Dharma Talk

September 16, 2020

Wild Body, Wild Mind

Hosho Peter Coyote


Hello everyone. Good, good, good. Thank you, Lee. First order of business, [sound check] always.

The Farm, Suzanne! Hi Cheri, how’s Tony today? I’m on early. So, I’m just going to stall until 9:50 until people come on. I forget, can someone remind me what time do we usually start? I couldn’t remember if it was 9:55 or 9:45 PST, so I came on early.

Hi Tom. Rand, that’s an unusual name. (Do you know I was once defended when young and arrested for being too close to 8 kilos of marijuana by an attorney named Ransom Crook from Harlingen, Texas – no, probably from Brownsville?) It’s the first time I’ve seen the name since. Welcome.

Someone suggested this morning that I review zazen, which I am going to do. I’m going to review basic meditation, so apologies to those of you who know this already. Hi Mai.

So, the first thing to do is get comfortable. By comfortable I mean solid. If you are going to sit on the ground with your legs crossed. You want probably 4 or 5 inches of pillow beneath your butt so you can let the curve of your back relax and let the back be straight. If I’m in a hotel, I may have to use 4 of those designer pillows they clutter up the room with, or a really firm couch pillow.

If you are going to sit in a chair, sit forward, don’t lean back against the back of the chair. Get something under your feet so there’s not a lot of pressure on the bottom of your thighs, which can put your legs to sleep as you sit.

Imagine that there’s a little string pulling your head up. Not tense but just up. Tuck your chin not up but backwards just enough to feel the back of your neck lengthen. All of these are just little subtle adjustments. Let your stomach pouch out.

I’m going to show you the mudra again. If you are right-handed, put your left hand on top of your right hand. Put the second knuckle of your third finger into the corresponding space on your other hand. So, you are using the side you don’t usually use, the passive side, to suppress the active. And you make a nice, soft circle with your thumbs. Thumbs touching lightly, so I could pull a dollar bill through them. I’m left-handed so I put my right hand on top of my left.

This is your attention gauge. If this mudra collapses, if the thumbs come apart, it’s a reminder that your attention has wandered. And if your posture slumps and you catch yourself, it’s a reminder that your attention has wandered.

I urge people to sit with their eyes open. We are not trying to disappear into our minds. We are trying to be in the world. So, sort of eyes down at 45 degrees. Just let them go out of focus. If you close your eyes, there’s a big tendency to dream or to get kidnapped by little hallucinations and strange stuff.

So, it’s 9:50. Let’s sit for 15 minutes or so, and then we’ll talk. You’ll hear the chimes in 15 seconds.

[3 bells]

[3 bells] [bow]

Good morning. I thought my head was on crooked until I realized my camera was on crooked. It’s a great relief.

I posted a quote online. I don’t know if you all read it. I’m going to begin today by reading it. And at first it may not be so apparent what this quote has to do with meditating and zazen, but I promise you I’ll loop around. It comes from an extraordinary book. It’s called The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder. It’s a book I’ve read many times, and every time I pick it up, I’m learning something else from it.

It’s an essay called “The Etiquette of Freedom”. And as freedom is our national myth; freedom is what we seek in enlightenment; the image of freedom is how we chafe against restrictions, in Gary’s universe, or the universe that we are actually in, that Gary is actually describing, it has quite a specific referent.

I want to read you the quote that I posted.

Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off as precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting—all universal responses of this mammal body. They can be seen through the class.

Meaning, these are behaviors that you can see in any mammal.

The body does not require the intercession of some conscious intellect to it breathe, to keep the heart beating. It is to a great extent self-regulating; it is a life of its own. Sensation and perception do not exactly come from outside, and the unremitting thought and image flow are not exactly outside. The world is our consciousness, and it surrounds us. There are more things in mind, in the imagination than “you” can keep track of—thoughts, memories, images, angers, delights, rise unbidden. The depths of mind, the unconscious are our inner wilderness areas…The conscious agenda-planning ego occupies a very tiny territory, a little cubicle somewhere near the gate, keeping track of some of what goes in and out (and sometimes making expansionistic plots), and the rest takes care of itself. The body is, so to speak, in the mind. They are both wild.

I’m going to go on just a little bit.

Language is a mind/body system that coevolved with our needs and nerves.

Meaning, we didn’t invent it.

Like imagination and the body, language arises unbidden. It is of a complexity that eludes our rational intellectual capacities. All attempts at scientific description, of natural languages, have fallen short of completeness.

