I have always been able to see shapes of things in the surfaces and textures of just about anything. All the painting and drawing I did growing up and into early adulthood further developed the ability. The suggestion of a dancer in tree limbs, a mountain range in the moss on a decaying stump, a tree in the frozen water at a creek’s edge…
Many years ago, I don’t even know how many, during a difficult time, I saw the shape of a smiley face in something. It gave me encouragement, a spark of inspiration, like a friend showing up to remind you that everything is going to be OK. Over time, the shape of smiley faces would show up now and then, not just when life was challenging, but in the easy and joyful times, too. Just now and then, once every few months, like the surprise of the first Crocus of spring popping up to say hi and share the good vibe of being.
From an old school Zen perspective, this could be dismissed as a pointless distraction, an egoic creation to reinforce the illusion of self. But as Zen and modern psychology both evolve and merge, it is well know that cultivating a healthy ego is essential on the spiritual path. As Ken Wilber’s “Integral Theory” states about stages of development, we must “Transcend and include;” meaning, as we move through and out of stages of development, we transcend them, but it is also essential to include them as part of our understanding of being, and to understand and relate to those people who are in stages that one has moved through. Or as a contemporary Zen saying goes, “You have to be someone before you can be no one.” And now neuroscience can pinpoint what happens inside us when we see smiles. And to bring it all down to Earth, seeing smiley faces just feels good, and I welcome them all. And I’d like to give you a closer view in to the experience I’m having.
The initial months of living and training at Dai Bosatsu was both positive and rough. It was quite an adjustment, letting go of so many activities and places and things and proximity to friends… all at once. And starting on a journey of directly facing every aspect of oneself and the immediacy of impermanence… of things, of circumstances, of people, of me. And wouldn’t you know, the smiley faces started showing up, at first once every week or two, then a couple of times a week. It was truly encouraging. Then, when I returned from winter travels in January, and I found myself having to do some deep digging to resolve communication issues within me and with a fellow monk, they started showing up, a lot… several a week, then more by the day, and from many per day to many in a single moment and space.
You could be thinking that I’m just a tripped-out dude, but the remarkable thing is that these appearances are playing an important role in my evolution and awakening. Junpo’s dharma reveals that we can use the counter-productive aspects of our personality to liberate ourselves from them, both psychologically and spiritually. And, most importantly, we can, and even must, do so with a sense of humor. We must be seriously focused on both realizing the infinite nature of our being and our inter/personal behavior. And yet we also must be able to laugh at ourselves to lighten the load, as well as laugh in celebration as we awaken.
This two-fold approach is wonderfully presented in the book, “The Heart of Zen,” a transcribed dialog with Junpo. It is an easy read, as if you were hanging out with him and chatting. Yet, it cuts directly to the essential matter of simultaneously cultivating emotional maturity while realizing spiritual liberation. Junpo brings it home that the two are not mutually exclusive, and in fact are interdependent; each expands the other, and we must develop both simultaneously if we are to be whole and free. To help with this, the practice of “Sacred Laughter” he teaches can be found in the free Hollow Bones Sutra Book. Part of practicing Sacred Laughter is to cut through self-centered seriousness, and part is to tap deeply in to the inherent joy of being. Try it out and let me know about your experience in the comment section below.
So how is this working for me? What is actually happening when I see these smiley faces in things?
On a simple level, I think too much. I can easily get lost in the distraction of mental activity, both the practical sort (planning and organizing; contemplating solutions to situations; deciding what to make for lunch, et cetera), and the fantastic sort (playing out scenes of what I’ll say to someone and their possible responses; imagining all the what-ifs of a situation, both light and dark; fantasizing the life I want, or could have had, or am heading towards, et cetera). Or it can be random mental babble, like channel surfing. Increasingly, the smiles show up to remind me to come back to the present, to reenter my body-mind, and if reflecting on a situation or relationship is necessary, to include its intelligence and wisdom… in fact to engage it first. And to have a good chuckle about it all.
On a deeper level, I can be too serious, can shut down in moments of conflict, get rigid when I feel overwhelmed with responsibility or when in situations that I don’t know what to do. In my confrontation with a fellow monk, I was called “uptight.” It was a hard pill to swallow, but on honest examination, I could see that sometimes I really am, and for no other reason than being unconsciously caught in habits of being over-concerned or afraid about something. The smiley faces show up and remind me that I got hooked, and to laugh and let it go, returning to heart-centered joy and a clear mind.
Part of the ego’s game is to create concern where there need not be any, or where there is need, to dial it up too loud. I’ve been amazed, as I look closer and more consistently at my mind patterns, how quickly and easily I get hooked by that habit. And as I see it in me more, I also see it in others as well. This is doubly liberating because in seeing theirs, I can relate to them from Presence, rather than their fear story, or mine. I do not have to get pulled in to their tension or drama, nor do I need to generate any of my own. Wow! Can you imagine how much freer and how much more energy I have in the day by not burning it up in these ways? And can you imagine what the world would be like if more and more of us were doing this? We could celebrate by eating happy face risotto with mushroom cakes together!
Or some Irish soda bread with currents!…
Of course, we can create smiles, and all kinds of beauty, in our day, simply by where we keep our attention, centered in imperturbable, receptive and curious heart-mind. It can show in how we move, or speak, work we do or play we make, like this joyful Buddha snow person made by Junje, a recent visitor to DBZ. It faces in to the building through a double sliding glass door, so is a delightful and playful reminder for us as we bustle about with chores or head back to the zendo for another session of sitting meditation. Thanks, Junje!
Whatever you think of this experience I’m having, I wish you more smiles in your life, from outside and inside, coming from and reflecting back to you the pure and clear awareness which we all have, which we all are… from, and before, birth. I invite you to share your musings and experiences in the comment section, and before you do, here is a smile from me to you. Remember the Grateful Dead lyric, “Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile,” and have a wonder-full day!