On Not Teaching Zen to the Zombie Hordes

by Todd Ellis 11/14/2019

The No-Mind of Climbing

For many years, starting in 1990, I studied Zen at various Zen Centers in Dallas and Salt Lake City, as well as studying Dzogchen at monasteries in Nepal. Dzogchen, which is from Tibet, is essentially the same as Zen, it’s just usually served up with a lot more dogma than the Japanese version which does itself have a good dose of it. I’ve always had an almost built-in gravitation toward all things Buddhist and that word, Buddhist, eventually came to mean for me anything that took me out of my self-centeredness or, more accurately, anything that lead me to an altered and expanded experience of my self. To have an altered experience of oneself is to be well on the way to letting go of self-absorption. Self-absorption relies on maintaining the illusion of the continuity of a solid self. If one sees clearly that one’s self can be experienced in an altered way, any altered way, really, that altered experience implicitly begins to erode the self’s supposed solidity.

The last thing I want to do is present some sort of superior sense of myself. Glenn Wallis on his blog Speculative Non-Buddhism writes often of the tendency in modern x-Buddhism to subtly and unconsciously use Buddhism to create this superior sense of supposedly hyper-aware self, all in the name of exposing the non-reality of the self; a sort of humility as pride twist. Kind of this “I’ll unconsciously delude myself about seeing the illusory nature of my self in order to live out an indirectly aggrandized self.” So, I’m aware of the general tendency. In my early years I can see that there was some of that present, but I was in my early 20’s at the time. Older, wiser people know those who are in their 20’s are almost perfectly complete, albeit unconsciously, narcissists. Jung’s work on The Stages of Life makes this idea pretty clear if you’re interested. So I probably had a little more than the usual amount of self-absorption in my 20’s, emerging from an inferiority complex I will admit in retrospect. But, who in late stage hypercapitalism doesn’t have one of those?

However, I can see now, decades later, that there was always more in it for me than that simple explanation suggests. My youthful narcissism mostly passed. I soon came to value and seek out obscurity and solitude. My love of Zen has never passed. From the first time I saw the word Zen in a book which I read in 1978, I was drawn to it. I was destined to follow wherever it led me. Zen is something that is always “in the palm of your hand” as the saying goes, and it’s always slightly out of reach. Like the self, it’s both there and not there.

I’m trying to just report facts; what I did, why I did it, what happened? One reason I am writing about it is that I am obviously a fairly eccentric person in modern America. No, really, I am; seriously. I know, everyone in the modern United States thinks they are shockingly unique. I’m not saying that. Everything I’ve done, I can say, others have surely done better. But, it’s obvious that I’m pretty far outside of the normal. Enough so that maybe I have something interesting or even worthwhile to say, even if it’s only because it’s a non-pattern from the dreaded normal.

I’ve been a bicycle commuter since 1983. I’ve also been voluntarily homeless countless times. I lived in my Volkswagon van on Guam in 1990. A couple of years after that experience I gave up cars and combined walking with using the tiny bus system when it was first starting out on that weird little island.

I lived on a 3-mile long coral atoll in Micronesia. I’ve wandered through India. I spent a summer at a Tibetan monastery in Nepal. I wandered all over Baja. I walked away from adjunct work at a university in Utah to rock climb and backcountry snowboard. I walked out of a 3-year relationship with a woman because she kept pressuring me to get a driver’s license but I didn’t see what getting authenticated by the man had to do with love.

I fast sometimes. I pick and eat a lot of wild herbs while I’m out hiking; burdock, alfalfa, etc.

I’m giving my “feeble credentials” as the crazy, alcoholic and extraordinary Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa called them.

I finished my bachelor’s degree in 1986 in Philosophy with a main interest in Buddhist Philosophy. But the real impact of Zen in my life came to me through rock climbing. Like rock climbing, Zen is a very simple practice to learn but can be excruciatingly difficult to actually accomplish with anything more than the simplest proficiency. Of course, it’s also true to say that “simple proficiency” is all that Zen is ever about anyway, but simple and easy are not always the same thing. Actually, Zen is really all I’ve ever been interested in, and not Zen as a doctrine or authoritarian hierarchy, but Zen as experienced cultivated awareness and deep appreciation of the pure experience of living in the context of eventual dying. I’ll come back to this.

As far as the word Zombie that I mention in the title above goes, I first started using that as a metaphor to describe modern culture back in 2003, way before it was cool. I remember it was back when I still believed that there was the remotest possibility that humans might actually stop global warming, and that they can evolve and make the world a better place. I remember suddenly noticing that zombies had started to reappear in pop cultural milieus like in the bargain book section of Barnes and Nobles, music videos and t-shirts. Now zombies are everywhere it seems, especially on Netflix and at Walmart; often in the form of products and shoppers.

