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Untrain Your Parrot: And Other No-nonsense Instructions on the Path of Zen

Untrain Your Parrot: And Other No-nonsense Instructions on the Path of Zen

by Elizabeth Hamilton

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This book offers exercises, instructions, jokes, stories, pithy quotes, and—most of all—encouragement to anyone interested in exploring Zen but who may find traditional presentations severe or intimidating. Hamilton writes with an easygoing, friendly style that invites readers of all backgrounds to sit down and give meditation a try. But don’t be


This book offers exercises, instructions, jokes, stories, pithy quotes, and—most of all—encouragement to anyone interested in exploring Zen but who may find traditional presentations severe or intimidating. Hamilton writes with an easygoing, friendly style that invites readers of all backgrounds to sit down and give meditation a try. But don’t be fooled by her puns and checklists—this is serious Zen.

Drawing on three decades of experience as a Zen practitioner and teacher, Hamilton explains how to meditate and how to maintain an ongoing practice. From there, in her clear, lighthearted, and humorous style, she moves right to the heart of Zen, showing us how we could move beyond our concepts, expectations, and emotional reactivity to touch the reality of our lived experience with openness and simplicity, thereby finding freedom.

Untrain Your Parrot includes simple instructions to clarify and elucidate the basics:

   • how to establish a beginning meditation practice

   • how to develop physical, mental, and emotional awareness

   • how to experience "open" awareness—observing one's practice while allowing for a sense of spaciousness with whatever occurs

For more information on the author, Elizabeth Hamilton, go to www.zencentersandiego.org.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

This debut book by San Diego Zen teacher Hamilton boasts a quirky, appropriately Zen-ish title and a foreword from, surprisingly, the late civil rights activist Rosa Parks, with whom the author worked during Parks's later life. It offers plenty of meditation exercises with easy-to-follow directions. It thoroughly translates what can be the culturally foreign characteristics of Japanese Zen into contemporary American parlance and life situations. All these things commend the book to a beginner, but it's too often unclear and could have used more work. The diction is occasionally foggy ("both tinged with some degree of narcissistic attachment to a truncated self"). Attempts to simplify aspire to easy-to-remember lists, but these come out idiosyncratically obscure ("BBSTSBB is a palindrome composed of the first letters of seven words that beckon our awareness"). It is interesting that the center of a person's chest includes the acupuncture point Conception Vessel 17, but there is such a thing as too much information, particularly for beginners. Hamilton is very likely a good Zen teacher, funny and imaginative, but that doesn't automatically translate onto the page. (Aug. 14)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Serious Zen taught in a friendly and accessible manner with special exercises, jokes, and more; from a San Diego-based teacher of Zen with 30 years' experience.

—Graham Christian
From the Publisher
"Serious Zen taught in a friendly and accessible manner with special exercises, jokes, and more; from a San Diego-based teacher of Zen with 30 years' experience."—Library Journal

"A superb teacher who has peppered meditations with stories, colorful anecdotes, exercises, and imaginative phrases. . . . Hamilton helps us examine in fresh ways the warps of the conditioned mind, and provides many practices that you will want to try as you attempt to live a life of wholeheartedness."—Spirituality & Health

"Delightful humor and deep wisdom in the key of Zen. Elizabeth Hamilton has been there, done that, and tells the truth, so her teaching is gentle, grounded, and emotionally intelligent. She makes meditation practice real and accessible, rather than a romantic idealization."—Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are

"The title tips us off that we're in for a witty read, rich with metaphor. But Untrain Your Parrot turns out to also be a brilliant reconceptualization of Zen practice as a comprehensive, do-able program for psycho-spiritual growth. The clarity of Hamilton's pedagogy makes this an uncommonly serviceable workbook for the inner (and outer!) life."—Zoketsu Norman Fischer, author of Taking Our Places

"Elizabeth Hamilton is an intrepid spiritual practitioner, meeting sorrows and hardships with a spirit that continues to open to love. With humor and unrelenting use of skillful means, Elizabeth provides sound guidance in everyday language for everyday folks who dare to live awake."—Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 10: Fingers Pointing at the Moon: Mindful Activity Labeling

Thought Echoing: Directly Untraining Our Parrot

If we're not trying to retrain our parrot, our conditioned mind, what helps the untraining, or unconditioning, process occur most naturally? Poetry and folk wisdom stress the value of seeing ourselves as others see us. Now that open awareness has helped activate the observer, and some exposure to the physical dimension has enlivened the experiencer, the condition makes more embodied objective awareness available. Now it’s time to listen carefully to what our parrot is already saying. This may sound unnecessary, since we’re thinking and talking all the time, but how often are we really listening?

One way to begin to attend more carefully to what the mind is up to, before it moves into speech, is thought echoing, which helps us discover the content of our minds by actively mirroring back thoughts precisely. This is done primarily during formal meditation.

Thought echoing starts as soon as we notice that thinking has taken over.We listen to what we are thinking and echo it back verbatim, the way a trained parrot repeats a phrase in rote fashion, preceded by the word “thinking”: if the thought is “Won’t thought echoing make me think more?” the echo would be “Thinking ‘Won’t thought echoing make me think more?’”

