There are twenty-one post-it notes in my copy of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. It was sent to me early last year by a reader I’ve never met, who’d read the many mentions of Cage on Improvised Life. The post-its flag illuminating and useful ideas I go back to frequently, even as I find ever more with time.

Sally Schneider/Improvised Life

Author Kay Larson, a Buddhist herself, weaves together many threads of Cage’s life, his lectures and writings. In a lecture called Indeterminacy, Cage quotes the teachings of Huang Po’s Doctrine, on release from self-obsessive thoughts:


Thoughts arise not to be collected and cherished but to be dropped…


I’ve been testing out a practice based on this amazing phrase. I can be anywhere — waiting on a line, riding the subway, standing in a field in the park nearby — and practice: I identify the really unhelpful, unproductive, can’t-do-anything-about-them thoughts I have (and I have A LOT). I imagine gently dropping them, as though they were rotten wood…or cold ashes of a fire long dead……adding a image to the thought along with the concept that many thoughts arise…to be dropped...

(The idea of practice is key. The results are not instant, but rather, gradually clarifying.)

Walter Siegmund for Wikimedia Commons


Larsen put it another way:


This Cage snippet is another good reminder:


The thing to do is to keep the head alert but empty. Things come to pass, arising and disappearing. There can be no consideration of error. Things are always going wrong. 






Top photo by By Mätes II.Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link; second image by Walter Siegmund (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons; third image via Research Gate


With heartfelt thanks to M.E.

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5 replies on “A Practice of Letting Go of Obsessive Thoughts You Can Do Anywhere (John Cage + Huang Po)

  1. Thank you. This book is one of my most cherished and I needed to hear this today. Some thoughts need to be let go over and over again.

  2. [i must confess my happiness:
    some things i’ve lettin’ go of,
    …never left.
    My fear, caused the ‘fore-pain’.]

    “Things are always going wrong.” (J.C.)
    ,…they’re simply not finished.
    Patience,….fathers the timeless child.

    hang in there John.

  3. I love this but would amend Cage’s last line to simply say “Things are always going.” There is no right or wrong.

    Thank you for this and all of the facets of Improvisational Life that you reflect our way!

  4. I am finding this practice very helpful–thanks for posting.

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