A few days ago I read an article which stated that fully two-thirds of the American population is overweight and one-third is obese, and also stated that these figures are likely to rise in the future. This is a problem, one which is directly addressed in Zen practice.
Many Americans seem to be trying to feel better by eating too much. The problem is one of overwhelming the body with excessive consumption of food and drink. It is a problem which points to a nation of people who are reacting to their suffering by overwhelming their senses. These are people who are trying to put out a fire by eating, who are trying to stop their pain by putting greater quantities of food and less nutritious food in their mouths. However, what people generally experience when they try this method of managing suffering is that it is only temporary. You may momentarily feel less anxiety while you are eating the pint of ice cream, but a few hours or minutes later, it will be back. So then you feel the need to do it even more, and you learn that the suffering you are experiencing burns and burns no matter how much ice cream you throw at it.
Buddhism’s answer to this issue is to stop trying to end suffering by increasing desire. If you think about it that way, it seems completely illogical in the first place. How could you end suffering by increasing desire? And yet, that’s what seems to be happening here. The Buddha in the most basic of teachings suggests that suffering can only be addressed by finding some way other than reactivity. You have to find a way to respond, instead of reacting, and in order to do that you have to be able to slow down enough to see how your desire is a reaction to your suffering. This is what he revealed in the Four Noble Truths.
1) There is suffering. 2) Suffering is caused by a mistaken way of understanding the world. 3) There is a way to resolve suffering. 4) The way to resolve suffering is by applying practices that help you to respond to things more appropriately because you see how they really are.
This is where Zen comes in. Zen puts you into situation where things are simple enough that you can start to see how they really are. Zen asks you to be present in a place and in a way that minimizes the amount of sensory input you receive. The point is not to deprive you of anything, but rather to heighten your awareness, so that you can begin to understand what you are encountering and how you respond to it.
Think about it this way: In Zen, you sit in a silent room to minimize sound input. You sit facing a wall to minimize visual input. You sit still to minimize touch input. You don’t eat or drink anything while sitting, to minimize taste input. You even go so far as to train your mind to focus on your breath or on simply being present with your sensations and thoughts, to minimize thought inputs. Why? Because there is something to be said for not overwhelming the senses. There is something to discover in the mind that is sheer presence, something that cannot be discovered by simply adding more and more sensations, tasty as they may be.