definition, is false. It’s only a story.
The problem for so many of us though, is that we think we’re running our lives. And you get people who’ve been at this for a while who still think, deep down, they’re running their lives. That we actually have some control. To understand what is running you, you’ve got to do an awful lot of letting go.
As I’ve been saying the last few weeks, nobody wants to do that. You really have to hit rock bottom to be willing to do that. And even then, what happens when you hit rock bottom? You let go enough to get just a couple of inches up off of rock bottom and then you’re right back into your beliefs, you’re right back into your attachments, right back into your story about yourself.
I have a friend who I was working with recently who has an incredibly abusive -- not on her part, on her mother’s part -- an incredibly abusive relationship with her mother; was treated horribly as a child, beaten horribly by her mother, is in post traumatic shock. Recently she was taking care of her grandmother who has Alzheimer’s and her mother and one of her other family members are basically wanting to have control of her grandmother, to get her money. And they’ve squeezed her out. She has no access to her grandmother. They gave away her dog just to spite her. I mean really, really horrible, really pathological behavior.
So she decided to, understandably, cut off contact with her mother, just to walk. I asked her how she felt, what was going on there. First she said, “angry.” And then narrowing it down a bit she said, “resentful.” She thought she didn’t have any real investment in her mother anymore. I asked her, “Is what’s going on, do you want her to still be your mother?” She never really actually had been her mother. “Is that what’s running you? Is that what’s hurting you? Is that why you’re angry?” And she said, “No. Absolutely not. I don’t want her to be my mother. She never was. I never had that.”
So this core belief that she had was that she understood that her mother was sick, a really pathological person, but that she wasn’t attached to her anymore. She certainly didn’t want her to be her mom. She wasn’t still clinging to that. That had become a core belief. It became something that by this point in her life — she’s in her early 30’s — she blindly accepted, the same as we accept tap water. We have a core belief: We turn on the faucet, water’s going to come out. She was certain that she didn’t have any kind of sentimental attachment to her mother. There wasn’t this longing to have a mom. I said, "I think you need to look at what you’re holding on to. You need to see what your core belief is."
Actually, the way I put it is, I asked her if she knew about how Bill Clinton once let a mentally retarded guy be executed when he was governor of Arkansas so he would seem to be tough on crime. So I said, “Would you like to do something about that?” Of course she said, “Yeah.”
I said, "What you would like to do is fix the law so that can’t happen, right?"
She said, “Right.”
I said, “Okay, how much of a desire did you have to confront Bill Clinton and get him to admit it, get him to cop to the fact that he did that?"
“None at all.”
I said, “Yes. You don’t have any personal investment in Bill Clinton. You don’t care about him. You just don’t want these things to happen. But what is it that you want from your mother?"
And she said, “Well, yeah, I want her to acknowledge what she did. She always denies what she did."
Then she examined it — because I asked her to. I told her, “Just keep looking at that. What is it you want? What is it you’re attaching to? What are you holding on to?" She told me the next day. She realized that even while walking away, even while saying “I want nothing to do with this person. This is it. I’m done,” she still wanted to be wrong, wanted her mother to suddenly become a mom. And that’s what she meant by wanting acknowledgment. Acknowledgment of what? “That she had beaten me. That she did this. She did that.” Yeah, but what does that mean? Acknowledgment of what? Is it you still want something from her? There’s an attachment there.
For as long as we have these attachments we’re not free. And we’re not running our own lives. We think we are, but we’re not. This is why, painful though it is, and frightening though it is for anyone, I keep emphasizing this need to let go, to let go of everything. For as long as you can’t do that, your conditioning is running you. You don’t have any free will at all. I’m not being hyperbolic. I don’t mean it diminishes your free will. I mean you have none. For as long as you’re holding on to anything, the decision to go to the grocery store is not a decision you’re making. You think you’re making that decision, but you’re not. It’s a reaction. It’s arising from your conditioning, like everything else.