Without conscious device, we constantly reach into the vast word-hoards in the depths of the wild unconscious. We cannot as individuals or even as a species take for this power. It came from someplace else. From the way clouds divide and mingle, and the arms of energy that coil first back and then forward. From the way the many flowerets of a blossom divide and redivide. From the gleaming calligraphy of the ancient woods under present riverbeds of the Yukon River, streaming out of the Yukon flats. From the wind in the pine needles, from the chuckles of grouse in the ceanothus bushes.

So, what I see what is worth paying attention … well, it is all worth paying attention to, but the idea that we are intimately connected and are extrusions of the essential wildness of the universe, may strike some people as unsettling. We take great pride as humans in our accomplishments and our differences from the animals. But we are animals. And we are animals with our own particular capacities and quirks and talents and failings. Most animals are faster than we are. Some can fly. Many can outrun us. Many can eat us. There’s a saying, “your ass is somebody’s meal”, which Gary says is a brusque way of saying that we are interdependent.

But it is worth recognizing that … Well, first of all, what “wild” really means is self-regulating. The difference between wild and domesticated is that wild is self-regulating. Redwood trees grow for redwood trees, plants grow up for plants, skinks exist for skinks, deer exist for deer. We all share the same universe, and it’s pretty non-hierarchical, except in our own minds.

I had a friend a long time ago named Tim Treadwell who got fascinated with bears. He used to go up to Alaska and he had a little island where he would go, and he would commune with the bears. He had a kind of romantic notion of nature and the bears, which is ultimately disrespectful.

He used to send me pictures of huge grizzly bears laying asleep across his legs. I would write him and say, “Tim, this is not a good idea. These are not your friends. These are independent creatures. They have their own organizing principals and you need to respect the boundaries.”

Tim and his girlfriend were both eaten by a rogue bear, and a camera was left on, and the soundtrack was left on. It was recorded and a film, Grizzly Man, was made about him and his life. I mention that to introduce the idea of respect.

Both self-respect – taking yourself with all the due respect that is being made by that which made butterflies and hummingbirds and dolphins, and a self-regulating organism whose mind is wild, and who is plugged by many umbilical cords to the entire universe. If there’s not an umbilical cord between us and the sun – no us. If there’s not between us and water – no us.

The notion that we are moving with and through and co-existing as wild creatures I find relaxing. I find it relieves me of a lot of responsibility. I don’t have to take so much time and attention and I can just kind of be here in this planet where I was put and evolved as part of a long chain of humans that evolved here.

On the news this morning, in a discussion of the fires, my old boss, Governor Jerry Brown came on with really intense clarity. And in speaking of the fires, he was pointing out that this is unlike anything he has seen in his lifetime and the political failings that are evident. He said, “I’ve been a politician for 50 years. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never seen such a dereliction of duty.” And he points out, that as a consequence, on top of having to mitigate carbon by limiting the burning of fossil fuels, we are going to have to spend billions and billions of dollars managing our forests, hiring more fire personnel, building more helicopters, getting more fire trucks, prohibiting people from building wherever they want.

This is a consequence of a long drought and global warming, climate change. The trees are tinder dry; the underbrush is tinder dry. The heat lightning in August was something new. 650 fires were set by these heat strikes.

This is the world we are in. When I say that we don’t have to take responsibility for it, I don’t mean that we can do nothing. We are humans and we do have these capacities. We caused these problems. And we caused these problems in some degree in not wanting to settle and accept the wild and accept our place in it. We could say it is greed. They say that one of the first things that happened on the frontier is that the women received an early version of Sears catalogues, and they saw all the goods that were in the distant cities, and the men saw the tools in the distant cities. And they wanted them. They had to turn the prairies into money. 

Wes and Dana Jackson run the Land Institute and who stated that the great breech of nature in Western society was the Mould board plow. A plow that struck 10 inches deep, turning over the wild grass systems of the prairie.

I want to read another little quote about the frontier by Gary because we have enough memory of the frontier that this will remind us of a boundary that we fail to take advantage of.

It is often said that the frontier gave a special turn to American history. A frontier is a burning edge, a frazzle, a strange market zone between two utterly different worlds. It’s a strip where there are pelts and tongues and tits for the taking. There is an almost invisible line that a person from the invading culture could cross out of history and into the perpetual present. A way of life attuned to the slower and steadier processes of nature.

The possibility of passage into that myth-time world had been all but forgotten in Europe. Its rediscovery, the unsettling vision of a natural self has haunted the Euro-American people as they continually cleared and roaded the many corners of the North American continent.

Wilderness is now for much of North America, places that are set aside on public lands: Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management. These are the shrines saved from lands that was once known and lived on by original people. The little bits left, as they were. The last little places where intrinsic nature totally whales, blooms, nests, glints away.