I often had what could be called the experience of no-thought, as it’s known in Zen, while my rock climbing partner Brett and I ascended magnificent trad climbs, like Crescent Crack in Little Cottonwood Canyon Utah or sport climbs like Glass Ocean in Big Cottonwood Canyon. This Zen ideal, also known as No-mind, is nothing like the mindlessness of a zombie. The zombie’s mindlessness is like a mind short-circuited by conflicting desires. It is a one-track mind emerging from a cloud of vague and unnoticed intentions. Being in a simplistic mental rut is emphatically not the Zen mind of No-mind. Being suddenly shocked when someone comes up behind you and scares you into a hypervigilance beyond thought is more accurate. At that moment of fright there is a gap before thoughts arise. If you notice and value that gap you can expand it. That’s no-mind. Enso in Japanese.

Crescent Crack is a spectacular climb and a work of great natural beauty in Little Cottonwood Canyon outside of Salt Lake City. It’s more like a gargantuan piece of 4-dimensional granite sculpture that can kill you, but it won’t if you’re smart and humble enough and if you pay it meticulous attention enough. Even more so than viewing or making art, I find that rock climbing on art, especially over 100 feet high, beautifully and efficiently cuts through the incessant, neurotic chatter of the mind’s unconscious and nervous negotiation with reality. It silences the mind’s fixations. It brings it to a place of profound calm and quiet. One finds oneself utterly in an expanded present moment.

Most of my best ideas on cultural critique came to me while rock climbing or backcountry skiing, or even playing disc golf of late. So did a lot of Zen and painting ideas. Rock climbing, as well as backcountry skiing, throws one into extremely unique viewpoints as compared to the usual, uncritical, and embedded view of the world. It has nothing in common with the view point of Everyman or Everywoman, the ensconced Homer and Marge Simpsons who often live trance-like in front of their television sets, completely forfeited to the socialized mind, soft gazing into the long distance of cozy unreality and consumerist propaganda or jabbing away at click bait and trading convenience for surveillance online as if all too glad to trade their own brain matter for the false security of comfort and digitized connection.

From this aperture American culture seems to be a mind destruction machine, or as Henry Giroux has called it -a dis-imagination machine. There is the biggest of differences between the unconscious mindlessness of the digital and uncritical zombies and the pure awareness of the No-mind of Zen. The zombie never sees her or his context, the Zen master never fails to see it or at the very least, never stops trying to search it out and see it. No one is perfect. The mind of Zen is about becoming aware of all the little, almost invisible psychological impulses vibrating just below our conscious awareness that finally, when unseen, impel us into the vicious cycles of our personal and collective history.

The organic non-linearity of the living wild world in which one rock climbs makes the immediate ennui, fabricated hierarchies and unjust inequalities of American culture starkly apparent by contrast. I suppose bank robbery might do the same thing, but without the ethics it’s not Buddhism. The natural world is divine, merciful and intense. The artificial world is full of right angles, sharp grey lines, waiting, obeying, stress and boredom. Climbing to the top of a 2-pitch climb like Crescent Crack always launched Brett and I above the petty concerns of the world. Your only compromise is to rock wall and gravity. It is a very Zen-like experience in many ways, only one of which is the impulsion into the present moment that is necessitated by being balanced on slick granite 100’s of feet above a sloping and forested mountain below. One becomes extremely embedded and yet transcendent in such situations. One awakens from the trance of the world and finds oneself suspended on slim cords thousands of feet in the air, clipped into small camming devices which are lodged into irregular cracks in the cliff. Any narcissistic wounds or feelings of insufficiency and anxiety left over from the day of work in the modern industrial world quickly evaporate into frivolousness in the face of that mystical blending of the beauty, majesty and potential death in the mountains that always pulls at one with an earthward acceleration of thirty two feet per second squared. There is a ceaseless, occult and overzealous pull of the earth for ever-closer contact with the body at whatever cost. One is ever aware of the thought and possibility of falling. Or, at least I was; Brett seemed often able to let go of the fear. Sometimes one does find oneself falling while rock climbing, hopefully with a dynamic rope on.

I find that in these moments I become paradoxically both more incarnate and more transcendent, and therefore more alive. I’ve never been more alive than on the forth pitch of Pentapitch in Little Cottonwood Canyon when I could barely see the ground anymore, and yet could never not feel it there far below, pulling at me. Brett was on top rope up above me once, when I passed a spot that I thought resembled a garden from a Zen monastery. There was a little trickle of pure spring water coming out of a crack nearby and falling onto some sand that had eroded and washed over a flake of granite 400 or 500 feet up the tree-speckled wall. A ten inch bonsai of a pine tree grew from between the flake and the wall of granite. There was a mini-world in there, a microbiome! It was a fractal of the larger mountian world surrounding us. The surprise of its sudden and stunning beauty was like a jolt to my heart. I found a place to prop myself for a little while and gaze at it. I remember feeling absolute bliss upon seeing it for the first time. For a moment I knew not where I was, nor did I care. I was intensely alive and it was heart-breakingly beautiful.

