If someone wants to control us for their own purposes, the only thing they really need to do is to use words in a skillful way, and we’re hooked. Our blind attachment to those words becomes a ring in our nose. The degree to which we are unaware of our attachment to words, concepts and thoughts is the degree to which we can be controlled. When we bring awareness to the nature of words and thoughts, we free ourselves within those words and thoughts.
Spiritual practice is about exposing that—exposing yourself to your mind. There are many different ways to become aware of these habits. That process of awareness, that process of exposition is the central tenet of practice. It’s not about understanding it or speaking about it in terms of academics or psychology or philosophy. There is more concealment within that. But within practice, the practice of zazen, creative process or liturgy, you bring things directly into light—bright light, slanted light, opaque light, whatever it takes so you can see it clearly.
At the turn of the century, William James performed many playful experiments with his psychology students in order to study human consciousness. He would subvert the students’ dependence on language so they could notice something about the stream of consciousness and the nature of their awareness. In his writings on consciousness and psychology he said: “If an unusual foreign word be introduced or if the grammar trips or if a term from an incongruous vocabulary suddenly appears, the sentence detonates, as it were. We receive a shock from the incongruity, and the drowsy assent is gone.”
At about the same time, Gertrude Stein took James’ study and created art out of it. It’s not an easy art to enter because it goes to the heart of our mind. In it, we can’t rely on language to be something dependable or coherent or conceivable. We like it that way. We are used to it being that way. But then Stein takes that away. In her manifesto, “Tender buttons,” she writes:
A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
I typed that on the computer, and it nearly froze. Yellow arrows and alerts of incomprehensibility popped up all over the text.
Stein wasn’t playing games. She was dedicated to revealing something to us. In her writing, she continues to take us to the edge of what the mind can actually handle as a sentence or a paragraph, but never allows us to lose track. In a way we’re hooked in that discomfort. That’s the genius of her writing. She wants to bring our attention to that which we don’t attend to. Her writing jars us out of the continuous “drowsy assent” of the deadness of language and its utility, where we have died to the reality of this world.
It frequently takes someone else to pull this off. It’s a process that’s so concealed to us that it is very difficult to actually stage a recovery for ourselves. That jolt will usually come from a poet or a teacher who uses words in a way that unglues something. That’s the heart of what is meant by live words in Zen. They are not words that will allow us to settle once again into a place of security. They are words that will pull something from underneath us so we can recognize our freedom. Just another bar of the cage removed. When words are truly effective, liberation can be complete.
In the context of Zen practice, the basis of that exposure is silence. Silence begins with ceasing to speak and in taking great care in bringing words to life. It begins with Manifest truth; do not lie. When silence is real, we can appreciate what it means to be silent within our own thoughts. Not around our thoughts but within thoughts, within words, within communication, within having to say something and manifesting this truth
Konrad Ryushin Maharaj, Osho is vice-abbot and Director of Operations of Zen Mountain Monastery. He received Denkai from Daido Roshi in 2005.