They make up only 2% of the land of the United States. When settlers came here, they really had a choice they could have made, if they hadn’t carried the narratives and the visions and the history of Europe with them. People could have looked around and said, “Oh. So, this is the way people live here.”

There’s a famous story about Greenland. When the Norwegians settled Greenland, they brought their cows with them, and they built stone houses, and they replicated the culture of the European mainland, and they starved to death, to the last person. And, literally on the other slope of the hill, Inuit people, Eskimo people - not a term kindly received, yeah?[were fat and sassy, living off duck and fish, floating their kayaks, hunting with spears and bows and arrows. And completely harmonized with the environment in the way they lived.

This is not to suggest that … well it is to state, blankly, that we took a wrong turn. The wrong turn went a lot farther back. The wrong turn began somewhere in the tradition with Descartes and Newton. City guys who were afraid of chaos, hated disorder. They came up with mechanistic models of the universe that would amplify them, and we have been living there ever since. The reason why people can cut down 450-year-old redwood trees with impunity, is because the spirits were banished from them centuries and centuries before. The trees were just mechanistic parts of a universe where parts were swapped like auto wreckers.

We are in the midst of the consequences of whim. I won’t blame it on Christianity or Judaism, but Judaism was a herder culture. They were farmers. In Genesis [in the Bible], humans are given dominion over the universe. That dominion has been turned into a one-way power.

Instead of thinking of dominion as when you have power over something, you have responsibility for it, you have to take care of it, we’ve turned it into “We can do whatever the hell we want with it.” And we are living in that world. We are living in the consequences of that world, where humanity  sees itself separate from nature, separate from natural forces. It’s all there for the taking.

Very, very, very different than indigenous minds where (?)  is everywhere. And we tend to romanticize Native American cultures. We like the style. In Santa Fe where millionaires are wearing old squash blossoms that they bought, that the Indians had to pawn to buy wool and dyes to make blankets.

They signal an attachment to nature, and even environmentalism is an expressed dualism. “I’m here. There’s the environment. The environment has to be in good shape or I’m not in good shape.” Well, the environment is not in good shape, and we’re not in good shape. Tension is rampant. Anxiety is rampant. Thousands of people are being displaced. Homes are burned. Lifetimes are turned upside down. This is not a personal event.

And yet, very often, our pursuit of spiritual depth can be regarded as a personal event. I certainly did. When I started, I had learned about zen and read about enlightenment. I thought, “That’s what I want. I’m not going to just be a fat, mouthy kid, I’m going to be an enlightened guy. I’m going to know the answer – to everything!” I set about reading about zen and just anesthetizing my schoolmates with mindless “zen” quotes and koans I pretended to understand.

There’s a great little quote from Gary about native people.

People of wilderness cultures rarely seek out adventures. If they deliberately risk themselves, it is for spiritual, not economic reasons. Ultimately, all such journeys are done for the sake of the whole, not as some private quest.

A medicine man [or woman] who mediates between people and nature is doing this to keep a balance. It may look like he [or she] is curing an individual, but he’s actually curing, or she’s actually curing an imbalance between the human community and the natural community.

Sometimes when we seek personal relief for personal suffering, we are actually just solidifying the way in which we feel separate and isolated. This is why Buddha placed such great emphasis on the sangha. The group of people who study together. The group of people who correct one another.

People like myself really enjoy the sequester, [the shelter in place]. Neither my sister nor I was somehow dealt the “lonely gene”. I love the quiet. I love being left alone. I love the time to meditate, to walk around, daydream, do what I have to do, garden. But there are many, many people who can’t stand to be alone. The bars are full of them. Drug addiction, alcohol addiction, gambling addiction, sexual addiction – all futile attempts to stop the flow of thoughts that people can’t live with, for one reason or another. Suppose we consider those thoughts as not just personal?

They have personal content, that’s to be sure. But everybody understands anxiety. But because of our separate histories, everybody’s anxiety is slightly different. If we could understand that we’re all “in this”, we are all human beings walking around, sleeping, eating, pooping, fornicating, raising children. We’re animals.

It would be hard for one to lord it above the other. In the big scheme of things, what’s a lot of money mean? It means a lot of the indulgences and pleasures and privileges that an urban environment can give you. But it certainly doesn’t guarantee happiness. It certainly doesn’t guarantee contentment. It certainly doesn’t guarantee anything for the benefit of others.

In this supposedly Christian nation, I’m struck often by how for how little regard there is for Jesus’s actual words about how difficult it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Something about a camel and an eye of a needle. But, when you think about it, people who amass huge fortunes for themselves, more than they need, are taking it from others. We can say that they are being compensated for a gift or a talent or whatever, but that imbalance is never corrected by the gift. It never is.

