ZEN-Sparring with Peter Ralston

Portrait of world champion Peter RalstonSparring is a form of training common to many martial arts. Although the precise form varies, it is essentially relatively ‘free-form‘ fighting…” Wikipedia.

World champion Peter Ralston and author of the books Cheng Hsin, Zen Body-Being and The Book of Not Knowing agreed to do some ‘free-form thinking’ with me. I did sent him some questions and he was so friendly to give us some kind of training with his detailed answers. Thank you, Peter!

Let’s do a warm-up:

5. Feelings: Anything we experience only has the value we put into it. If you feel hurt, who did *really* hurt you?

You have to experience not just that you are creating your emotions, but feel yourself in the act of creating the emotions.

6. Work: It seems we struggle day in, day out. What is the highest level of fighting?

One of the most important dynamics I learned while attempting to master fighting is that whenever I had trouble with an opponent — when the relationship was characterized as a struggle for me — I always found that I was mentally resisting the opponent being exactly the way that he was.

8. Love: Love is being the first one to give. Why are we afraid to love?

When you are afraid to love, or afraid of anything else for that matter, you imagine future negative consequences. If you didn’t imagine something bad might happen, then you would love freely, wouldn’t you?

Are you ready for the full, detailed training?

1. Being born: Are you aware, that you are mostly a nature recycled being?
2. Growing up: We grow up to an adult from some tiny cells. Where does the food come from, where does it go to?
3. School: Knowledge is based on past events. How do you learn?
4. Family: If we rewind evolution, say 1 billion years. Are we only *one* family?

Chris, there are too many assumptions behind these questions. I’m skipping the first few because they are not useful questions — they seem to ask for validation of certain views rather than wonder about something relevant to the Book of Not Knowing. Number 3 has merit, but my response would be much too long, so I will address questions 5-12 and see if I can contribute something.

5. Feelings: Anything we experience only has the value we put into it. If you feel hurt, who did *really* hurt you?
You’re implying that we create our own emotions. This may be true, but that does us no good when it is merely a belief that we ascribe to. You have to experience not just that you are creating your emotions, but feel yourself in the act of creating the emotions. It needs to be experientially clear that the emotions are something that you’re doing. You need to recognize yourself doing it or you will continue to attribute the emotion to some other source.

Usually this source is seen as external to you, since it is often the interaction with some person or event (even if it’s only within your own mind) that stimulates the apparent “need” to have the emotion. The root purpose of any emotional reaction is to motivate the attitudes and behaviors that your mind assesses best serve your self. Since your emotional reactions are mostly automatic and unconscious, it makes them appear to be generated by external events, which they actually are not. The creation of these feelings primarily occurs in a domain of mind that is “out of sight,” so none of this babble is worth much unless you experience it for yourself. At most, it gives you a place to look.

6. Work: It seems we struggle day in, day out. What is the highest level of fighting?
Strange you equate daily life struggle with fighting. There is a lot of struggle in daily life, yet much of it is just considered “life” activity, and the struggle largely remains unacknowledged. In fighting, however, the competitive nature is up front and fully acknowledged. This makes it a different affair. But if you are asking for advice on how to deal with life struggles using lessons learned from mastering fighting, then I can draw some parallels.

It is useful to grasp that, contrary to common opinion, “mastering” something doesn’t means one can do whatever they want whenever they want. Quite the opposite. To master an art or activity means one is subject to the principles that determine effectiveness. In a context such as fighting, the demand to adhere to what works is occurring in every moment, and is far more encompassing than most people realize. So it turns out that in order to master fighting, one must be more of a “slave” to these principles and demands, and therefore have no choice in the matter. It is not about being an “individual” and getting your way. It is about learning to surrender to and be directed by the principles that create mastery. I think there is an interesting parallel here to life struggles.

One of the most important dynamics I learned while attempting to master fighting is that whenever I had trouble with an opponent — when the relationship was characterized as a struggle for me — I always found that I was mentally resisting the opponent being exactly the way that he was. There was something I didn’t want to be there, some way that he behaved or attitude he had. If he offended me in some way, or bothered me, or rubbed me the wrong way, this would lead me to resist, ignore, or at least not fully acknowledge that aspect of him. Such mental resistance resulted in not relating to him fully the way that he was. As such I was made less effective and would struggle with the interaction. Once I’d realize this was going on and would shift my mental relationship to include whatever I had been resisting before, the relationship always took a turn for the better. I was able to manage and master the activities the opponent presented because I was fully acknowledging and relating to the whole of what was there, by letting it be exactly as it was.

7. Life: Time seems to fly by. Why?
Why not?

It really depends on how we hold time, and what time actually is — which we don’t know. If time seems to fly by in life it is likely that we have some assumptions about what life is and how it’s supposed to go.

