The Zen of sitting

'Big Mind' offers participants glimpse of enlightenment in midst of hurried world

Published: Saturday, Aug. 27 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

For years, Genpo Roshi wondered how to get Americans to sit still. We are, after all, an impatient, restless bunch. If we're sitting still, we usually want to be holding the TV remote.

We are reluctant to sit still, our legs folded and our backs straight, our minds open to emptiness, and yet this sitting — zazen, Zen Buddhists call it — has always been considered a prerequisite for that ineffable experience known as enlightenment.

What the world needed, Roshi decided, was something less time-intensive and less rigorous than years of meditation, less caught up in robes and chants and riddles. What the world needed, he decided, was something involving folding chairs and conversation, something that included a break for lunch yet still helped people shift their identities away from the self — the small self that is self-ish, fearful, jealous, dissatisfied — toward something bigger.

In the past six years since he first developed the "Big Mind" process, Roshi has presented his one-day workshop to more than 20,000 people worldwide. He will offer his next Big Mind on Saturday, Sept. 3, at Salt Lake City's Kanzeon Zen Center, where he is abbot and Zen master.

The beauty of Big Mind, Roshi says, is that anybody, even without a background in Buddhism or any desire to become a Buddhist, can get a glimpse of what the Buddha himself experienced 2,500 years ago.

"Now let me speak to Seeking Mind," says Roshi. He is sitting in his office at the Zen Center, giving a visitor a mini-version of his Big Mind workshop.

"Who are you?"

"Seeking Mind," the visitor says.

"What do you want, as Seeking Mind?"

"Peace and contentment."

Yes, he says, but the very act of seeking means you will never be satisfied, so the very thing you want you can't get. However, if a person can shift her thinking, Roshi says, she can see that everything she wants and seeks is already here, now. She can see beyond her ego, past the part of her mind that separates the world into "me" and "others."

In the Big Mind workshop, Roshi asks his participants to identify as various aspects of the self, shifting from The Controller to The Skeptic to the Desiring Mind and so forth, and finally to Big Mind and Big Heart. By identifying with Big Mind and Big Heart, he says, "We can see that even though we're all unique, we're all basically one. And when I see that, I see intuitively that what I do affects you, and vice versa."

As Big Mind we are both the self and larger than the self, Roshi explains. As the self we are both separate and interconnected. It's like the ocean, says Roshi. The ocean is made up of separate waves but is something whole. Without insight, he says, "we only see the waves." To see the ocean simply requires a shift in thinking.

"It's like if you live in a house and you reside primarily in the living room, and you forget there are other rooms," says Salt Lake writer Melissa Bond, describing how we all tend to stay confined. What was shocking, she says about her experience with the Big Mind process, was how simple it was to enter the other, spacious part of her self.

"It really did feel, on a curiously profound level, that I had tapped into something," she says. Not nirvana, of course, but "small shifts that start to take place."

Enlightenment comes in degrees, says Roshi. "What I'm interested in now is having more people have an initial insight, to be more aware. With more time, they may have true enlightenment," may incorporate this expansiveness into their everyday life. It's like planting a garden, he says. When the soil is properly prepared, that's when something will grow.

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