When those personal fortunes are turned into trust funds, on which they don’t pay taxes, and those monies are under their direct control, those monies are not for the whole. Those monies are to solve personal predilections. I think it is compassionate to send water filters to Africa. To save little black children. The problem with it is that there are no structures or rules against the corporations that are polluting the water.

Neither is there anything stopping the man who is giving the money away from investing in those corporations. If that person paid their taxes, and paid their share of living in a whole of the country, we might have better schools, we might have daycare, we might have things that would save a lot of black lives right here. A lot of poor lives right here.

The reason I mention it is not to say that we should feel guilty, but that by mining these connections, by mining the ways in which we are and we participate with wildness, we have opportunities to make tiny restitutions.

We have opportunities to learn from the way plants spring up after a forest fire. These trees have lived through forest fires before. When Mount St. Helens blew up and the trees were scattered like toothpicks, it wasn’t long before plants were growing up them and wildlife was coming back. It is hard to watch, it is tough to witness the suffering that is going with it. But in terms of a threat to nature, I don’t think so.

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” is driving everything. [https://poets.org/poem/force-through-green-fuse-drives-flower] It is driving us. It is driving the clouds. It is driving the flowers that grow up amidst the ghosts of the trees.

When we sit zazen, one thing we can do is not think about our personal enlightenment. Because the idea of our personal enlightenment is like the idea of a personal self that we can wash and wax, groom, clip, groom into some kind of perfect thing. But this is only an expression of a kind of self-centered thinking that defeats us. “I sit up on my cushion. I’m meditating. I’m here. I’m imagining enlightenment over there. Hamm. How am I going to get them together?”

You’re not. You are thinking of them as two different things. You’ve named them. We’ve named them. We have reified them.

Something else has to happen. We have to drop below our own narratives, our own descriptions of the universe. When we do that, we are in the wild country. We never know what is going to come across the spinal telephone.

One of the reasons that we sit and practice this posture and these mudras is to make our body strong enough to withstand the shocks that sometimes arise, as we see ourselves clearly, as we see the world clearly, as we remember things we have done to others, as we review old hurts. We don’t flinch. We sit with what is.

For right now, “what is” is a pandemic, and right now “what is” is these disastrous fires, and also “what is” is a political system where for at least the last years, people have been concentrating on personal wealth. People have been describing government as the enemy. What did Ronald Reagan say? “The nine mos terrifying words in the English language are ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

But we really see folly of that, and when he fired 11,000 air traffic controllers, the entire corporate sector followed him into a war on unions. They weakened the National Labor Relations Board, they set up Right to Work states, and they destroyed the wealth-producing mechanism of the middle class.

The long-term result of that is the President we have. When the Democrats followed suit and realized that they could go after the same big money that the Republicans go after, they were more generous in social policy. You could put it anywhere, you could do it with anyone. They could share more of what they stole, but the end result was blue collar people, rural people, teachers, day care workers, orderlies in the hospitals – all these people were kind of left behind.

The pursuit of single-minded success has produced the world we are in -- a political system organized around money, as opposed to organized around wisdom.

I suggest that one of the reasons that we sit and clarify ourselves and drop follies away, and abandon our narratives like snake skins, is that we all know at some level that the world needs people who are clear headed, and are able to keep their heads when everything is going wacky them.

We’re needed, and we are setting ourselves up to be those people.

Because, without people who are willing to serve, and without a system that rewards service, we’re sunk.

I cannot get over the fact that the most obvious Gordian knot, snarling and tangling up our system, our political system is the fact that it is organized around money, and no one talks about it. No one comes up with a plan. They say, “Oh, we have to get money out of politics”, but that is like a New Year’s resolution. What is the plan? What do we do?

The Supreme Court has said that the giving of money is “free speech”. Really?

That means that if you have more money than I do, you have more speech than I do. That doesn’t seem like a reasonable way to build a culture.

The Supreme Court has said that corporations are “people”, and they have all the rights and protections of the Bill of Rights. So, we can’t examine corporate misdeeds because they claim 5th amendment rights [against self-incrimination]. They claim their papers are free speech and protected.

When lobbyists can give money to legislators and they give most of the money: 60-65% of both parties’ campaigns are organized by big money. Hedge funds. Real estate. Insurance. Private wealth. That’s who puts the legislators in office. And when they get in office, no matter what they say to us, focus groups – they find the buzz words to get us to vote for them – but once they are in office, simple logic insists that they begin paying back their donors. Which they do through tax breaks and legislation which is invisible to us.

