Reflections on Mindfulness and Zen: An Interview with Reverend Doshin Kusan
ABC Interview: Reverend Doshin Kusan – 15 March 2000. Reverend Doshin Kusan was 54 years old at the time of this interview.
Could you explain for me the mindfulness techniques?
It has quite a few parts to it and the mindfulness practice that I am currently using consists of initially counting to ten as I breath in and out to slow the mind and then allowing myself to drop away from that and just sit in the state of being aware of everything. I sit with my eyes open, and I work with feelings, emotions, sensations, thoughts, sounds, and sights coming in from the external world and allow them to come and go and I’m mindful of them as they come and go and let them go.
And what does ‘to be mindful mean?
Mindful to me means being aware of moment-to-moment sensations, thoughts, emotions and outside sounds, sights, taste, touch and also to be aware of the fantasies and processes that are happening inside my brain, inside my mind from a moment-to-moment existence.
And why did you begin practicing mindfulness?
I’d also like to say that mindfulness is a bit more than that as well because as one practices and practices one can then be mindful of the thoughts and how there are gaps b/w the thoughts so one allows oneself to sit until they get to a deep enough stage where they start to see gaps in their actual thinking process and so that one can allow things to drop off more and more and one gets insight into the impermanence of everything and so insight becomes an important part of the practice.
And why did you begin practicing mindfulness?
I found that when I got divorced in 1973 things were unsatisfactory for me after the divorce. I realised that that was a fairly traumatic period, so I was not intending to go back through that and somehow, I touched something about Buddhism. So in 1974 I started to explore Buddhism and I found it difficult, it was culturally strange to me I went away and tried other meditation techniques and I stumbled into Zen in 1984 after doing TM meditation since 1977 and I just knew I was home_ And when I came to Brisbane I began to practice in the Brisbane Zen group and the practice was mindfulness so I stumbled into it because that’s all we ever did. I didn’t have a teacher, but I was aware of the technique of mindfulness practice.
Is it fair to say that you were driven by the un-satisfactoriness that arose out of your divorce?
Yes, and the way I felt about that divorce.
And how do you apply your mindfulness to your life?
Many ways and for me one of the most important things is to bring my mindfulness practice into daily life and to try to make it useful so that this practice has some kind of practical application. And I don’t necessarily think that has to be a conscious thing I do all the time, in terms of making it practical, that’s not the only reason I do it but I think unless I can be using this practice in a daily affair it’s only a hobby so for me mindfulness kind of puts me in touch with my un-satisfactoriness and my awareness of the suffering of the world and the anguish of a lot of people. So my work that I do now has evolved around that awareness of the un-satisfactoriness.
So, the formal application?
I practice every day and that makes me aware of issues that are happening, it also makes me aware of my connectedness with everyone. So once I’m connected with everyone in that sense of a day to day feeling of being connected, I can actualise that working with people and so I believe that I’m probably a bit more compassionate, working even within my own emotional limits and my own emotional temperament. So I believe that there are applications that come out of that in the work I do and the way I treat people. I think it m very egalitarian and very’ open to people and so that I try not to get in their way of their development.
To what extent do you feel that you live mindfully?
Very hard to say because how do you know when you are not living mindfully? One of the problems. So the best I can do is to practice as mindfully as I can when I’m practicing mindfully and to live my life wholeheartedly when I’m not consciously practicing, so that I try and take my mindfulness practice into being just in the moment and with my work and fully aware of my work and in the moment of my work and I actually observe when I’m resisting. When I do the housework, I observe what it’s like how I feel how I feel anxious, I know when I have strong emotions, I am mindful of them I don’t try and change them often I just sit with them. I’m aware of my strong emotions I’m also aware of when I’m calm and collected and I don’t choose to have one or the other. I am just mindful of these emotions. So I work with those emotions of frustration and anger and fear a fair bit and still do.
Being aware of these emotions can, you give me an idea as to how that is beneficial for you?
