Christian Dillo is the author of The Path of Aliveness, a book detailing a contemporary Zen approach to awakening and what meaningful transformation actually looks like. Fascinated by Dillo’s simple and rational approach to Buddhist practice, The Dewdrop fielded a set of questions to the author and dharma teacher, to better understand what writing, philosophy, effort, suffering and true aliveness really mean to him.
Why do you write?
Because I deeply enjoy it. That’s the immediate answer. But as I’m seeing this simple, straightforward sentence written out before me and I keep feeling out its meaning, I know I need to say more if I want to answer the question more fully and more truthfully. What exactly is it that I enjoy about writing?
I think it’s the clarity that can come from writing—and the truthfulness.
I love clarity, but I’m also very suspicious of it. When I say something that really articulates what I mean, and in addition, it’s clear, it can feel like the truth. It can be so convincing that I forget for a moment that any object or situation or feeling is always more than what can be said about it. In this way, writing both reveals a truth and conceals a deeper truth. All forms of articulation do that, not just writing.
I teach Zen Buddhism. My main way of articulating the teaching is oral. I give talks that are unscripted. But I do use writing in the process leading up to the talk. I use writing to organize ideas, to think through examples, to test conceptual connections, and to see whether something can hold up in the face of my own critical scrutiny. When I’m done, I let what I have written drift to the back of my mind—and then I give the talk trusting that what the talk needs to assemble itself will come to the fore organically as the talk unfolds.
“When something is written down, I have to ask myself whether I can really stand by it. Thinking and speaking are so much more ephemeral by comparison.”
Writing is significantly different from verbal thinking and speaking. Writing creates a sense of permanence; something is being etched into a surface. When something is written down, I have to ask myself whether I can really stand by it. Thinking and speaking (even when recorded) are so much more ephemeral by comparison.
So I think I write because it forces me to be more precise, clearer, maybe even a bit more serious. And when I feel I’m reaching that kind of clarity, there is enormous satisfaction. I feel I have expressed something to the best of my ability—truthfully.
Until this recent book, I haven’t published much. Publishing a piece of writing is a way of offering this clarity and my sincere truthfulness to others. As a reader, I deeply enjoy receiving these gifts; and as an author, I enjoy giving them.
How do you write?
In daily life as well as in my oral teaching, I speak, as much as possible, from a felt sense. The “felt sense” is a concept coined by the philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin. If you are searching for a word to express what you mean, but you can’t find it—it’s on the tip of your tongue so to speak—the feeling that you consult for finding it is the felt sense of what you mean to say. So the felt sense is something like the meaning before it is articulated. It is incredibly vague and precise at the same time. It’s vague in that it is not fully graspable, always more than what can be said, and it’s precise in that it constrains in definitive ways what can pass as an accurate formulation of it. We just feel when something we say doesn’t hit the mark. Then we might have to say it again in other words until we feel it’s fitting and true.
Articulation, as I use this word, is a searching for the next step in an unfolding sequence of words, symbols, expressions that matches and conveys the felt sense appropriately. When this match happens, there is always a sense of relief—an enjoyment of having expressed oneself satisfactorily and truthfully.
As much as possible, I try to carry this sense of speaking from the felt sense into my writing. It’s harder because the conventions for writing don’t permit me to meander and be repetitive in the same way.
“The felt sense is something like the meaning before it is articulated. It is incredibly vague and precise at the same time.”
To respect the felt sense, I have to pause between words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters to check in with the felt sense and see if I’m still on track—on track with what I really mean. … Does this feel right? … What wants to come from this now? … This checking in with the felt sense is a way of preventing this current sentence to come just from the conceptual implications of the previous sentence. Instead, I want it to come from both the conceptual implications AND the felt sense, which is always more than the conceptual logic alone. This way I am involved as a whole person with my personal situational truth. And I can find out new things; I can generate ideas and formulations that surprise me—actual insights. When what is said also comes from the felt sense, it reaches into something deeper, something that the conceptual mind can’t think its way to but that the body knows—through its felt sense. For this more embodied way of writing to work, one has to be able to pause and wait … and give the felt sense permission to instruct this next step that the writing process wants to take.
Can you draw a line between your influences of Zen Buddhism, Taoist Qigong, and Western phenomenology and psychotherapy? How do they interact inside you?
I’m glad you’re asking about how these interact inside me, because otherwise we’d probably get stuck in academic definitions or start to compare core concepts of Eastern religions.
The line that connects these disciplines—or let’s say practices—is my interest in human experiencing. Phenomenology, you could say, is the kind of Western philosophy that, instead of just rearranging existing concepts, tries to begin anew with how things actually appear within the senses and the body. And only from there, one then asks how they become conceptualized and languaged. In that sense, phenomenology is anti-metaphysical; it doesn’t start with beliefs. In my view, Buddhism is essentially a form of phenomenology. But while Western phenomenology seems more or less content with describing human experiencing, Buddhism asks how experiencing can be transformed—in the direction of less suffering and more wisdom and compassion.
