Tesshin Roshi opened his talk this week by mentioning that he attended a clergy seminar describing a new version of the King James Bible under development. This new version will include many new and updated illustrations and artwork. Some of the most striking artwork centered on the concept of Hell. This got Roshi thinking – what is the Buddhist conception of Hell?
Many of the Hell realms in traditional Buddhism reflect on things like the “Three Poisons” including greed, ignorance, and hate. However, Roshi wanted to concentrate this week on a type of Hell caused by negative feedback loops. He mentioned that this is a hell realm that he has personally combatted throughout his life. This mental state is so destructive as it ends up consuming so much of our time. We mull over perceived slights from other people. We tear ourselves down for every small error we make. We wonder over and over again if we are good enough. In the meantime, as we go around and around with these thoughts, life ticks on without us!
Why do we fall into these loops? Research in evolution points to the fact that these feedback loops may have offered us some protection in the distant past. If we kept reminding ourselves that the sabretooth tiger is dangerous, our chances of being eaten was reduced. Further fMRI research has shown that the most primitive limbic structures in the brain become active when we descend into these negative feedback mental states.
However, we must ask, do we still need to do this in the modern world? Is it still helpful? Here Roshi was clear – it is not helpful! Rather, these negative thoughts simply suck our life away with no positive gain! So, how do we resist this unhealthy negative state? Roshi mentioned that commonly these feedback loops arise automatically and unconsciously. Could the solution to this problem be to simply “wake up” and be more present in our lives? This is one of the central reasons we practice Zazen. The discipline of sitting with ourselves is to become present in the moment and intentional with every moment of our life. As we get better at this practice, we can gain control and prevent these feedback loops from taking root in our mind.
Roshi wrapped up by reiterating that Zazen can allow us to get our life back by eliminating these feedback loops at their source. Specifically, by being present in the moment and actively deciding what our minds will focus on.