Does that mean that you become nihilistic? Have an attitude of, "Well, nothing matters?" No, it’s the opposite. Nihilism in itself is an attempt to make sense of our own pain. We’re holding on to our own pain. “I might as well do whatever I want. Live in a really self destructive way because nothing matters.” It’s one more avoidance. You see that?
The reason I’m always profoundly moved when I see people pursuing Zen practice is because it really is the hardest thing that anyone can do. Now by that I don’t just mean putting on a Japanese outfit and sitting on a cushion and doing some chanting. I’ve said this before, something that I say about Zen practice is something that a couple of different friends of mine who're in 12 step have said about 12 step. 12 Step has an incredibly low - when you look at it, the rate of success seems really low. It’s something like 2%. Sprite, is it 2% or something like that? But that’s 2% of the people who just go to the meetings [but don't do the practice]. A couple of different friends of mine who have been in it for a while said to me, “If you do it, it always works.” The success rate is 100%.
Everyone who does a Zen practice becomes enlightened. Everybody. There has never, never been anyone who did a Zen practice that didn’t become enlightened. It’s not possible. How many enlightened people do you run across in Zen centers or otherwise? In fact, if you want to meet some really unenlightened people, go to Zen centers. If you want to see some of the least enlightened people you will ever encounter anywhere, go to a Zen monastery and find somebody who’s been there 30 years. These are the poster boys for delusion, for samsara. Although I am laughing, I am not making fun of those people. We all hurt terribly.
Most of us when we come to Zen practice, actually, all of us when we come to Zen practice, we don’t really want to do it. We don’t want to let go. We think we want to do some of it. Some of us really like the robes. Some of us really like the chanting. Most of us really like the books.
Yeah, reading about it is great. Reading about Suzuki Roshi, well, that’s great because if you read about how Suzuki Roshi -- when he thought he had hepatitis, and there was one of his students that he used to eat chocolate ice cream with. The doctor said, “Now look, you’ve got hepatitis, you can’t eat chocolate.” And then he finds out he’s actually got liver cancer and it’s spread and there’s no hope. So he says to his student, “I just got great news. I don’t have hepatitis. I’ve got liver cancer. I’m going to die.”
And she says, “How is that great news?”
“Oh, because we can eat chocolate ice cream again. I don’t have hepatitis.”
Now, we like that. We like reading about that, huh? “That’s really inspiring. This guy’s not suffering. He’s not even bothered by the fact that everyone says he’s going to die.” What we don’t like — reading about it is fun, lying in bed, drinking a cup of tea, warm and cozy, reading, that’s fun, that’s pleasant — what we don’t want to do is what Suzuki Roshi, what Joko, what anyone who attains that state has to do which is let go of any attachment to not being in pain. Let go of any attachment to not being sad. That’s why the best gifts that we are given are humiliation, disappointment, heartbreak, fear - and the very worse thing that can happen to anybody is getting what we want.
The friend I just talked about is obviously a Zen practitioner working with this in her practice. As much as it really pained me to see in her such pain what would’ve been much worse, what I would’ve hated to have seen — think about it, in the situation I just described, what is the very worst thing that could’ve happened to her?
STUDENT: The mother acknowledges.
DOGO: Exactly. Getting what she wanted. The worst thing that could’ve happened is her mother saying, “Okay, okay, okay, I admit it. I’ve been lying all those years. I’m sorry I did all those things to you. I’m sorry I lied about it. I admit it. I did it. Okay, you’ve got your acknowledgment."
Why would that be such a bad thing? Because, what now? Think she’ll be any happier? She got what she wanted, what she’s clinging to. "If I get this, then I’ll be happy. Things’ll be okay then." You get what you want and what changes? Nothing. You get that acknowledgment and how do you respond to it? Not, “Okay mom, my pain’s all gone now." It's, "Okay, now fix it. And what about this and what about that? And what if? And give me this and give me that.” As soon as we get what we want we either want more or of it or we want to make sure we don’t lose what we just got. That’s why life denying you want you want is the kindest thing that life does to you.