We spend our energies getting done what we think is necessary or important within our experience at any given moment. We also have an idea of “destiny,” that something is supposed to turn out for us to make life meaningful. As we get older we find that we are still attending to what seems necessary and important, and that life has just turned out as it has — which is most likely not how we envisioned it. We still have no more sense of life’s meaning or our destiny than we did earlier. At this point, we might well say, life seemed to fly by — how did I get here?

Saying time flies by is referring to an assessment, and this assessment is obviously made as a memory. If time seems to go quickly, aren’t we saying that somehow we passed through a certain amount of experience and assumed that this would take longer, or that we would have experienced more within a certain time frame? I can imagine that this could be because we weren’t paying attention to what was happening, or that we were so engrossed in what we were doing we didn’t pay any attention to the linear progression of changes that map out time passage. Then we end up at some point saying that time just flew by.

8. Love: Love is being the first one to give. Why are we afraid to love?
You’re assuming we are afraid to love; you are also defining love as being the first one to give. Love is a very confused and ill-defined emotion in our cultures. So let’s start there. We confuse love with need, desire, relief, and with many of the strong positive feelings that arise with the “promise” of being emotionally served. These are not love. When someone is afraid to love, it’s likely that what they’re afraid of can be traced to one of these emotional dynamics.

When you are afraid to love, or afraid of anything else for that matter, you imagine future negative consequences. If you didn’t imagine something bad might happen, then you would love freely, wouldn’t you? We’ll love as long as it seems like a beneficial thing to do. For most of us love appears as a positive experience, something that provides a state of mind less restricted to our individual self concerns and is positively expanded to include a bigger world. We are still affected by the love, as we are by all other life experiences, but it is far less dreary and mundane than most of our life experiences and so we embrace it. Unless of course we fear some negative result in doing so. This arises because we believe that loving somehow makes us vulnerable (having opened to include more than our individual self-concerns) and so fear being taken advantage of or being hurt. This wouldn’t occur unless we’ve already experienced such things and so fear being exposed to them again.

To get past such fear we simply need to be responsible for and embrace any consequences. If our love is actually love then we really don’t need anything in return from another and so don’t suffer if things fail to turn out as we’d hoped. Using our degree of fear or suffering in relation to “loving” someone might be a good way to help determine if we are loving someone or simply trying to fulfill one of the many self-serving needs that masquerade as love.

9. Surrender/Giving up: When we close our eyes, the movie of our life is still running in our heads. Who sells the tickets?
It would be more powerful if you would “own” the questions a bit more, since this would be more honest. When you generalize by using “we” rather than “I,” the question tends to become inauthentic. When you close your eyes, the movie of your life is still running in your head. This is really what you mean, isn’t it? You really can’t say that this is true of all others since you don’t experience what goes on with all others. Assuming that others experience what you do and so using “we” instead of “I” is a way of trying to hide behind a generalization. With the burden shared, you are off the hook and feel safer. Sometimes it is appropriate to use “we,” but it is much more powerful to say “I” experience such and such when asking such a personal question, since you know what you experience. It is also taking responsibility for the statement. Just an observation that can make a difference.

But on to your concern. I know you don’t really assume anyone sells the tickets since it is a metaphor, yet phrasing it that way suggests some separation between you and the ticket seller. If we say you sell the tickets, we haven’t really gotten anywhere since we already assume you are doing it. The question I think you’re asking is: why? Why do you run memories, extrapolations, dramas, and scenarios of your life rather constantly? This is a good question.

Perhaps we might look at the fact that is it “your” life story. Is there some relationship between the stories you tell about your life and your experience of life, even your sense of self? If I suggest that there is a strong relationship — such that eliminating this constant story telling and internal chatter would dramatically alter your very sense and experience of your self, and of course your life — then you can imagine you’d have a strong motivation to maintain this activity. Running this “movie” may indeed be needed to maintain your familiar self-sense and self-identity.

But that is just conjecture without a firsthand encounter. So let’s leave it as a direction in which to look, to investigate. One that could have easily been overlooked without the suggestion, but one that needs to be proven by each self — that is, if it turns out to indeed be true.

For a more complete discussion of this topic, see The Book of Not Knowing, Chapter 12: Inventing Self and World, particularly The Never-Ending Story of Me.

10. Death: Forms become created, forms do dissolve. Is there an end?
To what? An endless coming and going, life and death? Who knows? I don’t. But it doesn’t matter. None of it is real in the first place so there is no beginning — why worry about an end?

11. God/Buddha: If I am Buddha, who are you?
I am me. The question then is: what is that? Such consciousness is only gleaned directly, and so any response to such a question in this format is useless, and a disservice to others since they might then try to experience whatever they experience when they hear an answer (which won’t be what’s communicated but rather, whatever can be thought in the mind of that individual given his or her beliefs and background). This would be a mistake, since of necessity it will be wrong. In other words, it cannot and will not be who they are, nor will it be who I am, or even who Buddha or God is.

12. Smile: Look into the mirror in the morning when you are tired. Now smile. What happens?
There is no mirror, there is no smile, nothing happens.

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