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Naming and Un-Naming Our Experiences


This week, we returned to the ‘our minds are a mess’ theme and looked unflinchingly at the three-ring-circus of our minds. Even as we resolve to sit in meditation and simply observe, we find ourselves almost instantly swept into our minds' dramas and ruminations. In Buddhism, we name this experience samsara. In English, we name it delusion. Naming helps. Naming is a three-step practice:

  1. Name what is - We practice mindfulness to become aware of what is happening, simply noticing our sensations, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions

  2. Allow what is - Once we see what’s happening, we allow it to be present. This takes courage and kindness. It isn’t easy.

  3. Name what is - We gently give our experience a name, such as ‘anger,’ ‘frustration,’ or ‘rumination.’ 

Naming in this way gives us clarity. We see how we habitually create similar experiences over and over, and when we see that what we name is our own creation, it’s easier to let it go. But naming isn’t enough. Naming our mind’s tangles doesn’t transform them. For this, we need to practice un-naming, or signlessness. The Buddha taught that when we create signs (another word for names) we also create delusion. Signs become simple shorthands for complex realities. When we engage only with the sign, we fail to engage with the underlying reality. One sign alive for us today is the sign of race. Long ago, humans noticed that there were differences among us; we varied in skin tone, eye shape, hair color, and more depending upon where our ancestors lived. We created such signs as ‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘asian.' These signs helped us distinguish one from another but they also became barriers for seeing that all humans are one.  Signlessness is a deep practice. It invites us to look past surface qualities and instead see interbeing. Thich Nhat Hanh poetically invites us to see the cloud in our tea, the compost in the rose, the mud in the lotus.  Practicing Zen means living in the balance of naming and un-naming. We lean into naming when necessary and into un-naming when necessary, not getting caught in either extreme. This allows us to see beyond self and other, beyond subject and object, beyond perceiver and perceived, yet also to act in this world of names. It is a path with nowhere to stand, yet we stand everywhere. A Dharma talk is just a sign. Don’t be satisfied with the names I use. Please touch the reality for yourself. Listen to Jon's Dharma Talk on our Podcast page.

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