Saturday, August 21, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 223: A Response on Actualization Techniques

This is a brief note to say that, on another platform for discussion of Buddhism, I answered the questions:

What expedient means/tricks/methods do you use to speed up the transition from intellectual 'understanding' into practical 'realization' ('making real')?

My response was:

Well, it's been some time and I don't see any references to the method that worked for me best for thirty-plus years. That is visualization.

Perhaps the term makes the practice seem trivial. But it used to be known as one of the forms of western meditation until awareness meditation took over the term from everything else. It has also been known as self-hypnosis, auto-suggestion, and other things. None of the terms capture the magnitude of visualizing correct responses, whether mental ones or physical.

As a teen, I used visualization to help lose my fear of heights. I used it for trivial things like basketball, martial arts, and swimming. More importantly, maybe, I used it for practicing the noble truth of nirodha. Very simply, I visualized letting go of all of my possessions. Of course, I actually let go of possessions, too, and that's an essential part. But I don't want to underestimate the visualization. The quality of the practice makes a difference as much as quantity.

In a little more detail: when I was nineteen, I was absolutist about letting go of my desires. I took my Zen reading literally. To me, letting go of desires meant giving up everything. Some of the things,
  • giving up possessions
  • giving up the desires for possessions
  • giving up wanting people
  • giving up wanting animals
  • giving up plants
  • giving up wanting to achieve things
  • giving up signs of past glories like paper awards, ribbons, medals, and trophies
  • giving up all desires generally
  • giving up food and hunger
  • giving up thirst
You might see that, at times, this was getting extreme. Giving up hunger and thirst is a good mental and emotional exercise but human bodies might not react well to giving up nutrition. Maybe it's not practical. Nevertheless, that is how I felt and it is what I strove for.

When I was twelve years old, I fasted for a day to remove my desire for food. Later, I fasted for a day without water. I kept up the habit of going for twenty-four hours without food. In a few years, I progressed to fasting for two days but with water. By the time I was seventeen, I could fast for three days. I had managed four, too, although in that case I noticed my body got slow, achy, and cold. I was learning not to fast too much in the winter.

I threw out the posters of plays I had been in. I tossed my college scholarship offers (after they weren't needed) and my photographs. I threw out awards. Some of my actions upset my friends and parents. The third time I threw things out, I needed to empty the trash can, push my school papers and awards in the bottom, and then fill the trash back up to keep my father from catching on.

When I left home at seventeen, I'd reduced my possessions and made a habit of steadily envisioning giving up more. If I wanted something, I envisioned losing it. It wasn't a perfect process. For instance, I formed romantic attachments to young women. I remained attached to my friends and wanted to help them, to hang around with them, and make them laugh. Sometimes, I considered letting everyone go. More often, though, I experienced a growing peace with myself, increased acceptance of my friends, and I got closer to many of them.

All of this led up to generally giving up desires and expectations. The process never seemed tedious to me. Did it take a few years to reach a tipping point? Yes, and I'm not sure how it compares to other people who envision giving up their desires every day.

When I did get to a certain point, I found myself (a) very much at peace but (b) in a sort of conflict with my friends, who didn't like my lack of expectations.

Perhaps that's another story, though. This is about visualization.

When I think of an example of the technique that's not from my own life, I usually recall a story from the winter Olympics. Due to the weather, a championship ski run had to be postponed. Officials shut it down the next day, too, and eventually decided to open up the course for the medal round only. That is, they allowed no more practice runs.

The contestants were told to visualize the course. Most of them did. (All of the successful ones did, from the reports I heard and read.) Someone interviewed the winning woman afterward. During her interview, I noticed something interesting. When she talked about how she visualized skiing the course, she mentioned how she could smell the turn. She meant that there was a difficult spot between the flags of the course. She remembered the smell of the land, the snow, and woods at that spot. Of all the contestants, she experienced the best visualization. It translated into her performance. Her mental rehearsal prepared her, physically and emotionally, for the reality of her situation.

In a similar vein, I found that practicing visualization helped me personally. Nowadays, I am scandalized (occasionally, when I notice) by how little it's discussed. It's one of the most powerful tools available to human minds but it sometimes seems to be taken for granted.

Note: the question above was posted by Denis Wallez. It may be worthwhile to save some of other parts of the group discussions, here or elsewhere, with explicit permission from Denis and the other discussants.

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