Feb 8, 2024
Martin Goodson

“Is there someone else I can ask?”

Exercises in Mindfulness

Why can life be so upsetting? Cut through the mental noise in this simple exercise. 



Many years ago, at a Zen class, Ven. Myokyo-ni had just finished giving a talk on Zen daily life practice when a hand shot up from a member of the audience who had a question.

“I came here twenty years ago to hear you talk about daily life practice in Zen training. Today, I have heard you say exactly the same things as you said all that time ago. You haven’t come up with anything new in all that time?” 

The tone was half amazement at the consistency of the message after two decades as well as a reproach that perhaps Myokyo-ni really ‘ought’ to have something new to say! 

Ven. Myokyo-ni laughed, and replied that in truth the Zen practice does not change or progress since it has already been honed over centuries and that in all that time it has met all the different types of people and therefore the message is the one that worked and continues to work and is  not in need of ‘improvement’. 

To be honest, I don’t recall any more of this conversation but I would not be surprised if the audience member still felt somewhat dissatisfied with the answer. 

The truth is that when it is boiled down, the Zen training is a few simple principles endlessly re-cycled and re-told for the same audience. One might feel that it really should be possible to say something new about it but truly this is not what Zen students, even those who are long-standing, need. 

The problem is that those simple principles of Zen training are all too easily forgotten, even for those of us who have been doing this for years. One of Ven. Myokyo-ni’s favourite British poets was Rudyard Kipling. Kipling’s poem ‘If’ topped the ‘Britain’s favourite poem’ for many years but one of his lesser known poems was a favourite of Myokyo-ni’s and was called ‘The Gods of the Copybook Headings’ [1].  In particular, this verse: 

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man,

There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.

That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,

And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire.

Although this poem was making a critique of ideological thought in Kipling’s time, Myokyo-ni liked it because there is a wider truth in it about us humans. Why is it that ‘I’ repeat my mistakes despite knowledge of the problems that they will cause? As she would say, it is because ‘I’ want my own way and I am stubborn about it. Being a Zen teacher, people would come to her with their problems since they trusted her wisdom. One type of problem would be if someone had to make a ‘difficult’ decision about something. “Should I do X or Y?”, That type of thing. She would point out something obvious which made clear the direction to go. The person would sigh and say “I knew you would say that.” Myokyo-ni reflected that the questioner already knew the answer to their own question but that in fact this was not the answer they wanted to hear, so, in a kind of desperate hope, they asked her in case she just might give the answer they preferred. 

Why is it that the Buddha said that attachment to ‘I’ is the root of suffering? Because ‘I’ will always put what ‘I’ want above what the wisdom of the situation asks us to do. If need be, I will move heaven and earth and convince myself that what I want to be true is true and woe betide anyone saying anything different. 

A famous British cartoon called ‘Hagar the Horrible’ summed it up nicely! Hagar is a hairy, rotund Viking who went up the spiritual mountain and asked the hermit he found there, ‘What is the secret to Enlightenment?’ The hermit replied saying that it is the life of simplicity, poverty, chastity and abstinence, to which Hagar asks, ‘Is there anyone else up there I could ask?’

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,

They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;

They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;

So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things. 

Because ‘I’ like to think of myself as reasonable, I am convinced that all that is needed is ‘education’ or ‘intelligence’ to overcome such silliness. However, this is not true. Neither education nor intelligence can preserve us from such foibles because what lies at the root of the problem are the passions, which, having now flared up, blind the ‘eye that sees’ and the ‘ear that hears’. Why do the fires flare up? Because of the attachment to the delusion of ‘I’, a ‘me’ or a ‘mine’. There is no ‘must have’ or ‘shalt not’ without an ‘I’ to wield it. 

So how to wean the heart or consciousness away from this attachment to ‘I’? First, it is necessary to become aware of it. The tell-tale marker of such attachment is when the fires flare up. Hence the importance of the practice known as ‘working with the fires of the emotional household’. Any spiritual training that does not take this into account will not effect lasting change in the heart and its energies. 

A way to start is given by Ajahn Sumedho who trained in the Thai forest tradition. His advice was based on over 40 years of training with the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Now, the 2nd Noble Truth says that the cause of my upset and suffering is the attachment to ‘I’ in one way or another. So, whenever he became upset about something, the first question he turned on himself was, ‘What is it that I am attached to right now?” He used this question like the sword of the Bodhisattva of Wisdom which took the heat from the upset and turned it onto ‘me’. Using that heat and looking inward, he really looked! And he would not let up until the attachment came into view. Once something has been made conscious and some of that heat has been used up, then it becomes much simpler to release it. 

So, there we have it! A simple exercise to try out when next the fires flare.  A necessary exercise too because it is true; those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,

The Gods of the Copybook Headings [1] with terror and slaughter return!

[1] The "copybook headings" to which the title refers were proverbs or maxims, often drawn from sermons and scripture extolling virtue and wisdom, that were printed at the top of the pages of copybooks, special notebooks used by 19th-century British schoolchildren. The students had to copy the maxims repeatedly, by hand, down the page. The exercise was thought to serve simultaneously as a form of moral education and penmanship practice. (Wikipedia)

Dharma Centre

We have just launched our online Dharma Centre. All are welcome...

Join our Community!


The virtue of generosity, charity or giving. Your donations are welcomed.

Learn more