DT-Nothing Special-Joko Beck – Practicing with Cocoons and Boulders

Tonight’s talk, “Practicing with Cocoons and Boulders,” continues a series of talks based on Joko Beck’s book Nothing Special: Living Zen. A beautiful Zen chant refers to our original Buddha nature: “Vast is the robe of liberation, a formless field of benefaction. I wear the universal teaching, saving all sentient beings.” According to the chant, our essence is awareness. In a state of inner peace and ease, we feel spacious and free, and we naturally want to alleviate the suffering of others.  

However, Joko observes that our pursuit of comfort, pleasure, and security separates us from one another. Because we are afraid of encountering unpleasantness, we try various strategies to control our lives. Those strategies are often revealed when we are feeling stressed. 

Gurdjieff, a renowned spiritual teacher, called the primary way that each person handles stress the “chief feature.” It’s helpful for each of us to learn how we react to pressure and how we hide fear. Do we struggle to be perfect, or do we withdraw? Do we work harder or work less? Do we try to dominate or are we evasive? Do we talk a lot or stay quiet?

Our chief feature might be bossing people around and getting angry when we can’t have things our way. Alternatively, we might try to please everyone around us, or we rush around seeking constant excitement and entertainment. We might aim to be the star of the show, acting to impress admirers and to hide our vulnerabilities. Our strategy might be to withdraw and focus on fantasies. Or we might attempt to figure everything out intellectually. Sometimes we avoid feeling pain by submitting to an authority figure. Or we abdicate responsibility for our lives by “blissing out.” 

Ironically, the more we try to escape discomfort, the more we lose touch with reality and the more unpleasant our lives become. It is only when our desperate attempts fail that we are ready to begin serious practice. Our strategies are bound to flop because they are not based upon reality. 

Joko compares meditation practice to a butterfly’s metamorphosis. A slow-moving, near-sighted caterpillar constructs a cocoon for a long, dark, quiet period of evolution. Eventually, a beautiful butterfly emerges, liberated to fly far beyond the range of the caterpillar. 

Likewise, our meditation practice starts off by sitting quietly and turning inward. In the inner darkness of our meditative cocoon, we face habitual, shortsighted patterns of pursuing comfort and security. Initially, we may hope that our practice will make us feel good. Gradually, we recognize how fruitless it is to cling to pleasure and to manipulate life to satisfy our selfish desires. Instead of running from discomfort, we become interested in what it is teaching us. Once we surrender and experience pain, we open to what is fresh and new. 

We start to embrace life as it is, with its endless changes and transitions. As we learn to be more comfortable with both life and death, and with both pleasure and pain, our cocoon begins to dissolve, and we feel freer and more spontaneous.  Unlike the butterfly, we repeatedly build meditative cocoons to refresh ourselves with silent learning periods.  

Sitting practice allows us to witness our ordinary thinking mind without being caught up in it. The inner witness is like a mirror that reflects nonjudgmentally what passes in front of it. Whenever there are added judgments, our practice is to label and release them.  

We notice how the mind generates reams of self-centered thoughts, which create bodily tension. In sitting, we realize that we tend to be attached to the same kinds of thoughts that dominate our thinking in daily life. By observing patterns of evasion or worrying or fantasizing, we recognize our chief feature. As Joko says, “Whatever we do in our sitting is like a microcosm of the rest of our lives. Our sitting shows us what we’re doing in our lives, and our lives show us what we do when we sit.” 

At the beginning of meditation sits, I notice my desire to prolong pleasant sensations and to shift my posture at the first sign of discomfort. Once I’m settled and still, though, I appreciate that pain connects me to the present moment. No longer separated from my experience, I become curious about investigating shifting sensations of pressure, constriction, and tingling until they fade in intensity. Repeatedly practicing this process of inner investigation teaches me that reactivity is more of a problem than pain itself. The more that I learn to stay with inner discomfort, the more I can be with others when they are uncomfortable.

To develop intimacy in relationships, we share not only enjoyment but also vulnerabilities. When we discuss concerns and frailties with close friends, our mutual trust is enhanced. For example, in a recent conversation, I told a Mexican friend how fragile I’d felt while quarantining with Covid. Jorge responded empathically and then confided that he has a newly diagnosed degenerative orthopedic condition, which is painful and restricts his movements. 

He was touched by my immediate expression of compassion. Although I could do nothing to fix Jorge’s deteriorating skeletal system, we felt connected by my bearing witness to his suffering. In that moment, our willingness to face his discomfort together lightened his burden. 

To examine how we carry life’s burdens, Joko refers to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, King of Corinth, whom the gods condemned to eternal punishment in Hades. Repeatedly, he pushed a huge, heavy boulder to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll back down to the bottom. We may assume that Sisyphus has an endlessly difficult and unpleasant task. 

But Joko notes that, like Sisyphus, we all do routine tasks. Burdens are always showing up in our lives. We may feel lonely and long for company, or we may have to spend time with someone who demands attention when we want privacy. We may face unexpected illnesses or accidents. Ultimately, however, there is no problem with any experience unless we add judgments. 

Pushing the rock could be an enjoyable exercise without any expectation that it will finally stay at the top. If we abandon hope that life will be other than it is, we are simply in the moment with our current boulder. While we are pushing, we can practice being aware of what is going on inside us. With that awareness, we slowly transform. 

The heavy burden of the rock is the idea that our life is a struggle and that it should be different than it is. Our thoughts, hopes and fears get in the way of living joyfully. When we view ourselves as victims and evaluate our burdens as unpleasant, we seek ways to escape. We might use drugs or alcohol to forget about pushing the boulder, or we might try to manipulate someone else into pushing it for us. 

At some point, we can stop the futile exercise of trying to evade reality. We realize that we don’t have to be completely willing to push the rock. As Joko observes, unwillingness is fine so long as we acknowledge and feel it. A big part of any practice is resisting: “I don’t want to do it!” 

When we label our thoughts during meditation, we become aware of how often we attempt to escape from living in this very moment—from pushing our rock. Longtime practitioners tend to develop a sense of humor about their burdens. By dropping the concept of life as a burden, they are mindful of what they are doing, 

second by second. In Joko’s words, “The measure of fruitful practice is that we feel life less as a burden and more as a joy. This doesn’t mean that there is no sadness, but the experience of sadness is exactly the joy.” We are enriched by opening fully to the 10,000 joys and sorrows of life.

Sometimes our lives seem to flow seamlessly. We are in a wonderful new relationship, or we are hired to work in an exciting work environment. But Joko points out that there is a difference between celebrating things going our way and experiencing true joy. Whenever we feel good due to positive circumstances, there is an underlying fear that those circumstances could change and come to an end. The fear and clinging associated with ordinary self-centered happiness is reflected in body tension. There is no tension in joy, which accepts life just as it is. 

Reflect on how you can be content living your life as it is, being with the experience of lifting your current burden each day. As Joko says, “In truth, we are already free. Sisyphus was not a prisoner in Hades, living out eternal punishment. He was already free because he was just doing what he was doing.” No matter what our burdens are, we are essentially “a formless field of benefaction.”