Since around 1992, I have had a regular sitting practice.
It has been on-again, off-again, and there have been periods where I have had an almost semi-monastic life, rising early each morning to wash my face in cold water, then sit for half an hour before getting on with my day.
And then there have been periods where I have either reached an impasse, or I just got sick and tired of sitting, or I wanted to use that half hour for something else, and I did not sit at all for a long time.
Eventually, the pendulum has always swung back to sitting, and I am doing so again, after several months away from regular practice.
This is beneficial, I think, because it allows me to integrate what I learn while sitting into my everyday life, in very mundane and spectacularly unimpressive ways.
And I always come back again.
Now I am back again — with a purpose: to balance my Autonomic Nervous System. Gudo Wafu Nishijima roshi was a great advocate of zazen as a way to balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS). He talked about it to a zazen group in Brussels in 2002 – and the talk he gave can be found here: http://www.dogensangha.org/ans.htm
I have been studying the ANS for a number of years, and the more I learned about the activity of the sympathetic (fight-flight) action and parasympathetic (rest-digest) sides of the coin, the more clearly it seemed connected with zazen. So, reading what Nishijima roshi had to say about it, was very validating. It was like I was hearing an echo back, after calling into a vast, seemingly empty canyon.
Zazen can balance the ANS. And this is particularly important to me, because — as Stephen Elliott explains (see What is Ego? and What is Ego?-Part II), the pesky ego, which so many of us are seeking to balance, escape, minimize, etc., is actually a symptom of an over-active sympathetic nervous system — a “sympathetic bias,” if you will.
Which is a great way of taking the judgmental charge out of all our ego concepts. If the “ego” as we call it, is actually a symptom of an out-of-balance autonomic nervous system — AND Zazen can balance the ANS, then there is clearly hope. And there’s no need to fall into the pit of judgment and recrimination — either towards ourselves or towards others.
My intention of starting to sit in 1992 was not to gain enlightenment or reach a peak experience. It was really to chill out my system in ways that worked for others. A friend told me about how daily sitting had saved her grandson from slipping into juvenile delinquency — and jail — and it seemed like a compellingly simple way for me to take the edge off my own intensity.
It worked for me. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, but I knew it worked.
Now I’m much closer to understanding why. And that in itself is valuable to me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got to this place.
I know – never good, spending a lot of time thinking… about much of anything. One of the constants in my life has been the trouble that’s bubbled up as a result of too much thought.
Anyway, back in 1994, I had what can only be described as a profoundly unitive experience. I had a regular sitting practice, where I would literally be suffused with bliss. Then, when I got up and went about my daily business, the bliss would disappear, and I’d be left feeling tainted, corrupted, fallen.
I kept up the sitting, because the feeling kept me going during some very trying times. But the feeling never persisted past my sitting sessions.
Then at the most unlikely of times — standing in front of my closet, trying to decide what to wear to work at a job I hated — in the most unlikely of ways — feeling irritated, feeling disgusted with my life, my clothes, my apartment, my job, my money situation — everything simply became connected.
There was no separation between sacred and profane, there was no difference between heaven and earth, there was no distinction between the everyday and the sublime. There was no me, there was no them, there was no closet, there were no clothes… job… anything other than pure and uninterrupted unity and flow… a sense that regardless of appearances, all was in perfect order and was waiting for me to dive in and play my part.
It was sublime. And for a short while — minutes? seconds? — I knew without a shadow of a doubt that there was only ONE.
And that knowledge hasn’t stopped since.
That feeling has stayed with me over the years. And it’s bought me a lot of trouble. Because people aren’t generally into that whole unity thing, and trying to connect with people who are deeply invested in separation, who can’t imagine themselves without it, who view anyone without “boundaries” as either an intruder or a target… Yeah, that can be problematic.
Fortunately, life affords us plenty of opportunity to experiment, learn, and adapt. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past 2 decades.
20 years. Seems like just yesterday. Seems like just now.
I guess maybe it is.
Short rantless version:
Practicing zazen is a powerful way for us to strengthen our systems to deal with the realities of our lives. HOWever, lots of people use it as a way to block out pain… which just causes pain to persist, both personally and within the larger community.
Longer, impassioned version:
After months of simply BEing, and not spending a whole lot of time mulling the meaning of zen, zazen… disentangling myself from the words of others by simply getting on with my life, I’m back to extending my thoughts to what others have to say.
I spent some time yesterday over at Hardcore Zen, reading what Brad Warner and others have to say.
I spent some time yesterday reading the Mumonkan, and also skimming around for zen quotes to pick up my day and get me thinking.