I thought I was tripping. Without thinking I put my lips into the sparkling micro granite pool and sipped the bonsai granite water high up on the south side of that canyon. I was already in that empty mind clarity brought out by hours of high elevation rock climbing. The tiny garden seemed to come out at me like a hologram and shoot rays of bliss into my head. It was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen before, yet it was just a drink of wild water. It was an ablution, an abhisheka.

I can’t remember if I let go or not? Sometimes I think I did. Like this life now is the afterlife of that life, and although not quite a paradise, I’m far from complaining. I know something in me let go then, some doubt about the world and my life in it, and it was a form of flying. Maybe nature’s innocent beauty is the greatest teacher. Maybe it’s the only real teacher.

My mind is transformed over the course of any rock climb, especially the most beautiful and challenging ones. From the hours of focused attention, from the mindfulness, from being so fully present in one’s body, from facing fear directly, from being sometimes reasonably within the grasp of death and from, more than anything else, the beauty of its perches and vantage points in wild nature one is deeply transformed by traditional rock climbing. It brings one quickly to the state known as Wild Mind or as the Mind of Zen. Ironically one reaches a sort of mindlessness, but a different one than the robotic mindlessness of the uncritical sheeple, it is a positive mind of heightened and vibrant awareness, mindless because lacking in specific content, a surrender of obsession, not the mindlessness that produces only a cloud of confusion due to an overload of meaningless content; not the mindlessness of repeated 30-second bursts of superficial info and self-indulgence during a man-is-tracking-you-all-the-while Google surf session. One reaches not the mindlessness of laugh-track entertainment, but the mindlessness of pure primordial experience.

One experiences in this state an expansion of meaning and purpose in life.

The mindlessness or no-thought brought about by extended rock climbing is known by psychologists as “flow.” It is a mental state that has been well described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow; The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It was in that vibrant and blissful state of mind that Brett and I would return back to the life of the city, into the mundane world of 7/11’s and Loop 210 traffic and SUV’s. In that state of heightened awareness traffic is terrifying! It is much more frightening than the climb. During the climb one is aware that all safety decisions are in one’s own hands. In traffic life and death is mostly in the hands of unknown people around you, many of whom are obviously concerned only for themselves.

We usually stopped at the 7/11 at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon to buy beer. After 4 hours on Pentapitch the people there seemed to be stumbling about in slow motion, eyes glazed over, lifelessly shuffling, like something from Dante’s Inferno, of from Kafka. Men especially walked from the hips at best or knees at worst, everything above those points frozen solid, shoulders hunched together, moving slowly in a daze and yet somehow still frantic, bodies curved forward from riding for years in a car. From the standpoint of heightened awareness it appears that people wear their inner state of mind on their bodies, in how they both move and don’t move, in where they are stiff and shut off. It was always an intense experience for me. It was always a huge flood of pain and data, and overload. Probably the beer was helpful in being able to accept my re-entry back into that world of interchangeable and shuffling androids. Some unseen line imperceptibly re-connected to us as we quickly drank the beers out in back of the 7/11 and slowly, unconsciously assimilated back into the Borg mothership.

But before we were assimilated we were like sea otters to their sheep. We were bubbly and playful, languid, loose, and laughing; we seemed to be floating past their weary world, hoping to impart an awareness of the possibilities that awaited a brief 3 or 4 miles straight up the mountain, out in the national forest and inward into your own mind. We were drunk on excitement, spontaneity, creativity and bliss. We hoped to free a Borgian or two somehow. Inspire some brain matter back into a zombie. All you had to do was put on rock climbing shoes and click your heels.

Extreme sports throws the mind into spontaneity, bliss, heightened awareness and a presence that is filled with clarity. But it doesn’t have to be extreme if you pay attention. Rescuing a sad puppy from the animal shelter can do the same thing, but that’s a slightly different form of yoga, to mix metaphors. These are also common descriptions of what is called kensho in the Zen tradition. It is a sudden alteration of self-absorption and it is a clear cutting through of conventional reality. In the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition it is even referred to as “cutting through,” or trekchod. It is a state in which the energy in the mind becomes both relaxed and clear.

I frequently thought I should create some format for sharing these surprisingly mystical experiences. But my own requirements were that I had to do it without any validating authority who gave me permission, contrary to what is required in most Buddhist lineages. It took years, in our hieracrchical society, to be certain within myself that I don’t need authoritarian permissions to own and trust my own experience.

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Todd Ellis holds a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Bicultural/Bilingual Studies. He has studied and practiced for 15 years in the Dzogchen tradition and 20 years in the Zen tradition. He has studied at centers in India, Nepal, Guam, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Dallas and Denton, TX. He has been a bicycle commuter for over 30 years and he has done extensive wilderness retreats in Micronesia, Baja, and Utah.

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