When I first started using thought echoing, I was sure that the speed of my thinking had doubled. Actually, the echoing was only mirroring back the deluge of thoughts that used to pass unnoticed. Far from increasing the volume of thoughts, echoing slows the rate by setting up a temporary roadblock in the oncoming thought traffic.

Thought echoing has the added value of providing snapshots of the mind’s specific content. This in turn discloses, over time, whether our thinking is primarily functional and life-serving, or self-serving, by providing a specific script of our ego structure. Ego is always specific; someone once asked pioneering nutritionist Adele Davis whether apricots were good for you, and she said, “Which apricot, where?” Which ego, where? The thoughts will tell.

Thought echoing not only keeps the notion of an ego from becoming vaguely generic, it also pinpoints the mind’s inconsistencies. It’s common to hold, and believe equally, two opposing thoughts: “I must do whatever is suggested to me,” and “I absolutely must not do anything that is suggested to me.” Stereo dissonance like this ties us in mental and physical knots. We may be discomfited to find some bottom feeders—truly unpleasant thoughts about ourselves and others, thoughts whose presence we might have been able to deny before thought echoing brought them to light. After thought echoing has become a stable ability, we can start to employ thought labeling, by category: conversing, daydreaming, reminiscing, planning, and rehashing. Unlike thought echoing, thought labeling requires additional thinking, so we should wait until we’ve become familiar with our general thought patterns before trying thought labeling. After the content and patterns of our thinking are quite well known to us, it’s sometimes enough to say “thinking” silently, as a form of thought awareness. Still, both thought echoing and thought labeling may need to be in our repertoire for quite a while.

As thoughts become more transparent, it’s fun to play with other forms of thought awareness. For example, when upsets come along,we can ask, “What’s my most believed thought about this?” A follow-up question might be “What would I like to have said?” Or, “What disturbs me most about this situation?” Then pause and listen for about a second. Another question is, “What am I most afraid will happen?”

One of my most enjoyable ways of hearing thoughts came to me one semester when I was teaching a music class. One day when I entered the classroom, the students had already been having a group gripe about a math class. I said that if they wanted to complain, they could sing their complaints. That slowed the grumbling, and those who persisted were asked to sing. I even joined in on the piano and we had a blues jam. A few students confessed that they hadn’t realized how much they complained until they were faced with the singing assignment.

For a while I assigned jukebox numbers to my most predictable thoughts: A2 on the jukebox was “No Matter How Hard I Try, They’ll Always Think I’m Inadequate.” After hundreds of labelings, this technique has effectively taken most of the juice out of my parrot’s top ten tunes. Using thought echoing and labeling with garden-variety thoughts helps us recognize the tough customers, the ones that are central to our identity and worldview. It will become obvious that the problem isn’t the thoughts; it’s not recognizing that they have taken charge.

Now that we have met the mental dimension’s echoer, it can collaborate with open awareness’s observer and the physicality of the experiencer. There’s an old proverb about a mother watching a child play with its toys: the mother represents the combined wisdom of the observer, experiencer, and echoer; the child represents the ego self, which can no longer run things with so much abandon; and the toys are the strategies and imaginings that keep our trained parrot from discovering its actual nature.

From Chapter 16: Disheartenment: Gray Days and Dark Nights

“When we understand that there is no stability to be found in life other than living it out as it is, we will be able to comprehend the reasoning behind the principle of becoming emancipated from our pain and suffering by just being resolved to living through it as it is.”—Kosho Uchiyama

If we haven't yet encountered the depths of despair, we might not understand how someone could become depressed just by looking at the sky on a sunny day or come to regard humanity as a failed experiment. At such times, we may find petitionary upwellings that harken back to our childhood religion coming from our lips—“God, help me”—perhaps addressed to a deity or the unknown or a higher power, or to temporarily unavailable aspects of our total being.

We have to be pretty far down to realize that our ego isn’t capable of compassionate attention when our consolations and compensations are falling aside like leaves from a tree in autumn. Self-motivated willpower falls short here.

Disheartenment, the deep end of the emotional dimension, takes us into increasingly painful depths, starting with burnout, where we still see ourselves as having some sense of power, some teeth for biting into life. This contrasts with the increasing sense of helplessness and lifelessness as we descend through dismay, depression, and despair, finally hitting bottom.

Facing and embracing disheartenment seems to be a necessary precondition for empathic living, for truly seeing ourselves in others. It appears that there’s no way to avoid what Pema Chödrön calls “the whole stinking mess.” It’s no wonder that people who have made compassionate contributions to the greater good often allude to encounters with the dark nights of the soul. Knowing that this is part of the path helps us understand why Viktor Frankl felt a sense of responsibility for writing down what he went through in a concentration camp, believing it might help those who are subject to despair. All of us qualify at times.

