Student: I have been wrestling with a problem all weekend and would like some guidance. I have a feeling the answer is in this line from Hsin Hsin Ming: “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.”
Student: Well. I love what I do. I am paid well. I work with a great team. I look forward to the work. I like where I live. I have a great group of friends to hang out with. I am close to the things I like to do, including this practice. Life could not be better!
Student: My boss suggested last week that I should look into a new position that is opening up. It’s a challenging project, more money, benefits, etc. It would be good for my career. But I would have to relocate to a new city, where I don’t know anyone and would have to start my life over.
Teacher: You don’t sound excited.
Student: I don’t know any more what I am feeling! I feel I should be excited and it could be fun. But I like my Life right now. I would prefer not to move. Am I too attached to having everything be just the way I want it? Is the fact that I don’t want to move just ego resisting change? I’ve heard you say that Life’s response is always yes. If Life is offering this new challenge shouldn’t I say yes?
Teacher: Life’s yes is a process. It’s not a yes to any specific content. What we practice is presence not preference. And as you can no doubt see, conditioning creates suffering by focusing the attention on content. We never know how life is going to unfold, and if there are no mistakes, we guess the only outcome of debate is to feed the suffering process.
Student: Ok. So there is really no “best” choice. It could be yes to stay or yes to go based on where the yes is coming from?
Teacher: Have you heard the story of Zen Master Banzan? He wandered from temple to teacher seeking enlightenment. One day, as he walked through a crowded marketplace he overheard a conversation between a customer and a butcher. The customer was asking for the best cut the butcher carried, and the butcher replied, “Each one is the best.” Hearing that, Banzan was enlightened.
Practice wisdom is often appropriated by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate to cause suffering. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the wisdom of “no preferences.”
The most sincere Zen student’s attention can be distracted if the voices slip in these questions: Is this a Life choice or an ego choice? Does exercising a preference mean I am not doing the right spiritual thing? Is having a preference wrong? Is it egocentric to do something I like? If I don’t want to do something, am I closed and resistant to Life? Is it wrong to be disappointed about not having or doing something I want?
Practice creates the awareness that any conversation in conditioned mind is unhelpful. Even if the subject is practice, the voices have nothing meaningful to say. The conversation is simply a ploy to capture the attention. When the attention is on the voices, we are absent to the information that is arising in the moment. And the moment has all the clarity we need.
We practice the wisdom of no preferences by ceasing to indulge the conditioned preference for consulting ego-I for clarity! Then we are free to be here, in the moment, with whatever is arising. In the absence of the conversation, there seems to be no “I” that prefers. What is is Life’s preference, and Life chooses appropriately.
So what is being pointed at in the Hsin Hsin Ming concerning no preferences?
Life seems to have no issues with preferences, per se. All preferences are accommodated without judgment. Only ego excludes, divides and isolates on the basis of what “I” like and prefer.
There is nothing wrong in exercising a preference if that option is available and being offered by Life in the moment. We can happily opt for the burrito over the burger at the deli, since both are available. On the other hand, ego would rather hanker after whatever preference it has that is not on the menu.
Life seems completely adequate to making appropriate choices. From center, there is never an indulgence of a preference that is harmful to the being. Conscious compassionate awareness is unlikely to eat a box of sugar doughnuts, however much “I” likes sugar.
Life also seems able to fully and joyfully receive all that is being offered in the moment, regardless of preferences. Only ego-I would deny itself from a misguided sense of being unworthy or undeserving. Only ego-I would refuse an afternoon off to go walking in the woods because “I have not finished everything I should be doing to be the person who deserves the afternoon off!”
Life’s orientation is compassionate for all. Ego-I, on the other hand, lauds martyrdom. Sacrificing one’s preferences to take care of someone else’s feelings or needs is held up by conditioning to be the right-person thing to do. Ego-I martyrs itself so that it can maintain its position as a helpless or resentful victim that hates the person or persons that gave it no choice!
Center seems to accept what is. Fixing, changing, denying, avoiding or railing against what is is an ego choice. Only ego-I seems to live in a reality where something other than what is arising should be possible. In fact, only ego-I is confused about the choice that is arising. Ego-I might say that when it’s standing in front of a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes, the choice is between doing the dishes and a Caribbean vacation. But what Life is presenting is a choice between doing the dishes and not doing the dishes—and, if we are training at a Zen Monastery, between being happy or unhappy doing the dishes!
What the voices obscure is this: If Life is presenting a choice, then all options arising are equally valid. There is no “better” choice. Only conditioned mind wants to weigh pros and cons and argue the morality, ethics, and spiritual consequences of a decision. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Life might present the opportunity to curl up on the couch for a nap or to take a walk. The fact that both of these arise imply that both are in fact options, and we are free to do what we prefer. Ego would prefer to spend the afternoon debating the merits of these choices or muddying the water with “other” options (meditate or finish those emails!). In engaging the voices in a decision to determine the right thing to do, what we should do, what would be efficient, spiritually good etc., the opportunity to do something pleasurable that would take care of us slips by.
In quoting the Zen story, the teacher is inviting us to consider the real truth of the wisdom of “no preferences.” When there is no conversation, there are no preferences. There is only the moment, and in the moment any and every choice is the best choice. And, in truth, Life is never confused about that.
Over the next 48 hours, pay attention to how you get bamboozled into a conversation about what you would rather have or do. Notice how conditional is ego’s sense of being okay. Can you see how the conversation obscures the real choices that are arising in Life? Practice dropping the conversation and tuning in to the clarity that Life is communicating about what is and how to be with it. Record and Listen to what arises.
We are often talked out of communicating our needs because we are conditioned to believe that is egocentric. Much suffering can be avoided if we just say what is going on for us, what would take care of us, what we might enjoy doing, what we would prefer. Practice a change in behavior and experiment with ways in which Life can express its choice without ego’s censorship.