Part of the anger and the confusion of people around us is that they don’t know how things got so screwed up. Because the man or woman who shakes their hand and remembers their names and looks at pictures of their kids and takes pictures with them, is in Washington DC doing what they have to do to survive.

Which is to ensure that they have a constant stream of money from the major donors. And that’s not “we” money. That’s “me” money.

When we meditate, we don’t just want to be replicating “me” thinking, because we can see where “me” thinking gets us. “Me” thinking gets us to the United States of America in 2021. Gets us to Western European culture. Corporate dominance. The rise of anti-immigrant feelings. Because everywhere where the corporate culture is dominant, they take over the parliaments, they take over the democratic process. The people end up being short-sheeted, and they respond reflexively, not always so intelligently. We see populism, and we see anti-immigrant stuff coming.

So, what can we do? Well, we can remind ourselves every day that we are “we” people. That when we sit, we sit for the entire world.

When you sit, the entire of your mind, which not different from the rest of the universe, is calm and tranquil. So, we say that the whole world sits. For the people who do that, there’s a cumulative effect of having more and more clear-eyed, calm people who are willing to serve others.

That’s actually the example of the Buddha’s vows.

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them. That means I’m going to model behavior that you can replicate, so that that vow can go on through time.

I don’t want to talk you to death here.

It seems to me that there are two models of work right now. Right now, in the Amazon, people I know intimately are struggling to protect indigenous people from being overrun by goldminers and cattle ranchers and loggers. “Cowboys and Indians” is still going on. The Indians are still being slaughtered.

It’s not that the Indians are some cultural “pet”. It’s that the Indians are us. The Indians are our wild nature. The Indians are our encyclopedia of how wild nature actually works. What the plants are good for. What the berries are good for. What the habits of the animals are. They are people who live on natural systems. They are not regulated. They are not plowed. They are not planted in rows. They are not fertilized with nitrogen fertilizers that then poison the water and the wild birds. They take their chances. They are plucky. They are gutsy. They don’t snivel. They live a slower, regulated, less materially plush, but certainly far freer life than any of us do, with our responsibilities of debts and mortgages and jobs and tuition and this and that. We need to know what they know.

We don’t have to abandon civilization, but we have to make it permeable. And we have to make our minds and our prejudices permeable to wilderness. I think we do that by understanding that we are essentially wild.

The mind is an ungovernable wilderness. Language is an ungovernable wildness. Our bodies are wild. There are processes going on, there are things living in us that we have no control over. Rather than fighting them, to actually honor them and study them and intuit a way of interacting with them.

The rabbit doesn’t blame the hawk eating it. They each have a role to play. But the hawk doesn’t take more than it needs.

There’s a Haida expression about life being “the edge of a sharp blade”. Meaning that its lessons can be dramatic. Its lessons can be sudden. Its lessons can be terminal. But it is that blade that has each wild thing being the best iteration of itself. Each wild person being the best iteration of themselves. Because their system doesn’t support indulgences. Ours does. And all of us are subject to it. It’s impossible not to be.

I’m going to close with this last quote. There’s something to be said for getting rid of stuff. Okay, here’s the last thing I’m going to read.

Great insights have come to some people only after they had reached the point where they had nothing left. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca became unaccountably deepened after losing his way and spending several winter nights completely naked in a pit in a Texas desert under a north wind.

He was travelling with Narvaez, one of the early Spanish explorers who got shipwrecked in Florida. He walked from Florida to Texas to Mexico and got back to Spain.

He truly had reached the point where he had nothing. After that, he found himself able to heal sick native whom he met on his way westward. His fame spread ahead of him. Once he made his way back to Mexico and was once again a civilized Spaniard, he found that he had lost his power of healing. Not just the ability to heal, but the will to heal, which is the will to be whole. For, as he said, there were “real” doctors in the city, and he began to doubt his powers.

To resolve the dichotomy of the civilized world and the wild, we must resolve to be whole.

[Nods] I’ll repeat it.

To resolve the dichotomy of the civilized world and the wild, we must resolve to be whole.

People of wilderness cultures rarely seek out adventures. If they deliberately risk themselves, it’s for spiritual rather than economic reasons. Ultimately, all such journeys are done for the sake of the whole. Not some private quest.

Food for thought.

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace. [3 times]

I just want to reiterate if you have questions, you can email me at sfzencoyote@gmail.com . I’ll talk about anything about Buddhism, but please don’t send me books and videos. Thank you very much. I’ll see everybody next week, I hope. [Bow] Bye-bye.