Like Buddhism, Western psychotherapy is concerned with alleviating suffering. But Buddhism has a very different and, for the Western mind, curious and surprising approach to suffering. It views suffering as the product of two factors: pain and resistance. Instead of being just focused on reducing pain, it emphasizes that when you stop resisting what you feel in your body, you don’t suffer.
“In a very fascinating way, psychotherapy and Buddhism are similar in orientation, different in their approach, and highly complementary in practice.”
So while Western therapeutic approaches mostly give us strategies to feel less pain, Buddhism teaches us to be more open to what we’re feeling, even if it’s pain, without grasping for something other than what life presents in this very moment. In this way, pain transforms into a form of intensity or energy. So in a very fascinating way, psychotherapy and Buddhism are similar in orientation, different in their approach, and highly complementary in practice.
On the path of transforming my relationship to pain by experiencing body sensations without the reactivity of grasping or resisting, I discovered the body as an “energy body.” The word energy can sound a bit woo-woo, but in keeping with my phenomenological inclination, I define it simply as the flow of sensations in the bodymind. At a certain point in my practice, I needed a way to intentionally cultivate this flow of sensations. Still sitting meditation, which gets emphasized in Zen so much, didn’t quite suffice anymore. That’s when I took up Qigong, which literally translates as “cultivation of energy.” Once I intentionally entered this arena with a commitment to steady practice, a whole world of experiential subtlety opened up. New ways of feeling nourished and satisfied emerged.
What does being fully alive mean to you?
We are all biologically alive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we feel fully alive. One way we can approach feeling more fully alive is by cultivating a mental posture that begins to allow an uninhibited flow of sensations within the body. Without discarding conceptual thinking altogether, we allow the body to lead; we allow our experiencing to be exactly as it is at this very moment. This can seem a bit dangerous because it feels like we’re giving up control. Usually, we hold tight to our conceptual frameworks in order to feel safe. But that safety has a price: namely not feeling fully alive.
Being fully alive also means aligning our lived lives with what in Zen is called the inmost request. The inmost request is what we most truly want from being alive. We can ask ourselves, “What do I really want?” And in search of an answer, for a while, we may grasp for the implements of worldly happiness and excitement (pleasure, power, money, favorite objects), but that’s usually not the final answer. If we keep searching, we will probably arrive at a version of the insight that what we really want is to be at ease with our here-now-aliveness—with what our life already is at this very moment. I call that unconditional aliveness. I say unconditional because now our sense of contentment is not dependent on feeling good or happy anymore. In other words, now we can feel truly at home in our aliveness even when life is uncomfortable or boring.
“The inmost request is what we most truly want from being alive. We can ask ourselves, “What do I really want?” And in search of an answer, for a while, we may grasp for the implements of worldly happiness and excitement, but that’s usually not the final answer.”
This sounds simple, but it’s the hardest thing. So being fully alive is also a practice. When we take on that practice, we find ourselves on a path of transformation, an experiential journey of—as I would express it—realizing freedom from suffering, wisdom, and compassion.
These are big words that can feel like mere abstractions or spiritual clichés. But they are actually very good approximations for how to answer our inmost request.
It seems like Zen practice has a lot to do with meeting situations as they are and so, accepting things as they are. How does that relate to the notion of cultivation (of energy)? I often get caught up in thinking about cultivation as something driven by individual will (ie, “I WILL grow this or change this about myself), but maybe there is another approach?
That’s an important question. Sometimes you hear Zen teachers say that a liberated mind is neither active nor passive. In other words, conceptual contradictions don’t have to be contradictory in your experience.
I like to link this question with the Buddhist teaching of right effort. We can understand right effort as a balance of “making it happen” and “letting it happen.” At first, we try to make something happen, but in that process, we discover that our self-centered goals usually create friction or even get us stuck. They are too one-sided. So we begin to hold these goals more and more lightly until we become quite comfortable with letting things happen. Letting things happen is still an intention that gives our activity direction, but one that exercises way less control.
“At first, we try to control the complexity of our existence, but as we begin to see how impossible that is and how it causes unnecessary suffering in our experience, we begin to allow the complexity of existence to unfold as our life. It’s a form of trust.”
Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen said, “To carry the self forward and cultivate the 10,000 things is delusion; to let the 10,000 things come forward and cultivate the self is enlightenment.” At first, we try to control the complexity of our existence, but as we begin to see how impossible that is and how it causes unnecessary suffering in our experience, we begin to allow the complexity of existence to unfold as our life. It’s a form of trust.
