My insight story

July 4, 2016

I often share this story in my workshops to illustrate the difference between “insight” (The Light Room) versus “conditioned thinking mind” (The Dark Room).

The setting for my story is at the monastery where I trained. It was early morning, and I was walking along the path from my hermitage to the main building. As I passed the clothesline area, I noticed a piece of trash by the side of the path.

Instantly, I had the impulse to pick up the trash.

But on the heels of that impulse, I heard in my head, “Nah, don’t bother. You didn’t leave that there. Let the inattentive monk who dropped it there come back for it and deal with it. Why are you always picking up after others? Besides, you’ve got to get to the building. You’re the breakfast cook. Don’t waste your time with this…”

So what did I do? The only “rational thing” I could: I listened to the voices, believed them and just kept walking.

As I rounded the fence to get to the building, my teacher passed me on the path. She immediately noticed the trash, called my attention to it and asked me if I’d seen it there.

This was a real rock-and-a-hard-place moment for me.

If I said no, I was basically confessing to be an inattentive, unconscious, bad Zen monk who was lost in his thoughts so much that he was oblivious to his surroundings — including that piece of trash!

If I said yes, then the next logical question from my teacher would be, “Well, why on earth would you not pick it up? Why would you ignore it and keep walking?” In essence, why didn’t I take responsibility for it?

Since I took a vow not to tell lies nor practice believing the fantasies of authority — and truthfully, because I had been nailed — I told her what happened:

“I was bamboozled by the voices in my head.”

So to recap how all of this works:

An insight dropped in to pick up the trash. Insights are quick, complete, and perfect. No manipulation, debating or lengthy dissertations.

Insights are the still small voices that remind you to grab your keys if you’re on your way to drive your car. They come up with brilliant ideas for your next book while you’re in the shower. If you allow them to, insights can generally guide your life perfectly.

Insights show up in a flash and are often short and illuminating.

On the other hand, the voices elbow themselves in and, in my story, they cajoled me out of doing what I knew was right. All sorts of excuses and “good reasons” surfaced. The quality and the structure of conditioned mind is exactly the opposite of insight. In fact, conditioned mind and the voices attempt to override insight at every turn by obscuring the insight and redirecting my attention to discursive thought.

The end result: I get to feel bad for knowing better and not doing better.

Can you see this in your own life? Because this is what the voices do when we make commitments and have insights. The voices:

  • Trick us out of keeping commitments or following through on insights
  • Sweep in to beat us up when something goes wrong as a result of believing them
  • High-five each other and proclaim, “Mission accomplished!” Not only did they bamboozle us out of doing what we knew to do but they then blamed us for the whole thing

Luckily the monastery was a safe place where I had the opportunity to explore how this all worked. This is exactly what our training entailed. My teacher and all the other monks were on my team conspiring to help me get it.

It was up to me to see how insights appeared and to see how the voices worked to sabotage me from following those insights.

The ultimate goal was to catch the voices in action and choose something else. The ideal would be to expose them earlier until I could no longer be fooled. Then to live from insights and compassionate self-mentoring full-time.

This is a chapter from my book, The Zen Life: Spiritual Training for Modern Times.

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