It allows me to just be who I am at that time so I l m more authentic, so that I don’t have to pretend that I’m anything that I tm not I am what you see. So that’s very unifying for me to be who I am, it requires less energy to be with people, I can acknowledge my own inadequacies a lot easier, and I don’t have to be perfect, and I can just be in the moment and feel it and move on. And I don’t have to hide it, I don’t have to pretend I’m someone I’m not. I’m genuinely more open and authentic now that I do mindfulness practice.
Would you like to live more mindfully?
That’s important too. Moment to moment is all we really have anyway and in many ways the answer has to be yes, but one has to accept the limitations of their personality and even accept that when you aren’t mindful, it’s okay. In other words, it’s all okay and that’s a very strong feeling that comes with being mindful, that everything’s ok and I don’t mean in a laissez faire attitude that everything’s ok, I don’t mean that we can do things which are outrageous and socially inappropriate. But in a real sense I tm ok as a person and that’s really important to know.
You mention this word moment to moment, can you define that for me?
Moment to moment is being here, this moment, and this moment, and this moment, and this moment. So every moment is just this moment, and a moment does not last for ever, there is this moment, and this moment, and this moment. So its continually being here, and aware and engaged in your life, not hiding from your life from moment to moment.
What would be the opposite of moment to moment?
Being lost, totally lost, and having a fantasy in your mind which takes you away from what you are doing. You are distracting yourself, that’s a technique used in pain control, to distract, well that takes you away from being mindful (mf). T hats the exact opposite of being mindful. To be mindful is to be here with whatever is happening whether you are feeling anxious, angry, doesn’t mean you have to act them out you’re just aware of your feelings and emotions, thoughts, sensations and also sometimes being aware of the fantasy you’ve just engaged in and letting it go so it’s often a matter of letting go. A series of letting go, letting go, letting go, moment to moment to moment, so all you have is nothing but here-now, right here in this second.
Would it be fair for me to say then that holding onto the past or projecting ourselves into the future would be opposite to moment-to-moment?
Maybe, but we could do that mindfully if we have a reason for doing that, we can do that skilfully, that assessing history and planning for the future. They’re very skilful things we do as human beings, that’s not in contradiction to living mindfully, but I l m talking about an unconscious thing more of an unconscious process that we all do. The regrets of the past can overwhelm us if we live in the past sometimes, I wish I hadn’t done that, I wish I’d said this, I wish that hadn’t happened. And we also get in the planning mode, we plan how we are going to live when we get the car, the house finished, go on our holiday, we fail to live in the moment. Or when we are bored, we are wishing we weren’t here, so we actually plan ourselves out of our life. But there are times when it’s good to reflect on the past we can do that mindfully by being aware that our past, future and present are all one anyway. We can be very mindful of that and use it very skilfully, it’s when it’s done unconsciously, reflecting on the past or projecting ourselves into the future that it’s a problem.
Can you capture for me the state of being that mindfulness gives rise to?
It’s just moment to moment awareness, it’s just a letting go, it’s just this (claps), it’s just here (clicks), it’s just the whipper-snipper (Barry is presently having his yard mowed) in the yard.
What changes do you believe mindfulness has brought about 4u concerning dealing with difficult personal experiences?
Maybe the biggest thing it brought about for me is compassion for myself for making mistakes in difficult situations. I still make mistakes in difficult and conflictual situations, but I have more compassion for myself about that and I don’t beat myself up so much. I also think that I’ve got the ability to sometimes suspend judgement and just sit with the sensation without reacting, I do that more, I’m less angry but I still feel anger, I’m less likely to act out my anger and frustration.
How does mindfulness facilitate that change?
Mindfulness allows you to practice sitting m-t-m, to experience and become aware of thought patterns and you start to appreciate that the thoughts you think are you, are not really you. That what’s happening is just a series of thoughts, feelings, sensations and fantasies, and sights, tasting, touching, hearing and smelling, that they are not you. So one gets a chance to examine these as not just one continual life racing force or thinking pattern, that you think are unbroken. You start to see there are gaps in the pattern, so one can actually start to slow this whole thing down. You have an opportunity to grab hold of the anger b4 it gets out of control or b4 you say the silly thing. You get a chance to examine what it’s like to be frustrated and really feel it without acting it out. And I’m not saying I’m an uncontrollable anger freak, il m talking about using anger very positively so that it motivates me to move, and to challenge people, and to challenge myself so I can see now that anger is a very useful tool when it challenges me to actually move on.