I’m very fond of the following snippet from a teaching dialogue: “Long ago a monk asked an old master, ‘When hundreds, thousands, or myriad objects come all at once, what should be done?’ The master replied, ‘Don’t try to control them.’” In my experience, the alternative to control is resonance. We can allow ourselves to resonate with what comes in any given situation. Resonance is not passive; it seeks expression. When we learn to go along with the expression that wants to emerge from resonance, we’re cultivating the art of responding appropriately to circumstances rather than imposing only our own will onto situations—and that also applies to the situation we call “personal growth” or “self-cultivation.”
Do you think the Buddhist notion of suffering gets misunderstood? As a teacher, how do you explain suffering?
Of course. Anything can be misunderstood, either inadvertently out of habit or willfully to dismiss an unfamiliar or challenging idea.
First, we need to understand that suffering (the Sanskrit word is dukkha) includes not only severe situations such as violence, famine, injury, and disease but also, and most importantly, our temporary and chronic dissatisfaction with being alive. The basic question is: Why are we not at ease with ourselves and our situation, even when our basic needs are met?
The Four Noble Truths are considered the first teaching of the Buddha. And the first of these four truths is usually translated as “There is suffering.” Sometimes people falsely read a negative worldview into this simple statement—as if the teachings of Buddhism encourage a sour-faced denial of life’s joys and delights. Personally, I simply read it as the acknowledgement of the main emotional problem each human being faces: how to deal with the fact that life isn’t always the way I want it to be.
Here we have the definition of suffering: to want life to be other than it is. Earlier, when we talked about Buddhism and psychotherapy, I already mentioned how suffering has two factors: pain and resistance. This is based on an idea by Shinzen Young, a contemporary meditation teacher, who very intelligently presents core Buddhist teachings in the form of mathematical equations. In my own teaching, I now formulate it this way: Suffering = Experiential Intensity x Reactivity.
“A liberated mind is permeated by a rather unspectacular yet powerful feeling. I call it the joy of being alive for no other reason than being alive.”
Reactivity is our tendency to want our experience to be other than it is. Usually, that takes the form of resisting unpleasant intensities and grasping onto pleasant intensities, but actually, it can take any form. We can also crave pain and deny ourselves pleasure. Whatever our preferences are, intensities come and go. We can never fully control these intensities, but we can learn to let go of our reactivity. As the formula points out, when reactivity = 0, we don’t suffer. Without resistance or grasping, moments of pain, pleasure or neutral feeling are all just temporary expressions of our aliveness. When this becomes an embodied insight, it’s quite a revelation. It can really turn your life around. The essence of Buddhism is to transform our desire for something other than what our experience is right now into fundamental acceptance.
And here is where another major misunderstanding lurks. Whenever I speak of acceptance, there usually is an immediate objection. Does acceptance mean that we’re supposed to give up all of our desires for problem-solving and improvement? Not necessarily—it all depends on the order in which we approach this. Do we seek to make things different and better as a prerequisite for finding satisfaction? That can become a never-ending and sometimes desperate pursuit—suffering on top of suffering. Alternatively, we could learn to unconditionally enjoy our basic aliveness and then use this liberated and generally positive energy to work on the things that could use some improvement. This way, acceptance becomes the basis for engagement.
The solution to the challenge of suffering (dissatisfaction, dis-ease) is not the pursuit of happiness if we understand happiness as a perfected state of having only or mostly pleasurable experiences. Such a happy state is impossible to maintain, and yet most people chase after this fantasy.
If you want to make use of the wisdom of Buddhism, your main job is to see through this delusional race for happiness, give it up despite all the cultural incentives that seem to reward you for staying in it, and primarily locate yourself in your aliveness. Allow your experience to be exactly what it is at this time. That’s liberation. But not in a lifeless, joyless way. A liberated mind is permeated by a rather unspectacular yet powerful feeling. I call it the joy of being alive for no other reason than being alive.
Christian Dillo is the Resident Teacher at the Boulder Zen Center. He started his practice at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1996. For 20 years, he practiced monastically at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center and received dharma transmission in 2013. Since then, he has been Boulder Zen Center’s Guiding Teacher. In 2020, he moved to Boulder, Colorado full-time, where he now lives with his wife and son. Christian Dillo teaches Zen as a craft based on the understanding that, fundamentally, Buddhism is an embodied investigation of human experience with the intention of transforming it in the direction of liberation from suffering, wisdom, and compassion. He is the author of The Path of Aliveness: A Contemporary Zen Approach to Awakening Body and Mind (Shambhala 2022) and is currently developing a series of practice courses on Foundational Zen Teachings to actively support lay practitioners in their daily lives. His ongoing teachings are available on the podcast Zen Mind.