Filed in Zen (Chan)

The Great Heart Way

Gerry Shishin Wick, Roshi

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When I first started sitting, I had read the instruction “Hold your mind like a great iron wall against all incoming thoughts and feelings.” So that’s the way I sat for quite a few years, just holding everything out. After doing that practice for a long time, which was very difficult, I realized that I could actually just let everything come in and then transform it. Instead of the image of a great iron wall I visualized the ocean, which allows all the different streams to flow into it: thoughts, feelings, judgments, opinions, projections. I would let them become the “one taste.” It was the one taste of the ocean, the one taste of the dharma, the one taste of our true selves as we are without adding anything extra. In the practice of meditation, we use our nonjudgmental awareness to get in touch with our feelings and what’s going on in our bodies without adding our narratives or dramas to it. We just see what comes up.

For me, letting everything come in meant confronting the suppressed narratives of my past. By most standards I’ve had a successful life. I’ve always been an overachiever. When I went through high school I got straight As and was a valedictorian. I was athletic, a champion swimmer. I went to college and graduated with honors and then got a Ph.D. in physics, studied with Nobel Laureates and other marvelous teachers, and so on. But through all this I had a gnawing underlying feeling that I wasn’t good enough. No matter what, I wasn’t quite adequate. Something wasn’t complete. Even after I studied for 23 years with Maezumi Roshi and completed all my training with him, I still had this feeling of inadequacy.

Master Hakuin, the great 18th-century Japanese master, once said, “The most difficult part of our practice is dealing with our habit-ridden consciousness.” At first, I had no idea where this habit of not feeling good enough came from. But when I started to practice in the way that became the basis of what I now call the Great Heart Way, I would just stay with those feelings. It’s only a thought that I’m not adequate. What is the bodily feeling of this inadequacy? What’s actually going on inside me? It was a tightness, a sinking in the pit of my stomach. When I would meditate, I would stay present with that feeling rather than try to go to a place of calm and emptiness. I would just feel it, totally, and when I did this practice, images of my earlier feelings begin to arise. I had a very clear memory of being in religious school when I was a young boy, probably six or seven. I was raised in a Jewish family, and in my religious school they would tell these Bible stories and I would always find them very frightening. For example, the story of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets and getting angry at everyone for worshipping the golden calf disturbed me, or when I read about Noah and the Ark, I worried about all the people that were drowned. As I sat in meditation with these memories, all those stories came up along with all my feelings around them. Then one became very vivid; it was the story of Abraham and Isaac.

In this story, Abraham was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham took Isaac into the mountains and put him on a stone, ready to sacrifice him to prove his own devotion to God. At the last minute, God intervened and gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead. I vividly remember hearing that story and thinking to myself, Even though Isaac was a good boy, look what almost happened to him! What will happen to somebody like me? I remember telling myself, You’ d better be perfect, or you will be killed. That thought stayed in my unconscious mind, in my shadow memory, for my whole life. Through meditation I was able to access this and I was able to heal it.

Many people I’ve worked with have had similar experiences, events that happened earlier in their lives that they keep carrying with them. Yet if we learn to keep our mind quiet through meditation, to just stay present with our feelings, to connect with our heart, to let go of the story lines, and to directly feel all the unpleasant sensations associated with our emotional hurts, then the heart will open and we can approach each situation from a wider perspective. Meditation practice and the cultivation of heart-mind awareness give us the opportunity to respond to our emotions in a very nonviolent and compassionate way.

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Gerry Shishin Wick, Roshi is a Dharma Successor of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and serves as president and spiritual leader of the Great Mountain Zen Center in Lafayette, Colorado. He is a professor at Naropa University and the author of numerous books and articles on Buddhism, physics, and oceanography.

Photograph by Christian Mushenko, courtesy June Bateman Gallery

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This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.'s picture

This article, for me, is meaningful, beautiful. Thank you Gerry!

John Haspel's picture

It is unfortunate that Roshi received instruction to “Hold your mind like a great Iron wall against all incoming thoughts and feelings.” That he then endured this meditation technique for a few years would send many off their cushion. I assume this instruction was presented as “Buddhist” meditation and it shows how misguided “Buddhist” teachings can become when the original teachings of the Buddha are disregarded, and a deluded individuals techniques are substituted.

There is more to the Eightfold Path than letting go of traumatic memories and emotional hurts. A focus of “connecting to our heart” can be a dramatic way of reinforcing emotions and emotional attachments. I have not come across any instruction on cultivating heart-mind awareness and I think this could prove as confusing for many as the “iron wall” meditation.

The heart as a focus of practice is difficult to define. Certainly Roshi is not referring to the physical heart. So the “heart-center” is then a place one “feels’ emotions. Again, this seems like a way of reinforcing emotions rather than a dispassionate mindfulness of feelings arising and dissipating, as the teachings on mindfulness of feelings and thoughts develop.

Perhaps this is simply a difference in focus. Accessing long buried emotional hurts and analyzing their source and effects seems to be a natural aspect of meditation, but is often a distraction. Seeing all that arises in meditation as impermanent mental fabrications arising from ignorance avoids the need to overanalyze insubstantial aspects of an impermanent self, allowing for conditioned thinking to diminish.

As conditioned thinking diminishes, (emotional) reaction diminishes. As reaction diminishes, release occurs. This process of understanding clinging to objects and views (including views resulting in emotions) is developed within the framework of the Eightfold Path of which meditation is one factor.

If cultivating heart-mind awareness seems to develop unbinding from all views than it is helpful. If cultivating heart-mind awareness seems to develop clinging to mental fabrications such as emotions, or to make Dhamma practice a practice of re-establishing the self by a continual focus on impermanent experiences, its probably best to abandon this.

John Haspel

jackelope65's picture

Thank you. In high school, I recieved a 98 on my physics exam. I could not wait until "father" came home, but when I told him, he said "If I built a building 98% right, it would probably fall down!" It was this way in everything and, to say the least, your article resonates highly with my thoughts and feelings. Over the years of meditation, I have developed a deeper understanding of my dad and myself and all that I feel for him now is love and compassion.

levgram's picture

there are so many ways parents get it right, get it wrong, get it right by getting it wrong, get it wrong by getting it 'right'. how wonderful that your practice has allowed you to feel more at one with yourself and your father.

it's curious, but when I would bring a 98% home, which I did from time to time, my father (who never really went to school) would say, "It's nice that you left a few points for the other kids." He was a strong man, very tough, and he could be hard - but I learned the virtue of kindness from him as well. Manjusri's sword has two edges. Which edge we use is part of the wisdom inherent in its wielding. thanks for your comment.

edrowe0's picture

Beautifully put, and very relevant to my own experiences. Gassho.