Am I hearing that there is some sort of letting go?
In this context not specifically here, there is a recognition of the impermanence of everything but particularly the thinking pattern and the processes, so once one senses that you have a chance to say maybe, this isn’t me anyway maybe this is just a feeling, so there’s just the feeling. So that you start to see this as a process of your life unfolding without any deep meaning, this isn’t who I really am, that’s who I am. that there’s more than this stuff to define who I am. Theres more than this body, these thoughts, feelings, sensations, there’s something beyond that. Theres a letting go of the concepts of who I am. yes okay, in a way.
What changes has mindfulness brought about four you concerning connecting or interacting with people?
I take more risks when I connect. A big change four me is being able to be more direct with people and to challenge more and to be more connected by the feedback I give them, and I can do that more openly or honestly now without wondering whether it’s just an emotion that I’m responding to. So, I sense more authenticity, I have more authenticity about my responses, I can trust myself more to respond in the moment, appropriately. And I’m more freely able to do that.
How does mindfulness facilitate these changes?
Mindfulness helps me to get in touch with how I feel and it gives me a chance to realise that those thoughts, feelings, sensations are just that, they’re spontaneous things, disconnected, and as I practice more and more mindfulness I tend to get more and more space in between those feelings, thoughts and sensations. So I don’t have to react, there is a chance to examine them and let go of them without reacting. So I feel that I don’t react, I kind of respond more appropriately to them, I can sit and feel these sensations and emotions without reacting.
Would that reaction perhaps take us away from the moment?
No. I believe what happens is that I’m seeing the moment more clearly and engaging in and not hiding from the emotion. When I feel hurt, I don’t have to respond in an angry way I can actually know that I’m hurt and respond appropriately and so therefore my answers and responses to people are more appropriate and more real and I’m less hiding from myself.
What change do you believe mindfulness has brought about four you concerning dealing with loss?
Loss is very interesting because in my work I deal with loss almost every day with clients, so for me there is an issue of being aware of loss and mindfulness has made me realise that loss is inevitable and I don’t really see it as loss anymore. I see it in terms of change and impermanence, so loss is something that I’ve grown to fear less and be aware of more and it doesn’t seem to have the biting edge. I’m not saying that I don’t grieve I do but I’m more aware of my grieving so I tm not hiding from it as much I’m open to it and so that therefore (t4) I can live more richly because I’m aware of this impermanent process I’m in and I’ve embraced life more.
Could you clarify how understanding that something is impermanent is of benefit?
One realises that nothing is permanent and t4 the real essence of me isn’t this body isn’t this person talking to you now that there is a connectedness that goes beyond that and with that realisation comes a sense that its ok somehow. There still is the terror sometimes and the fear, but even that is kind of ok and there’s a connection with somehow believing that life’s ok, and even though I don’t have the answers and I’m part of this whole universe, and I belong, and I’m already ok.
How do you believe mindfulness facilitates this awareness of impermanence?
When one practices mindfulness one sees those thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions and the detail that comes in, very clearly one experiences that, one gets a clear handle, that one isn’t those things. One becomes aware that they have a time and space, you see gaps in them so that gives you a sense that they r not who you r. so the process of mindfulness allows you to see beyond the loss and allows you to see clearly that isn’t who you r, and so what! And death doesn’t have the sting, so what if you’re going to die!
From your personal experience what change if any has mindfulness had upon your sense of self?
That’s a really interesting one because strangely, I’ve always felt that you really need a strong ego to practice mindfulness and in some ways my ego is. my ability to deal with the outside world is stronger and I feel more confident and more authentic and more true to myself, and I don’t worry so much about the reaction from people, I feel that I can be myself more. So strangely, paradoxically, I can be myself more and I have a stronger sense of self but the paradox comes because I believe that I’m more connected with people and more connected with the world so my sense of self is dissolving in another way, but my ego is strong as a way of handling myself in the world.
So there’s a dissolving of self did you say?