I also dug out my copy of Katsuki Sekida’s Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy and remembered yet again why I like that book so much.
Maybe that wasn’t such a great idea.
By the end of the day, I was back to remembering why I don’t spend a lot of time in the “zen establishment”.
People talk too much. It gets my head going in ways that are massive time-sinks. And I end up spending way too much time counteracting the effects of “others’ ideas” which are really nothing more than my reactions to others’ ideas. I basically lost a day to that shit, and I’m a little pissed off about it. Over a long weekend, too.
I don’t know why I bother. Maybe I’m looking for an echo of my own experience? Maybe I just got bored and needed a little cognitive pick-me-up. Despite all my reading and noodling, I can honestly say I really don’t know what others’ ideas are all about — because I am not in their shoes, and all our ideas and perceptions and beliefs arise from individual experience. So, no matter how clearly a person tries to express themself, because their ideas are coming from their own individual contact with life, no one else can truly know exactly what they mean. It’s just not possible, in my estimation.
Which makes all the arguing and debates and wrangling entirely pointless, in my own experience. Unless you need to fight, to keep yourself alert and feeling like you have a purpose in life. I used to without realizing I was doing it. And I still do it, to this day, though I actually realize why.
Move along, people – nothing here to see.
Of course, being human and all, as I read the words, words, and more words, yesterday, about what people think zen is and how zazen should be done and sitting groups and communities and sangha and roshis groping students and what-not… I got pretty agitated. I felt connected, yet alienated. Welcome, yet pushed away. All the talking, all the arguing… I didn’t want that, even though I wanted to find a group for community and possibly support.
Part of me would like to find a community I can sit with. You know… People who know what zazen is, and who do it, too. The thing is, I would rather not deal with people’s crazy stuff — of which there seems to be a lot in certain communities. All the public squabbling over who’s right and who’s wrong. All the bickering and recrimination over who’s doing what to whom. Seems like a lot of trouble and uproar for a zen-oriented community.
And it occurred to me that zen can be especially attractive to highly dysfunctional people who have endured some serious trauma in their lives. It creates this alternate space (via zazen*), where you can step away from it all to go deep — and far, far away from your everyday life, which can be so terribly hurtful and wracked with pain. And all the while you’re distancing yourself from it, you’re telling yourself you’re “going deep” and finding the answers you need to go on.
But you’re actually in a parallel universe, which runs alongside the everyday life you lead. Parallels by definition never intersect with each other, and if you want to, you never actually have to let the sacred and the mundane muddle together at all. Because it’s all part of your spiritual path.
That’s what I’ve witnessed, anyway. And I used to do it, myself, too. So I’m not just diagnosing from my arm chair. Been there, done that, and I know how much trouble it creates.
When I think of these things, I often think back to the time when I joined a sitting group not far from my workplace, which met on Monday nights. That was a good time of the week for me, because I had no other standing commitments, and what better way to spend the evening after the first day of work, than sitting zazen and connecting with like-minded people?
Sounds great, right?
Well, I got there and we went through their routine with reading scriptures and walking… then sitting for a while. The sitting was fine. I got a chair, since my back was acting up, and it was fine. I was more focused than usual — perhaps because I felt a real tension in the group, much of it emanating from that evening’s leader, who was visiting and was supposedly some famous teacher with a handful of books to his name. Then people got to talking, and a lot of them wanted to check in about the upcoming multi-day sesshin. How they were looking forward to it, how they were sad they couldn’t make it, how they couldn’t wait to get into that alternate reality space and really “do the work”.
To be honest, I came away from that evening with a really bad taste in my mouth, and feeling more unsettled than when I showed up. So, everything I remember from there is colored by my unflattering sense of the event. So, maybe they actually talked about a lot of other things I found more positive and useful — I just don’t remember them.
But ill feelings and delusions aside, what occurred to me then — and occurs to me still — is that zen and zazen in particular*, make really handy ways to dissociate from our lives and avoid dealing with them. Dissociation is a psychological phenomenon, where you mentally “go somewhere else” when someone is doing something really awful to you. It’s handy when you’re in the midst of a traumatic violation, but it’s also a significant precursor for post-traumatic stress. The degree to which you dissociate during a trauma actually correlates with how extreme post-traumatic stress disorder turns out to be.
Getting your head away from your problems while they’re happening, is handy in the moment.
But later, it comes back to bite you in the ass, and it traps the actual trauma in your body. The body remembers what happened, but the brain doesn’t, so the brain can’t process the awfulness and let it the f*ck go.
Which isn’t so handy, over the long run.