Formal zen practice has much to offer through the riptides of disheartenment. If our health permits, regular practice with moving meditation forms like chi kung, tai chi, and yoga can be a boon in keeping the body instrument tonified and resilient. Never underestimate the value of intense practice, such as meditation retreats. These stand us in good stead through their paradoxical element of intentional suffering, or willingly entering into voluntary discomfort. Far from being masochistic, such encounters provide evidence of our capacity to abide in, and absorb, the inevitable ardors that life serves up. If our spiritual practice doesn’t specifically prepare us for encountering a certain degree of difficulty in life, and give a slight push at the edges of our comfort area, we may be left stranded when our need is greatest.

When our particular version of the dark night can no longer be denied, we might consider taking up the koan “In times of disheartenment, what is the best refuge?” Referring back to what we’ve gleaned in the various dimensions of heartmind and bringing them to bear in gray times may help us discover that the exhale of despair can be followed by an inhale of wonder and appreciation.

Burnout and Burning Aspiration

Sometimes aspiration burns brightly. Abounding with life’s flow, we’re eager to share our enthusiasm and give back to life. And then, up comes a dry spot. Burnout. An arid landscape withers the juiciness of life, and things we found tasty are now tinged with burnout’s tart and bitter flavors: we become jaded, passive-aggressive, sarcastic, lifeless, nay-saying, contemptuous. Our resignation and resentment dim life’s shine.

All of these share a common denominator: unmet expectations. Things haven’t worked out the way we think they should. Here’s an example from the mideighties, when I was the zen center’s resident monk, in my flying-nun phase, robes flurrying, everywhere at once, making sure things happened. Probably some people bought my act; certainly I did. Then someone arrived who took an active dislike to me, and spread rumors, true and false. The theme: I was single-handedly responsible for the decline of Zen in the West. I was thunderstruck; wasn’t “I” the one who had done so much, for so many, for so long? Wasn’t “I” the busiest little bee at the zen center? I, I, I. Do you hear a little martyrdom?

One morning my cork popped. I’d had it with ringing bells for meditation periods and answering the door in the middle of the night. No more trying so hard and still being disrespected! Obviously, thought echoing hadn’t yet taken hold in my practice. Throwing my professed compassion to the winds, I took a break from the daily schedule. Prior to that, I’d never missed a single sitting period. Just then I was stricken with a bout of pneumonia, and I hoped that it would be obvious to everyone how indispensable I was. I felt a shred of relief upon realizing that my absence would be legitimized.

Emergency meetings were held to figure out how to keep the place going, and for a week people came by to see how I was or to learn a procedure. For the next three weeks, the center got along just fine without me. It was like dying and watching things go their merry way without me.

One incident during that month-long stint of pneumonia engendered a small existential crisis concerning control and letting go. I was scheduled to play a harpsichord concert with Anthony Newman, an award-winning humanitarian, musician, and strong spiritual practitioner. Eager to play, I tried everything imaginable to get back my strength. Finally, it was undeniable that I was far too sick to negotiate the athletic repertoire we had planned. I could barely sit up. I notified Tony, and on two days’ notice, he pulled Bach’s behemoth Goldberg Variations out of his sleeve and gave a brilliant performance.

This episode shook loose my ill-founded belief that I could pull off just about anything I set my mind to, a relic of my longtime control strategy. This failed to take into account the interweaving net of influences. I had to face some facts of life: illness, stress, ambitiousness, exhaustion, burnout. Which of my many me’s could claim to have given me pneumonia? Which was unable to let go of it and play the concert?

Assigning the “I” to the spurious position of deity is a guaranteed prelude to burnout. Letting go clearly wasn’t within my power. My best remaining option was “letting be” or “letting stay”; both are also translations of upeksha, as is “equanimity,” an invaluable seed of awakening. Equanimity arises as we provide hospitality for whatever guests are currently in our home.

Some unrecognized beliefs that I had brought to zen practice turned out to be harbingers of burnout as well: “If I try harder than everyone else, they’ll have to appreciate me”; “If I win at zen, the success will ease my aching heart”; “If I seem to be playing at the top of my game, maybe they won’t discover that I don’t really know the game.” Finally I understood Benjamin Franklin’s comment about how despair ruins some, but presumptions many.

I had been sliding toward burnout for quite a while. The buildup can be subtle, since many of the associated beliefs sound like the American dream: doing the right thing will produce positive results, and meaningful activity will alleviate low self-esteem. What happens when we do all the right things and still don’t get the results we want? Or get what we want and still feel inadequate?

As hopes fade, people react differently. Some keep going through the motions lifelessly. For others, preburnout can mimic brightly burning aspiration: we might take on increased attachment to rituals or teachers, or go into overdrive with our involvement: “I’m so busy keeping the place going that I don’t have time to meditate.” We may not notice that we’re attempting to outrun sinking feelings that are gaining on us.

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Hamilton teaches and lives at the Zen Center of San Diego with her husband and practice partner, Ezra Bayda. She leads retreats and Zen programs throughout the United States and Hawaii, Australia, and Canada, including leading a retreat with Pema Chödrön and Ezra Bayda at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She has published numerous articles and dharma teachings under the pen name M. T. Head.

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