I’m not sure how to describe it. Theres an awareness that at one level I have a strong sense of self, I can walk across the road, negotiate with the guy doing my mowing, negotiate with the person who built my house, so I can accomplish things in this world but also an awareness that I’m somehow connected at a deeper level and I l m not just this person that you see. So if it’s a dissolving, perhaps it is, it’s kind of unexplainable, maybe there’s a sense of being one with everything or just feeling that there is a connectedness somehow.
How do you explain the ability of mindfulness to change this sense of self
The sense of self comes as a by-product of understanding you are not just these emotions, sensations. That somehow you get a real sense, an intuitive sense that its ok, that everything is ok. So it’s a byproduct of your practice, a by-product of being aware moment-to-moment and living more fully and being more authentic and knowing yourself more and knowing whatever you are, it’s certainly not limited by this physical body, or where you live or how big your house is, or how many cars you drive.
What impact has mindfulness had upon your self-awareness?
Mindfulness has allowed me to be in touch with my deep feelings that started with being aware of my suffering and trying to make sense of that and I was lucky that I got divorced and was forced into a situation of really acknowledging how unsatisfactory my life had become. Mindfulness makes you more aware but it’s not the only thing that does that. It can be limiting, it can make you aware of feelings, sensations etc but if you don’t attempt to take this practice out into the real world one can get very stuck in mindfulness practice and one can become very clear about feeling wonderful and light, but sometimes loose the clarity of what it’s like to be with other people. So for me mindfulness has that edge of being able to help me to define some skills, to work with other people. I’m more aware of my true sensations, emotions and feelings that I’ve got, knowing that that’s not me totally any way.
From your personal experience has mindfulness had any impact upon your desire to accumulate material experiences?
Absolutely. One realises that material possessions are very nice and that we need some and they vary depending on whether your married, have children, or preparing for old age etc, but somehow one realises that it’s all very impermanent anyway and material wealth isn’t very important as one of the things in my life, it is important to have enough, but it’s not that important to have too much. In fact, I don’t wake up in the morning and try and work out how I’m going to get more money.
How does mindfulness facilitate that change?
Mindfulness just gets you in touch with what is important and having a lot of material possessions is not one of the things that comes out of mindfulness practice. It may be important to have material wealth. I’ve found some of the happiest times in my life have been when I’ve lived in a tent on a retreat and lived simply. It’s an experience of knowing that you don’t need it to make yourself happy and a real understanding that it’s not that important. A lot of people don’t get a chance to get in touch with that.
Has mindfulness impacted upon your finding meaning in life?
Absolutely. It’s very hard to find that and I guess the search continues throughout. Somehow or other a deeper search for meaning comes up in your consciousness, mindfulness somehow brings into consciousness an awareness of a search for meaning beyond material possessions, beyond the transitions in life.
So what becomes meaningful for you?
Connectedness with the world, an understanding that we are all in the same boat and an awareness that we all suffer and an awareness that were just here to work with that and that somehow or other we have commitments to each other and to the world and there’s an awareness that it’s all ok. That we are all ok just as we are and that whatever we are doing is appropriate and that people are ok.
Has mindfulness impacted upon your expectations of yourself and other people?
Perhaps I have less expectations of how I want people to act and more expectations of their ability to strive for a sense of meaning. I’m expecting less from people but I’m aware and expecting more in terms of their search for meaning.
Have the roles that society asks us to play changed as result of practicing mindfulness?
I’m more aware of the roles and the socialisation process that’s happened to me and the inculturation and the way that as a male I’ve been conditioned to behave. And mindfulness really gets you in touch with how much you can be controlled by the socialisation process. In many ways as a young male, I feel that I missed some of my life because I wasn’t allowed to feel fear and I was never allowed to be bored. So when I felt fear and boredom, I turned off so I can honestly say that for a good part of my life I never felt fearful because I turned that part of myself off.
Is it sometimes difficult to practice mindfulness?
I think it’s very difficult from time to time and sometimes you have to be happy just to be mindful of how difficult mindfulness practice is.
And why is it difficult sometimes?
Because you get distracted, because one is human, because one has a personality and a style of relating. Because one gets angry, because one gets effected by what people say to you. Because one has relationships and people touch you deeply and effect you. So sometimes you lose your mindfulness. But in the true sense you’ve never really lost it, you’re still with it.