And it occurs to me that one of the reasons American-style zen appeals to me so little, and frustrates me so much, is that it’s populated by a ton of folks with histories of traumatic dissociation, who appear to bring that same habit into their spiritual practices. Zazen can be rejuvenating. Freeing. Evolutionary. It has direct positive and restorative impact on the autonomic nervous system, and to me it is one of the most important exercises a person can do, to deal effectively with their daily lives. Even without koans and special instructions. You sit and breathe a certain way, and your physical system gets stronger. It’s a simple thing made complicated because people have been sitting for aeons with great revelations dawning on them, and the revelation becomes the thing, not the sitting.
Yet a lot of people (including a number of folks I’ve known) seem to use zen and zazen* to avoid and dissociate from the manifest difficulties of their daily lives. They’re not simply sitting to find a happy place, but to find a separate place, which is all about them and their “process”, and has nothing to do with coming to terms with the situations of their everyday existence, which they’ve actually helped to create.
Sitting silently, uninvolved in your usual daily life, focused on the inner world… all for the sake of “spiritual development”… is a fantastic way to continue patterns of dissociation which solve nothing, but actually make things worse. I’m not saying everyone does it. I’m saying a lot of folks do it — enough to spoil the proverbial barrel of apples. And as their dissociative dysfunction deepens their issues, it tangles up their communities in further knots of drama and shitty choices, all the while placing blame on roshis and other things outside themselves.
I know it’s bad form to blame the victim. The thing is, if a victim’s adult behavior and choices are screwing things up for others, it’s generally good form to take some sort of responsibility and see things for how they are. We tip-toe around apparently fragile people who flip out, thanks to past traumas, bending over backwards to make them feel safe and secure, thinking that’s going to help them. Maybe it will. Maybe it will make the rest of us more nuts than need be.
I personally believe people are far less fragile than we think they are, and a lot of folks who have experienced trauma actually use their experience to create and sustain unhealthy power dynamics centered on manipulation, guilt, passive-aggressive bullshit, and refusal to take responsibility. I’ve come across more than a few in my life, and I’m not a fan of that particular way of “coping”.
All of which is a really long way of saying… while some people find solace in zazen* as a way to deepen their understanding of life, a whole lot of folks (especially Americans) use it as a handy refuge where they can separate from life and avoid confronting the actual situations that are making them — and everyone around them — deeply unhappy. They find teachers who make them feel safe and secure (how many licensed therapists are also zen/mindfulness community leaders?) and give them the impression that they’re learning and growing, when all that’s really happening is they’re taking a break from feeling shitty, and having someone else fill their heads with “answers”. And all the while, their habits of refusing to actually deal with the reality of their situation (let’s get our heads out of the clouds and just call a real thing what it is — more on that later), and they just fuck up the dynamics of the rest of the community… all the while masquerading as spiritual seekers “on the path”.
So, once again, I come around to this irritated, passionate, resolute devotion to a solitary practice, avoiding organized American-style zen* like the plague. It may seem like it helps, but it really doesn’t. Not the way I see it being practiced by a whole lot of people.
And that’s what I think of that.
Now, it’s time for a walk in the woods.
* and meditation and other spiritual sorts of retreats
The first Buddha whom modern Buddhism is based on was a regular human being. He searched and searched for the answers. Then he sat.
And he awoke.
My question is: If he was a normal human being, and he awoke by sitting, why do we think we need to do any differently?
And if he got where he was going — which is where so many of us want to go — by not searching, by not chasing, just by stopping and paying attention… why do we search and chase after what teachers promise to teach us, in hopes of getting what he got?
Why do we search and chase after what he said and did and taught?
If we human beings awake — truly awake — by cutting out interruptions and distractions and having regular direct contact with All That Is, why would we even bother with the teachers, the scriptures, the teachings, the dogmas, the discussions, the critiques… ?
If we awaken by listening to our own hearts… why ask another to tell us what is in our heart? Shouldn’t we develop that listening skill ourselves?
If we awaken by being present with What Is, right in front of us, here and now… why spend our too limited time looking for someone who will direct our attention to what that may be? Shouldn’t we get in the habit of getting real and just being honest with ourselves?
Why not just pay attention to what truly works, and what doesn’t, and then try again next time?
If we awaken by having direct contact with that which is around us… why would we for a moment spend what little precious time that we have, re-routing our attention away from our direct experience… over to a teacher… and then back to our experience?
We are so often deluded, that’s for sure. And we tend to need help, sorting things out.
