Stuck! Oh, the Path of Zen

Here’s a very odd thing about Zen practice – a lot of the time, especially the first ten years or so, most of us most of the time are stuck.

What kind of a hinky path is that? It’s supposed to be a path, after all, something that goes from here to there.

And there’s the rub.

In Keep Me in Your Heart a While (described by one reader as “… the best, least read Zen book of the decade” – ah, stop the flattery already!), I describe the stuck! phase as the third of six stages of the Zen path:

1. Idealization (“Zen seems so cool, we love everybody in the community and the Zen teacher seems to possess something special, expressing what is in our hearts before we even know it ourselves”);

2. Covert clinging to hopes for magical gain (“We begin to get more sophisticated and cover our original childlike and obvious hopes that somehow Zen is going to resolve our relationship issues, relieve our dysthymia without Prozac, and brighten our teeth”);

3. Very crabby (“Zen utterly sucks, the community is a bunch of nut cases and the teacher is at best an ordinary person whose fault it is that our precious idealization has worn off—or that our stinky self-clinging has been exposed….. At this stage, most people quit and go on to something else, imagining that the high of infatuation can be recaptured with another teacher, another tradition, or a softer or harder practice”);

4. Steadily walking without getting anywhere (“The practice at this stage is simply done for the sake of the practice itself. Searching for a motive at this stage is adding a head on top of a head. If we just stay with it,we might even start to get over our self a bit and direct our life to actualizing a purpose greater than ourself”).

5. Experiencing fruition (“a trouble-maker”); and

6. Falling into a well (“We’re back at the first stage, albeit with a different vista, idealizing our life and not cleaning under the hedge, assuring the full employment of Buddha”).

Phew! What a gas bag.

Anyway, the point is that the path of Zen goes from here to here and what we learn to do is be what we are – stay put, in other words.

Does that mean that the practice suggestion is to sink, soak, slobber, and slump into a melancholy stuckness?

No way! Sit up in it earnestly.

Does that mean that the practice suggestion is to fight, figure, fidget and find just the right spiritual technique that will free us from stuckness?

No way! Sit down in it earnestly.

Now maybe you’d like a poem to put a little make-up on the drab point I’m making and I just happen to have one here from Leonard Cohen’s “The Letters:”

Your story was so long,
The plot was so intense,
It took you years to cross
The lines of self-defense.
The wounded forms appear:
The loss, the full extent;
And simple kindness here,
The solitude of strength.

And maybe you’d even like a koan to put a little Zen on the point I’m making and, well, I’m happy to oblige:

As Fayan was excavating a well, the spring’s eye was blocked by sand.  He asked a monk, “The spring’s eye doesn’t penetrate the sand blocking it. When the eye of the Way is blocked, what is it blocked by?”

The monk had no reply.

Fayan answered for himself, “It is blocked by the eye.”

Practicing Through Snow and Cold (or Whatever Afflictions May Visit)
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
  • Ellen Ska

    10 years, Stage 3. I admit I’m losing heart. It’s sounding too much like “Jesus IS in your heart if you just believe He is, and you need to fix your attitude and keep going, because if you’re not getting it, you’re just thick, willful, deliberately not getting it,” etc.
    If I had stuck with Jesus for more than 10 (adult) years, would He have finally become real and revealed Himself to me? (How many 10-year periods does a person have to work with, anyway?)
    Actually, I suspect some dogs don’t have Buddha nature, and that when I knocked, Jesus was at the beach and forgot to open the door. I’m not special; I’m lazy and morose. Probably I just need to cheer up and work harder at something … anything …
    Your article both inspired and discouraged me. I get there’s nothing to get, and that this life and its pain and suffering is what we’ve been handed. We can work on ourselves via religion or drugs, but we are not going to forstall the government shutdown, much less the coming apocalypse.

    • terri

      Ellen, i feel for you and i can tell how angry you are. Zen is not about the mind or the future. its about now and about the heart and walking a path of self discovery and releasing all attachments and addictions. have you read osho? he is very helpful. life is suffering but only because of our attachments.once you release these, you only have peace and access to the no mind. do you understand that the mind is not you? it was given to you by society to take your attention away from yourself and what is really important. it sounds like you have a lot of fear still, and confusion. i am wondering what makes you happy, what do you like about your life? this would be a good start to choose to focus on and expand. this would be a better path and lead you back to your heart where you can discover what peace and happiness are.

      you talk about a government shutdown as if its a bad thing. we dont need the government. if you study the constitution you will see that the government is acting outside its limits as stipulated by the constitution. our country is supposed to be a republic, made up of sovereign, thinking and acting free men and women. its become a communist nightmare of epic proportion.

      you also speak of an apocalypse? the word apocalypse doesnt mean destruction at all. the universe can only give you what you ask for only in accordance to your beliefs. we are looking at a great beginning and lots of opportunity if we allow it.

      life and our experience is only feedback in regard to our choices. there is no judgement this is a 3d made up thing to keep people distracted, frustrated and blaming others and themselves, instead of taking responsibility. if you dont like your experience then you must change your beliefs and choices. this world was designed so it could be this easy, and it is.
      it can be difficult to really examine ourselves objectively but thats only the ego talking.

      it sounds like it would be helpful for you to turn off the tv and stop looking outside of yourself, for its only illusion anyway, and just a reflection of our inner being, especially the collective unconscious. the only way we can change anything is by changing ourselves. jung has a lot of good information about this as well.

      i only am responding because i can feel you have so much potential and really want things to be different. the only way things can be different is by us doing and thinking differently.

      happiness is a choice. we sometimes have to make tough decisions to honor ourselves in this way by getting rid of bad relationships or jobs or living places. its absolutely worth it to re gain your self love and respect and peace and happiness that you already are and that has been taken away by a set of rules which are designed to keep you enslaved and not free.

      we all must ask ourselves, do we want to be happy? do we want to have happiness and peace, or do we enjoy the drama? either way, its just a chioce, neither is good or bad, its just experience. when we are truly ready to choose then doing the work involved albeit challenging, is very satisfying and feeling alive is a great place to be. this takes honesty and commitment on our part. the universe is always and already giving all of us as much as we will allow.
      this is not a race and there are no judges or scorecards.

      ellen, i wish for you the answers you are seeking and many blessings

  • Paul

    Stage 2 is the coolest stage. The stage where one actually believes that just possibly Zen will solve everything. The stage where one believes that a white light will envelope one’s self and all suffering will cease. The Harry Potter stage. A really fun stage.

    Which is probably why stage 3 sucks so much. Reality Bites.

  • Kogen 古 元

    Dear Dosho,

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m just here for the self-swaddle of juban, kimono, and robe. Warm next to friends in the candle light. Fall leaves scratching the engawa. Pumpkins in the field, songs in our hearts.

    Deep bow,

    P.S It’s granola day, too!