Many years ago I began practicing meditation as a form of self-improvement. I've experimented with various kinds of meditation - guided, visualization, mantra, text-based - all of which had some benefits, but never really seemed to stick. Then I discovered Zazen, and specifically the practice of Shikantaza, which turned out to be the most challenging (and rewarding) meditation practice I'd ever attempted.
Shikantaza - and the path of Zen in general - requires such vulnerability that it took me many years before I could sit in this state for more than fifteen minutes without feeling like I wanted to scream. In sitting this way, we're faced with the reality of our selves, our environment and all the relationships and beliefs we have - and we see them just as they are.
Which sounds simple. But it's the hardest thing anyone can do. Because once you sit like this for a while it becomes abundantly clear how much of our time and energy is spent constructing false narratives around everything in our lives, avoiding the truth that sits right in front of us. We realize how weak and fragile we are, hiding from our own existence in delusions and fantasies; wishing, hoping and praying for something to be different, better or easier. Pretending that if we're good enough or try hard enough we'll get the big cosmic cookie at the end of the day (or the end of our lives).
Some of these kinds of realizations happen without meditation. They become evident as we mature and grow older and wiser. But the practice of sitting with presence expedites this process. It's choosing to show up every day to these moments of reality with courage and clarity, not turning away from the things that make us uncomfortable and afraid. At this point my meditation isn't about self-improvement. It's about simply being myself, warts and all.
Sounds terrible, right? So why keep doing it?
Have you ever had a big pile of stuff on your desk that you've been putting off taking care of? Whenever you glace at it, you know that there are things in there that need your attention. Unpaid bills, perhaps. Important permission forms for the kids' school. Renewal notices you should not let lapse. Filing. Notes and cards that need a response.
It makes you feel anxious to see that pile of stuff sitting there taunting you with hard reality, so you ignore it for a long time, suppressing the anxiety as long as you can even while suffering the consequences. Bill collectors begin calling. Kids miss out on field trips. You can't find the important documents you need to file your taxes.
Then, one day, you stand in front of it, and decide that you've had enough. You're going to handle this pile of fear. So you sit down and start to go through everything. It might take a while, but you work through everything methodically - filing what must be filed, recycling things that have no use, answering what must be answered, paying what must be paid.
And when you're done, you feel relieved. And also a little foolish about how much you let this pile of stuff dictate your ability to enjoy life for so long. It's even kind of funny. Once you meet your pile and start to deal with it, the fear starts to dissolve.
That doesn't mean you're relieved of the consequences of having put things off for so long. That doesn't mean there aren't things to be done, bills to be paid, responsibilities to be managed.
It means you've realized that dealing with this stuff is actually less stressful than not dealing with it. And that when you take care of it, you are able to truly enjoy life without something hanging over you all the time.
The Practice is kind of like that.
Continuing to show up and develop the discipline to face our selves and the world around us as they are - without ego-based delusions or judgements - allows us to see things more clearly and do what needs to be done.
Underneath it all, we know what needs to be done. We just keep ignoring it and pretending that work isn't there.
Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a virtual meditation retreat with a small Zen community here in Austin. I'd had contact with this group for a while, but I've never done a meditation retreat - virtual or otherwise. The week was structured with meetings for group sitting twice a day (6:30 am and 7:00 pm), and after each sitting period there was either a talk by a Zen Buddhist teacher or group activities (we used the group breakout function on the Zoom meeting platform). On the final day of the retreat (Sunday) we devoted several hours to alternating between Zazen and different activities (a writing exercise, walking, etc.) all of which took most of the day.
Sitting is hard regardless, but I found it helps to sit with a group. Yes, even if it's just on the Internet. I'm not sure why that is, but I suppose it has something to do with the function of community in general. Those with similar goals and beliefs help one another in all kinds of tangible and intangible ways by being together regularly, creating norms of behavior and engagement, and reinforcing our commitments.
It was wonderful to be part of this organized, communal effort of people committed to meeting our lives as we are - with loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Though I wasn't sure what I could expect from participating in this retreat, I learned a lot over the course of the week and had several 'Aha!' moments. I also made some lovely connections with people, and found my resolve to continue in this practice strengthened.
I'm grateful to the leadership and community of Appamada for creating this opportunity, and for welcoming me into it.
Related: Last week's #PoetrySunday poem was written just after the conclusion of our final session at the retreat: Zazen.