The Icy Couch

by Charlotte Joko Beck

AS WE SIT, THE ENDLESS SPINNING in our heads reveals to us our strategy. If we label our thoughts long enough we’re going to recognize our strategy. It’s the strategy itself that generates the buzzing thoughts. Only one thing in our life is not caught by this strategy, and that’s the physical, organic life of the body.

The Icy CouchOf course, the body is taking punishment because it reflects our self-centeredness. The body has to obey the mind, so if the mind is saying that the world is a terrible place, the body says “Oh, I’m so depressed!” The minute the images appear—thinking, fantasizing, hoping—the body has to respond. It has a chronic response, and at times that response exacerbates into depression or illness.

The main teacher I’ve had all my life has been a book. It may be the best book on Zen ever written. However, it’s a translation from French, and the writing is unwieldy, with sentences that are whole paragraphs. After reading one of those sentences, you may ask yourself in puzzlement, “What did he say?” So it’s a difficult book; still, it’s the best explanation of the human problem that I’ve ever found. I studied it at one time for ten or fifteen years. I have a copy that looks like it’s been through the washing machine. The book is The Supreme Doctrine by Hubert Benoit, a French psychiatrist who was in a severe accident that left him almost completely helpless for years. All he could do was just lie there. The human problem was his all-consuming interest, so he used those years of recovery to thoroughly delve into it.

Benoit’s term for the emotional contraction arising from our efforts to protect ourselves is “spasm.” He calls the ceaseless chatter of our internal dialogue “the imaginary film.” The turning point for him comes when he realizes “that this spasm, which I have called abnormal, is on the road that leads to satori (enlightenment) . . . One can indeed say that what should be perceived, under the imaginary film, is a certain profound sensation of cramp, of a paralyzing grip, of immobilizing cold . . . and that it is on this hard couch, immobile and cold, that our attention should remain fixed; as though we tranquilly stretched out our body on a hard but friendly rock that exactly molded to our form.”

What Benoit is saying is that when we rest at peace with our pain, this repose is the “gateless gate.” And it’s the last place we want to be; it’s not pleasant, and our whole strategic drive is for pleasantness. No, we want somebody to comfort us, save us, give us peace. Our ceaseless thinking, planning, and plotting are always about this. Only when we stay with what is beneath the imaginary film and rest there, do we begin to have a clue. The way I usually explain it is: instead of remaining with our thoughts, we label them until they settle down a little and then we do our best to stay with that which really is, the nonduality that is the sensation of our life at this very moment that goes against everything we want, everything our culture teaches us. But it’s the only real solution, the only gate to peace.

As we settle into our sensation of pain, we find it so appalling, that we skitter off again. The minute we land in the sensation of discomfort, we spin back into the imaginary film. We simply don’t want to be in the reality of what we are. That’s human, neither good or bad, and it takes years of patient practice to begin to touch this reality more and more, becoming comfortable in resting there—until finally, as Benoit says, it’s just a hard and friendly rock that is molded to us, and where we can finally rest and be at peace.

Sometimes we can rest for a short time, but because we are so habituated, we soon go back into the same old mental stuff. And so we go through the process again and again. Over time, it’s that ceaseless process that brings us to peace. If it’s complete, it can be called satori, or enlightenment.

The imaginary film generates the spasm, and the spasm generates the imaginary film. It’s a ceaseless cycle, and it’s only broken when we have become willing to rest in our pain. The ability to do this means we have become somewhat disillusioned, no longer hoping that our thoughts and feelings will be a solution to anything. As long as we hold out hope that the promise will be kept, we’re not going to rest in the painful body sensations.

So there are two parts of practice. One is endless disappointment. Everything in our life that disappoints us is a kind of friend. And we’re all being disappointed in some way or other. If we’re not disappointed, we never wear out our desire to think and reestablish ourselves at the top of the heap of victory. Nobody wins in the end; nobody’s going to survive. But that’s still our drive, our system. It can only be worn out by years of sitting and by life; that’s why our practice and our life have to be the same thing.

We have the illusion that other people are going to make us happy, that they’re going to make our lives work. Until we wear out that illusion, there will be no real solution. Other people are for enjoyment, not for any other purpose. They are part of the wonder that life is; they’re not here to do something for us. Until this illusion begins to wear out, we’re not going to be content to stay with the spasm, the emotional contraction. We’ll spin right off and go right back into our thoughts: “Yes, but if I do this, things will be better…”

Life is a series of endless disappointments, and it’s wonderful because it doesn’t give us what we want. To go down this path takes courage, and many people in this lifetime will not do it. We’re all at different places on the path, which is fine. Only a very few who are enormously persistent and who take everything in life as an opportunity, and not as an insult, will finally understand. So if we spend all of our effort in trying to make our strategy work better, then we’re just spinning our wheels. Our misery goes on till the day we die.

Now, I’m not asking anyone to adopt this description as some sort of belief system. The only way we know the reality of such practice is by doing it. Eventually for a few people (sometimes intermittently but finally most of the time), there is what Christians call “the peace which passeth all understanding.”

It has often helped me in difficult times to think of that cold, immobile couch and instead of fighting and struggling, just to be willing to rest on it. Over time we find the couch is the only place that is peaceful, the source of clear action.

As a dharma talk, this all sounds forbidding. Yet the people who endlessly practice are the ones who are enjoying life. This is the gateless gate to joy. People who understand and have the courage to do this are the ones who eventually know what joy is. I’m not talking about endless happiness (there is no such thing), but joy.

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Charlotte Joko Beck began Zen practice in her 40s with Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi in Los Angeles, and later with Hakuun Yasutani and Soen Nakagawa. She received Dharma transmission from Taizan Maezumi Roshi in 1978, but broke with Maezumi over his actions and opened Zen Center San Diego in 1983, serving as its head teacher until July 2006.

From Nothing Special: Living Zen. Copyright © 1993 by Charlotte Joko Beck. Published by HarperSanFrancisco (Harper One), a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.