But it seems to me that good energy, active direct experience, and a sincere willingness and diligence about awakening would be no less of a path than studying and following the teachings of other human beings who seem to think (or at least have been told) they’ve got it all sorted out.
The path of Living What Truly Is, without dogmas, without trappings, without theories, is just different from the established path.
But it’s still good.
I’m sure plenty of other people have written, thought, talked, and meditated about this in the past, but it occurred to me the other day after a “sit”.
Essentially, I am on a two-fold path — the path of DOing, and the path of BEing.
Many other people have different definitions of “The two-fold path”. This is mine:
1. DOing – The path of being active and engaged in all the details of my life.
2. BEing – The path of knowing just who I am and what I am.
It’s been my experience that sitting and meditation are often associated with the BEing part of things.
We sit in order to realize the truth of our nature.
We sit in order to BEcome enlightened, awakened, or just less prone to suffering.
It seems a bit passive, and that’s not always helpful for me.
Reading Shosan, I am struck by the strong DOing aspect of his version of zen. Nio Zen. The zen of the fierce guardians, the protectors, the DO-ers at the temple gates, who vanquish evil spirits.
He exhorts his students — everyone, really — to cultivate their ki, to have buoyant spirits, and to approach their practice with a vengeful spirit. At least, that’s what comes through to me, after centuries of space between us, and who knows how many translations and re-interpretations…
To BE the energy of the Nio, and to DO your work with that energy.
This seems to combine a BEing with a DOing, and it appeals to me very much.
I like it, so I do it.
My sit today was very much about staying focused, staying alert, being “on point” and holding my attention and my posture firmly in position. A few times I slacked — that happens.
Then I came back to where I wanted to be.
These things take time. They take practice. If I didn’t need to practice, I probably wouldn’t be doing it in the first place 😉
So, I do it.
And as I write this, I am keenly aware of my posture, my focus, and the encouragement of Shosan to practice in any circumstances, especially difficult ones… to stay engaged in life and incorporate zazen into one’s daily activities, no matter how pedestrian they may seem.
So BEing supports DOing.
Which is good.
Then life happened, and I drifted away from that practice. Some really tough situations showed up in my life that shook my faith to the core.
Someone close to me died.
Someone even closer to me nearly died.
Family connections frayed and snapped.
Friends both turned on me and disappeared from my life.
The company I worked for underwent radical restructuring, and I “moved on to other opportunities,” changing jobs every year or so for a number of years.
When I left that stable job, my sitting practice — in meetings and in my personal life — stayed behind. As did my faith. As did my willingness to trust again. All the peace I had found before… well, it simply evaporated, and I went into the kind of survival mode that scoffs at any kind of spiritual practice.
180 degree turn. In a completely different direction.
It’s taken me years to get back to it… in an ongoing process of fits and starts, of beginning and interrupting, and really questioning if this is what I want, if it’s what I want to be doing, and if I actually have what it takes to sustain a regular practice.
I’m back now. At least for today. And I can’t help wondering — just about every time I sit, or think about sitting — if I will be able to continue this with as much commitment as I had, 20-some years ago.
Looking back, I’m tempted to tell myself that I failed somehow, when I left my regular practice. I’m tempted to believe that I abandoned my practice and abandoned myself in the process… That I was a fair weather friend to sitting, and I didn’t have what it took to stay firm in my commitment.
I’m tempted to suspect everything I say and think and write about sitting, meditating, zazen… you name it. After my abandonment, and derision, who am I to even approach these things again?
And yet, here’s the thing — we all do it. At least, those of us who are fully involved in everything life throws our way. We all need to test our faith and our practice in the real world, in order to prove it out. To see if it’s really “a thing”, or if it’s just something we do to pass the time and get our minds off our troubles.
Looking back, I can see how I once used my sitting as a way to escape the discomforts of my life on a regular basis. I was present to some things, yes, but I was also getting high as a kite and skating past a lot of really grimy human experiences that I didn’t feel like dealing with. Coming out of those sessions with a buzz on, convinced me that all was well and dealt with
But that was far from the truth.
Many, many times, my sitting was far more of an escape, than a way to fully engage with my life. And that was a practice I needed to leave behind me. I needed to abandon the old way, and then really test it. Somehow I knew it wouldn’t survive, if I didn’t push it up against the truly unpleasant facts of life-as-it-happens, to see if it had what it took to just deal.
And what I learned was… It does. My practice, my sitting, my unitive experiences and connection with the unbroken wholeness of ALL… it’s a thing. It’s real, it has substance, it’s still a part of me. It’s very different now, than it was all those years ago, but it’s still there.
And test it though I may, it truly never leaves.
Which is good.