Could you give me an example of a time, event, or occasion that it was difficult for you to practice mindfulness.
When I’m very frustrated I seem to lose that sense of connectedness with the moment and some event triggers me, kind of allowing emotions to start the fantasy process so that I get connected into my robot and my robot runs and I run with the robot so that I do and say things which r inappropriate. I must say that when you realise that it’s a good chance to practice being compassionate and mf of that feeling and allowing yourself to sense. . . without beating yourself up over it.
Do the changes that mindfulness has brought about four you ever cause problems?
Yes. They have to do with the changes in my life and the expectations that some people have of me and their discontent with the way I’ve changed my life. So in a real sense I live much more simply than some of my colleagues and consequently I’m classified by that and that unfortunately gets in the way of my relationship with them. It’s not an issue four me but I see it as an issue for them and consequently then, it becomes an issue four me One lives much more simply and so that becomes an issue four people and I try not to b and I don’t make an effort to be different, that’s just who I am. But it’s not a big deal. I don’t think there are any other problems.
Any perils or pitfalls of mindfulness?
I’ve never felt that I’m in peril, I’ve never felt that I’m out of control or periled by this practice. I have always felt totally at home and safe in this practice every time I’ve done it. and I have never felt like I’m about to die as a result of it There have been times when I’ve been in touch with a great terror and sadness and loneliness in my life but that’s not a peril and I need to say that, there simply might have been a time when it was nicer not to be in touch with it. But what comes with that is an understanding that that’s ok to. The mindfulness practice brings that that’s ok.
These experiences, do you consider them to be a natural result of mindfulness bringing about change?
Yes, I do. believe that eventually everyone that practices mindfulness will go through this or something like this. The dark night of the soul maybe.
So, it’s important?
Can be. K think it was important for me I can’t speak four other people, but I would think it would be the same four others. I think it’s a time when people would maybe stop the practice and there maybe perils for people who don’t have a good understanding of mindfulness or a strong ego.
Experiencing these difficult parts of yourself or having these difficult experiences, what did that give you?
A shock at the time. I’m sitting in a long retreat and I’m having some anger come out of nowhere and I am thinking wow, a sense of my goodness. It gave me an understanding that that’s ok in the end. But I remember trying to suppress it, so an awareness of how I split off part of my life and things I thought I wasn’t allowed to experience. The things I’d been conditioned by society to believe were not good for me, anger, lust, some of those things that I’ve learnt to split from my personality.
Has mindfulness had any significant positive or extraordinary impacts upon your life?
I think mindfulness practice over years has been incredibly positive in my life and has changed my life considerably somehow. Slowly and perceptibly over a long time and has brought up a most fulfilling life, it has made me more authentic and genuine, more able to be and live comfortably and happily, not always. I’m not talking about ecstatic crap, I’m not talking about new age bravado or being happily making money, I’m talking about a genuineness of living my life m-o-m as I experience it deeply and embracing my wife and the love that I have four her and other human beings in a lot more compassionate way. I can assure that b4 I started mindfulness I was much more materialistic and a dick head.
This phrase m-o-m is interesting. You talked b4 about m-o-m as meaning here-now, here-now four me represents no conceptualisation of past-present-future?
Yes, you’re not splitting past-present-future, if you’re going to plan for the future you need to conceptualise a future, so you r then splitting past-present-future.
What you’re doing is planning for a future event, it doesn’t mean you don’t have concepts you’re simply using concepts constructively, one doesn’t get caught by them when one uses concepts, one knows that you r using concepts and you don’t let that define your life_ There is quite a big difference, and that is that you use the concepts to live well and better. But we don’t think like that, the concept of this glass (points to a glass) is only a word, a concept, when I ask you what does water taste like, the concept of water is different to the taste of water.
So it seems to me that there is conceptualising and not conceptualising going on?
Yes. You see the glass as a glass but then at times you see beyond that, it is not a glass.
Let’s go to the water. Theres’s water and conceptualising about water and then there’s the drinking of it. The drinking of it is different (Barry drinks the water) to describing what it tastes like. There is the experience and then there is the description of it. Quite different. One is a concept, and one is experience, one is conceptual, and one is experiential.
