Mindfulness and the Zen of Negative Thoughts

“It’s good to feel worthless, just don’t let it get you down.” Noritake Roshi

On the final day of a recent retreat with Noritake Roshi I had a meeting with him known as sekke where the student is free to ask any questions they may have about Zen practice. A translator is present to help with communication. Early in my practice I had a million questions about every little nuance of how to meditate. I was trying to master a whole new way of relating to experience. So, I asked question after question of my Mindfulness teacher, Shinzen.

Since Mindfulness is technique and strategy based, you can ask about your inner process and get clear, precise answers, which is something I’ve always really appreciated about the form. It demystifies the “how to” of meditating. And if you’ve ever had an opportunity to train with Shinzen, you know he’s a virtuoso at Q&A about the process of meditating, so I always got incredibly useful answers. As time went on, my questions grew less frequent. This was partly because as my practice evolved I had greater clarity about the process, partly because I learned to lean more deeply into the not knowing, letting the answer reveal itself in time (which Rinzai Zen heavily emphasizes) and partly because at a certain point the answer will always be the same – just keep practicing! But make no mistake, every time I am introduced to a new technique or a different teacher I start at the start, asking all the questions I need to, to fully understand the methodology.

The Zen of Don’t Know Mind

So, when I asked my question of Noritake Roshi I did so with a sense of curiosity. I knew the various ways Unified Mindfulness might answer the question. I also knew that any answer would ultimately point me back to more practice. But I wanted to know how this particular Zen master would choose to respond in that conversation. Each exchange is a new opportunity to discover wisdom. Every tradition emphasizes different aspects of wisdom and all teachers share wisdom in their unique way, highlighting a facet of practice you might not otherwise have considered. Part of becoming a mature student is recognizing what will best serve your personal practice at any given time.

The Rinzai approach is marked with answers that, by design, throw you into a state of confusion. As a Zen student, you do your best to let yourself get disoriented or confused by whatever is said and see what emerges from that. This is sometimes referred to as “don’t know mind.” It is commonly seen as quite an opposite approach to Mindfulness which as I mentioned, typically gets into the mechanics of practicing in a very practical, hands on way. In any case, cultivating “don’t know mind” serves you no matter what practice style you do. The willingness to experience the mind that has no answers – the ability to skillfully greet it with concentration, clarity and equanimity (in UM parlance) always leads to the same core wisdom, but with fresh new insight unique to the moment.

When You Struggle with Negative Thoughts 

So, I shared something I had been struggling with in my practice. I made myself vulnerable and did so in earnest, hoping for a fresh perspective. I told the Roshi that in the extended quiet of the retreat, I had become very aware of lingering thoughts and feelings of worthlessness. I told him I could see how those thoughts and feelings made me overly reliant on validation from outside myself. I said I could see, too, how those thoughts and feelings made me hesitate and prevented me from giving more of myself, freely and with confidence. I asked for his reflection on that. His response? “It’s good to feel worthless.”

“It’s good to feel worthless??!” At first I thought he had misunderstood my question. Maybe he was talking about humility – yes, humility is a good thing. But he couldn’t be saying what he seemed to be saying. There I was having a revelation about negative thoughts that I saw as a cause of profound personal suffering and a hindrance to my ability to fully contribute in the world and there he was suggesting that was a good thing! I was in an internal struggle. I knew the best course of action would be to let myself get completely dumb – “don’t know” – but all my history and all my therapy and all my acculturation asserted itself so strongly I was swept up before I knew it. The statement “It’s good to feel worthless” is antithetical to our western psychological perspective. It doesn’t offer solace to the mind recalling shameful experiences from the past. It goes completely against the pop culture personal development mantra “You are enough!” So, I watched my mind writhe in discomfort and fight with the statement. And this, of course, is exactly the nature of Rinzai training. The Roshi had given me a magnificent Koan and I was twisting it around rather unskillfully, like a mental rubik’s cube.

The Up Side to Negative Thoughts

Noritake reasoned with me, saying that feeling worthless was a much better position to practice from than feeling full of pride. He mentioned a famous Zen master (the name escapes me) who made an entire path of feeling worthless. Yes, of course – pride, rigid ideologies – these are possibly the greatest obstructions to “don’t know mind.” I heard his reasoning. I even faintly recognized the deeper message beneath it (a Zen master is always pointing to the formless.) Yet, I challenged him: “Many people who walk around full of pride secretly feel worthless.” He nodded in agreement. Then I broke open a little more, going one step further in my admission. I told him it wasn’t simply that I felt worthless – I got stuck in the feeling. I saw a light go off as he turned his compassionate gaze toward me and gently completed the thought: “It’s good to feel worthless, just don’t let it get you down.”

“It’s good to feel worthless, just don’t let it get you down.” Noritake Roshi