Getting free of the itch

In this post — the third in a mini-series — I’m looking at some of the issues that come up when we begin to apply principles of ‘mindfulness’ to questions of faith, truth, culture and religious practice.

Among the surprising (and unnerving) things about beginning to practise any kind of meditation is that we often become conscious of what can feel like a plague of itches, and we really want to scratch them. This is no metaphor — I’m talking about physical sensations.

Meditation doesn’t involve resisting or suppressing anything; but, in the same way that we become conscious of our breathing, we also begin to notice the other things going on inside us.

And there is another itch — one that can begin to become apparent when we start looking at ideas that challenge something we believe, something we hold dear, something we’re clinging to unconsciously. And we can experience this even in a situation where we’ve initiated the encounter ourselves. 

The Westerner who would understand Zen deeply must, according to Alan Watts, have one indispensable qualification: “he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously.” (It goes without saying, of course, that this is a specific instance of a general rule.)

Watts continues: “He [the Westerner] must really have come to terms with the Lord God Jehovah and with his Hebrew-Christian conscience so that he can take it or leave it without fear or rebellion. He must be free of the itch to justify himself. Lacking this, his Zen will be either ‘beat’ or ‘square’, either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the Liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adopting foreign conventions, on the other.” (from Beat Zen, Square Zen and Zen, by Alan Watts on


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