Even when we understand that — and some of you have been at this for a while now and you know it’s more than a theory — but come on, can any of you, can any of you honestly say, that when you think about that — not just when you think about that — when you realize the truth of that, do any of you feel your bodies relaxing? “Okay, not getting what I want. Ahhhhhh. Being in awful pain. My worst fears always coming true. Ahhh, that’s great.” Of course not. There’s still that resistance. “I want. I want. I want. Me. Me. Me.”
The Zen teacher Wei Wu Wei was once asked “Why do we suffer?”
"Because 99.9% of everything you think and everything you do is about yourself and there isn’t one.” That’s why I keep telling you that you are your own imaginary friends. We create this fiction and we live for it. And we wonder why we suffer.
So, core beliefs really are what runs us. The most deluded people that I meet are people whose — Well, okay, take a guess, what would you guys say the most deluded core belief is?
That you don’t have any core beliefs!
You have got to do an awful lot of this for a long time, unraveling, unraveling, unraveling, letting go, letting go, letting go, to be without core beliefs. And does that mean that these thoughts don’t come up anymore? I mean honestly, if you really want to be without negative, addictive, compulsive thought, then shoot yourself in the head, destroy your brain. I’m really not sure that would stop it. But nothing else is going to. For as long as you’ve got that piece of meat floating in your skull it’s going to think, it’s going to have those thoughts. That’s what it does. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s how you know how to get to your house from where you work. It’s how you know how to put your shoes on. There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the most negative thoughts you can have.
So if core beliefs that you’re worthless aren’t bad, then what is bad? There’s no problem with having thoughts that you’re worthless. What is the problem? What is the problem that arises from that thought? So, you have a thought that you’re worthless. That thought is harmless. So what’s the problem with it?
STUDENT: Acting on it.
DOGO: What makes you act on it?
STUDENT: Believing it.
DOGO: The problem is not with the thoughts. The problem is with believing the thoughts.
We get addicted to those thoughts. They’re really comforting. Our most negative thoughts are incredibly comforting because with those thoughts we can blame other people and, better yet, the most comforting core beliefs we have, the ones that destroy us, are: we blame ourselves. Best cop out imaginable: “It’s not my fault. I’m a jerk. I’m a bad person, so therefore, it’s not my fault, right? I’m a bad person.”
If you really want to chase your tail, and if you want to drive yourself as deep into delusion as you can possibly get — I actually like to accommodate everyone, so here’s a recipe for a really catastrophic life — if you want to be really miserable, I can help you. Here’s how you do it. Here’s how you absolutely destroy your life. It’s the most effective way you can mess up your own life: Try not to have negative thoughts. Try not to have core beliefs. Push them down. Put a smile on your face. Be happy. Be positive. Don’t think negatively. You’ll either end up in a locked ward or on death row after you go postal and shoot a bunch of people if you think that way. Best way to make yourself angry is try not to be angry.
How do any of you feel — I’ve talked about this with some of you — how do you feel when someone says, “Hey, don’t be angry. Calm down.” Absolutely furious, right? “Don’t tell me not to be angry. Who the hell are you to tell me not to be angry. I’m not angry. I’m sick of you saying I’m angry. Dammit.”
So, if you don’t want to react that way, what do you do? A negative, blaming, judgmental, angry thought arises. “okay, just having a negative, blaming, judgmental, angry thought.” Now, what does that thought say? “No, but I’m right. This is true.” You say, “No, you’re just a thought.” The thought says, “No, but I’m a true thought. I’m a true belief.“ You say, "No, sorry, hate to break it to you, you’re not a true belief. There are no true beliefs.“ The thought says, “No, really, all the other beliefs are wrong. I’m right. I’m for real.” Which, when you’re angry, is what you feel. You’re always totally justified in the moment. It really is like a drunk who says he’s okay to drive. “Yeah, but you’ve had 5 DUI’s.”
“Yeah, but I was drunk those times, but I’m not now.”
