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Twining Vines: Hollow Bones Rinzai Zen Sangha Message Board › the Strength to Awaken

the Strength to Awaken

A former member
Can I talk to your Controller, the part of your ego that makes all your choices? Would you like to rein in your wandering attention, and gather the strength to suffer less in your life? I invite you to do just that, through practicing zazen.

The intention of our Zen practice is to alleviate suffering, in ourselves and so-called others. But where does the power to do that come from? How can we summon the energy to realize our true nature, clearly see through our delusions, and transform our lives, so that we are actually present to take compassionate action? How can we take practical steps in our lives now, not waiting for elusive “enlightenment”?

Zen practice develops in us a strength called joriki. Japanese for “the power of intense concentration,” joriki is the strength to put our attention where we want it, for as long as we want it. The more we practice zazen, the more joriki we cultivate, so that we embody more strength to awaken. Like a magnifying glass igniting paper, joriki allows us to burn through layer after layer of our delusions. We can then experience and keep our attention on the true nature of reality, and become free to respond to circumstances with wisdom and compassion.

With sufficient joriki, you can put your full attention on what is actually happening right now. Not on a story about current circumstances, or on the memories they provoke. Why is this important? Because right here and right now is where your life happens. If you’re not conscious here, your unconscious reactivity drives you, while your brain chugs along in its default mode, manufacturing suffering.

In a recent sesshin at my teacher’s root monastery, joriki became palpable to me. I had arrived expecting a week of serene samadhi (meditative absorption), but instead faced unusual sleepiness and previously unseen depths of psycho-emotional pain. Within the rigorous monastic form, relying on a strength I hadn’t known I had allowed me to stay awake with the discomfort. Hour after relentless hour, observing sensations and the narratives they triggered.

As joriki grows, we can increasingly see through beliefs, sensations, and emotions as they arise and fall away, and choose not to rely on them for our full understanding of reality. Mobilizing joriki allows us to rely on pure, selfless awareness, as we awaken and respond to reality just as it is.

During my first decade or so of meditating, I strove to “fix” my “brokenness”; since coming to Zen, though, I’ve been practicing experiencing the true nature of ‘my’ essence, which can never be flawed. So I (intellectually) knew not to mistake the arising shadow states for reality. As I let myself be still with intense discomfort, my awareness was penetrated by the beauty of steam rising after rain, of monks chanting, and a black bear skulking. The shadows and stagnation proved not to be separate from Zen mind, after all.

Relying on joriki doesn’t mean reifying the ego mind, amplifying the delusion that our finite selves have enduring, independent substance. Rather, it involves recognizing the emptiness of the ego process, and harnessing it to bring full attention right to the edges of its relative power, yielding to realization of our essential nature.

I had thought I understood this. But in the middle of sesshin, I watched an old reactive habit erupt in super-slow-mo. Watching nuances unfold, I saw my habit of weaving emotional intensity into a web of identity, clutching silken strands in tight fists.

Though never having really seen my drama queen reactivity before, I clearly recognized that she’d been around a long time. That I enacted her when replaying an old trauma. When desperate not to face the pain alone, and unconsciously flailing for someone to save me. Ugh—such angst in trying to hold an ego identity together!

Seeing the reactivity and its source in such heightened clarity, I related to myself with fresh compassion. Rather than shaming myself (at last!), I simply inquired, “Is the trauma happening now? (No). Is there more healing or grieving to be done now? (No). Do I need someone to see and love me in this pain, now? (Yes—myself).” So I stayed. Open. Clear. Compassionate. Ordinary.

For the rest of sesshin, with utmost strength and gentleness, I held the practice form. Completely present in ongoing meditation, and in service to the sangha, simply opening doors and windows, filling water bowls on altars, playing the mokugyo (a gorgeous, wooden drum).

When facing doubts and demons, I chose to extricate myself from my favorite delusions, and that made all the difference. But relying on the joriki we cultivate isn’t about disconnecting from others. It includes relying with discernment on teachers and teachings to light our way, to hold up clear mirrors. (Deep bows to the priest who shared her chocolate, the priest who reflected my gentle strength, and the roshi who, to my fleeting chagrin, agreed a spade was a spade). And it means firmly pulling ourselves out of the pits we dig, so that we can be of active, compassionate service to others.

Engaging the joriki we embody, we are awake—on the cushion in glimpses, and, increasingly, in our mundane lives. Gradually, we become neurologically able to completely experience this unmediated moment, no longer ensnared by the narratives our brains spin. And THEN we get to make the paradoxically difficult choice to choose our freedom: to choose conscious, compassionate response over the repetitive manufacturing of suffering.

At the end of sesshin, when I typically would contract in despair and self-pity, I stayed open. When the tug to shut down just began to creep in, I shifted my attention to clear spaciousness; despair dissolved and beauty revealed itself. This wasn’t conceptually invoking my will to stay present, but a spontaneous response. It expresses the choice to perceive and respond compassionately to reality. But it also reveals how ongoing, disciplined practice changes our neurology, allowing us to see beyond our delusions and to cease creating suffering. At last—gratefully—I not only see the choice point of my suffering, but have the strength to choose. To pry my attention off of my pitiful “deficiency,” so that I actually perceive and relish what is sumptuously here.

Where in your life could you use a joriki-magnifying glass to burn through delusion? In what circumstances would you like to pry your attention away from the creation of suffering, and hold it on clarity and compassion? Are you willing to cultivate the power to do this by practicing zazen every day (or will you wait for the magic bullet app. to do the work for you)?

Be courageous and discipline yourself.
Completely become hearing and ear,
and wear this sun-ruby as an earring.
Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.

--Rumi
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