Most people would say that is water, they wouldn’t drink it to show what it is, does mindfulness give rise to this other way of looking at things, to just drink?
Yes, it does. One knows that the concepts are only maps and one lets go of the concepts more and more but one has to work with concepts in this world, concepts r useful but it doesn’t mean I allow the concept to define my life, my life is about experiences and my experiences of the m-o-m are almost indescribable, they’re beyond concepts, the same as drinking water is beyond concepts all you have to do is drink it
So mindfulness opens up a deeper meaning, a deeper level of knowing, one experiences. And it’s not just about experiencing in an old way it’s about a deeper experience where one doesn’t have to conceptualise, one just goes (r drinks water).
So does mindfulness open us up to some non-conceptual way of seeing?
Of course. It allows us to experience our life more deeply, and these are concepts that are now cutting off the real meaning of mindfulness practice. One can experience one’s life at a deeper level because it’s at an experiential level, a level we don’t often get to. Even though we talk about experiential learning, and we know the concept, mindfulness is about experiencing our life more deeply and dropping the concepts, living it, not conceptualising it.
But you still need to use concepts?
Yes, and that’s one of the skills that the west has developed beautifully but it’s also a trap because we think the concepts r the reality. The reality is different, the reality is drinking the water. You still use concepts to live effectively but it becomes the skilful use of concepts, where you let go of stuff that really isn’t important.
So, is mindfulness allowing you to use concepts as you need them and not use them as you need to?
Yes, it is. of course. You use concepts to cross the road but that’s not the reality of your life, the reality of your life is living it deeply without conceptualising everything. There are times when you have to, but there are many times when you can choose to live deeply in this beautiful world, not to conceptualise, not put a name to it.
So mindfulness gives rise to something that we don’t usually have access to?
Yes, I believe that’s true. I think without being mindful, most people won’t touch this essence of their life and the practice can touch this essence of knowing deeply what it’s like to live in this world. When one doesn’t have to define it, it’s just happening.
And how does just happening impact upon your life?
It enriches it, makes it more charming and open, more gleeful, and joyful because one can experience just walking on the grass rather than conceptualising walking on the grass. Strangely, as we conceptualise, we lose the essence of just walking on the grass. So we can stay here more and enjoy our life more, without always being in our concepts somewhere else, concepts take us away from who we are, they take me away.
What has been the overall change in your life befor you began practicing mindfulness and now? What are the overall changes, is there a contrast between before and now?
A huge contrast. Just in my behaviour in terms of how I react to people. There is a more genuine level of interaction, I’m more aware of people’s feelings, I care more about people. I’m not as shallow. I don’t respond because I’ve been taught to respond, I make decisions more naturally about how I handle myself in the world. I’m more joyful, I am more open to my life and I’m more optimistic in a deeper sense than b4 I started mf. I’m also more aware of some of the bad things in my life and I can touch those without covering up and hiding them and without quivering so much, there’s a sense that I’m ok and somehow, it’s all going to be ok.
Has your overall sense/experience of equanimity changed?
Yes. When you have a bad day, it doesn’t seem to matter so much, it doesn’t overwhelm you, you can have a bad year and it doesn’t overwhelm you. It doesn’t matter somehow, there’s less significance to it all. So, I’m yes, much more equanimous than I’ve ever been.
Has the incidence of conflict in your life changed as a result of practicing mindfulness?
Yes. Maybe because I’ve got better skills now, I’m more able to be authentic and genuine, I’m not protecting an image as much. I’m not trying to gain ground as much I don’t have to protect myself as much from pain. But I do sometimes. The overwhelming feeling, I have from my practice is being much more authentic.
Is there anything you can add regarding the impact mindfulness has had upon your life?
One of the things that strikes me about mindfulness is sometimes my deep connection to my wife, a great sense of love for her which comes out of sharing life at this level. There’s a joy in just experiencing life with other people. can see now that it is all a joke, that it doesn’t matter, so I can be more gentle, and I can let things go a lot easier and I know it’s not just me and I can have a laugh at my expense.