Same with anger. “Well, I regretted it all those other times, but this time I’m right. I’m not over-reacting this time. No, this time I’m justified.” That’s a core belief. When you try to banish core beliefs you strengthen them. You replace them with other core beliefs.
The most common core belief you get in centers of spiritual practice is that you shouldn’t be angry, you shouldn’t be negative, you should be nice. I don’t want anyone in this sangha to ever be nice. And I promise I will never be nice to you. I’ll be kind, always. But I’m not going to be nice to you. Nice people are the angriest, most vindictive, hateful people you’ll ever meet. I mean really, think about it. Have you ever met — can you think of one nice person that you actually trust? That you really wouldn’t worry about if they were behind you with a knife in their hand? That’s what being nice does to you. We have these core beliefs, “I should be nice. I shouldn’t have negative reactions. I’ll just paste a beatific smile on my face, put the robes on and walk around bowing to everybody.” Yes, see how that works for you.
The way you let go of beliefs is not by having a belief that you shouldn’t have beliefs. But by acknowledging the beliefs as what they are. Simple as that. A negative story arises. “Just a story. Just a belief.” A positive story arises. “It’s just a story. It’s just a belief.” Acknowledge it. Don’t welcome it. Don’t fight it either. If you want to understand what’s running you, what actually runs your life — anything at all that upsets you, anything — ask yourself, “What is this? What is it? What am I holding on to?”
My wife actually said to me one time — actually, I quote this a lot because it’s really funny, but what makes it funny is she’s absolutely right — I said to her one time, “Why are you being such a bitch?” And she said, “Why are you attaching to your belief that I shouldn’t be a bitch?” Sure, she was taking a dig back at me, but I thought, “Actually, yeah. Yeah, she’s right. What’s giving me a bad day is not how she’s behaving. It’s my belief that she should behave differently."
See, core beliefs? “Things shouldn’t be the way they are. They should be the way I want them to be.” Has there ever been a time for any of you, maybe one minute in your life, when you looked at the world and decided how you wanted it to be and the world saluted and did what you wanted? I didn’t think so.
So when you react negatively, angrily, whatever, to what’s going on, when you’re suffering, however you name it, let go of the name you’ve given it and ask yourself “What is this? What’s my core belief here? What do I want? What is it I’m clinging to?”
It’s like my friend, when she said, “I don’t really care about my mother, but I’m really resentful.” Okay, well, what do you want? What do you resent you’re not getting?
“I want her to acknowledge what she did.”
Why? What is that? See, that’s not really what you want. That’s a manifestation of it - "‘I want you to acknowledge..." What is that? Why do you want your mother to acknowledge what she did and you don’t want Bill Clinton to acknowledge what he did? You don’t care about getting that acknowledgment. Because there is something you want from this person. What is it?”
”I want her to be my mother. I want to feel that I’m loved by her.”
When you understand what the core belief is, it doesn’t go away, but it stops running you. You’re not chasing your tail anymore. You’re actually living your life. When you make a decision, you’re making that decision from the awakened heart, not just one more reaction to the conditioning that you never even realized you had.
We’re running a bit late so anyone got any questions on that? I’ll say for the benefit of one person I think hasn’t heard me speak before, what I say at the end of every talk: if what I said didn’t make sense, question it. If it did make sense, question it even harder because what makes sense to you leads you right into belief and right into delusion.
I don’t believe anything I’ve told you. I don’t need to believe it. If I believed it, I’d be separate from it. If I believed what I had told you, I would be lying to you. I’m not lying to you. And the reason I’m not lying to you is because I don’t believe what I just said. So, if it didn’t make sense, question it. And if it did make sense, question it even harder.
STUDENT: Dogo, is one of the problems with beliefs that it makes something seem permanent too. One of the things I say — I do a lot of conflict resolution in my job and of course it’s easier to see in other people than myself — I just get this sense initially when all that emotion is there, and two people are mad at each other, or one’s mad at the other, there’s such a sense of permanence. I have plenty of that too, but watching it in other people it seems like you notice it. A little bit later, the next day, or two days later, it’s not such a big deal, but right at that moment not only is that person mean, but they’ve always been mean and always will be mean, you know that attachment to that? Is that a core belief?
DOGO: Exactly. That’s a perfect definition of a core belief. If we don’t have beliefs, then what you’re likely to say — if we’re not caught up in belief — if we get in a conflict and I’m caught up in belief — suppose I think you’re behaving in a self-centered, inconsiderate way, if I’m not caught up in belief, then even though I don’t like what’s going on, my reaction — not my reaction because it’s not a reaction — my response is going to be, “I think you’re being inconsiderate. You’re not thinking there’s other people involved here. I think you’re really caught in a self-centered view.”
If I’m caught up in belief, then we’re completely polarized. There’s no room for dialogue there.
“Why is John doing that?"
"Because he’s self-centered."
"Why is he self-centered?"
"Because he is."
"So, he always is?"
"So, you don’t like him?"
"Well, he is my friend, but..."
And that actually ends friendships. We decide that what’s happening right now, “I don’t like this. I don’t like what you’re doing. Therefore you’re a jerk and you always have been.” That’s what belief is. Belief is entirely about reaction, not response.
We put a label on someone. “He’s a liar.”
“Does he always lie? Like he never says anything true? Like if I ask him the time, he’ll lie? Well, he told me the truth. I checked my watch.”
“Yeah, but he’s a liar.”
So, he’s not a human being. He’s not a person. He’s a liar. Or he’s selfish. Or she’s really flaky and unreliable. We take something we don’t like. We react badly to it and we make it a belief. And so that’s who the person is. They’re not a person anymore. They’re a piece of behavior, one piece of behavior. And that’s belief. Perfect definition. That’s what belief does.
That’s why every belief is wrong. You can’t have a belief that’s true. If I think that a person is unreliable in some ways, they say they’ll do things they don’t follow through with, well, okay. But if I say, “That person’s a flake.” What about when they actually get to work on time? What about when they do what they said they were going to do? Even if what I think about the behavior is factually accurate, the belief can’t be true. Because no one is just that. Nothing is just the one thing.
To summarize, whether in your relationships or at work, when “someone makes you mad,” pause. No one else can make you mad. And no one else can make you happy. You respond angrily to what happens. You make you mad. So, when you react badly to something that’s happening, whether it’s just another driver, “They shouldn’t drive like that.” Shouldn’t drive like what? Drive in the way that I don’t like and inconveniences me. No matter what’s happening, whether it’s something as trivial as the way other people are driving on a busy freeway, whether it’s how our colleague is behaving, whether it’s how our family member is behaving, as soon as you find yourself reacting angrily or with upset of any kind, just pause. Turn back towards the self. “What is this? What is the belief here?” And you’ll realize it’s entirely about yourself. It comes down to one thing: “I’m not getting my way. Therefore he or she is, insert pejorative here______.” That’s the belief.
You’ll see other people doing it to you, doing it towards you. When you pay attention to this, when you just see it for what it is — not trying to change it, not trying to make it go away — just see it for what it is, it doesn’t have that power over you anymore. And you also realize that someone else’s anger towards you isn’t about you. It’s about their core beliefs. It’s about their core reaction to what they think the world is doing to them. And in that moment, maybe, realized you’re the representative of this world that just won’t do what they want. But it’s not about you.
And so, when somebody is taking it out on you, when someone’s made you the enemy, someone is demonizing you in that way, you don’t need to defend anything. You don’t need to take it personally. That doesn’t mean you become this doormat, that you roll over and let yourself be abused. Actually, quite the opposite. When you don’t react to things in an egoic or self -protective way, then you tend to do whatever needs to be done.
By and large, someone who’s being a doormat wants something from the other person. Somebody who’s being aggressive and fighting wants something from the other person. When you’re not making it about yourself, when you’re not defending, and you’re not attacking, you see things just as they are. It’s just this. Just this. Just this. Over and over again. It’s just this. This is what’s going on. You might still decide to be someone’s opponent, but not their enemy.