How It is Supposed to Be:
A Zen Meditation
2 February 2018
Blue Cliff Zen Sangha Sesshin
Mt Baldy, California
Those of us who give talks once in a while are advised to give the talk we need to hear ourselves. So this is the talk I needed to hear on Wednesday, the crappiest day in a long time. I had tried for days to get confirmation about our reservation for this retreat, and I didn’t hear until Wednesday night. For a while, it seemed that James late-night flight from Masschusetts might be cancelled. A tight work deadline for an editing job I’m working on, and the list goes on.
So theses questions were really with me all day.
What is my practice when I’m frantic? What is my practice when someone, an acquaintance, bullies and berates me? What is my practice when I’m dismissed, or treated unfairly or rudely?
This part of our practice, here in sesshin on Mount Baldy, is pretty blissful, even if our knees or our backs are hurting us. Here we are in this quiet, beautiful, protected spot together. We’re supporting each other and creating an oasis from our daily lives.
There was a great story on somone’s Facebook feed recently – maybe someone right here posted it. A rabbi was concerned because his son spent a lot of time meditating in the forest. He said, “You know, son, God isn’t different in the forest.” And the son replied, “No, but I am.”
This is part of why we do sesshin together. We allow ourselves to be more open here. We’re less rushed, more attentive. We have the luxury of observing our minds in this quiet setting, where we’re surrounded by sangha mates who help hold our practice.
But what about Wednesday, that crappy day? I watched myself make the mistake I’ve made over and over, and I’m sure we’ve all made it. Fear arises, and I feel aversion to my own fear. Agitation or anger or defensiveness arises, and I feel aversion to my own agitation or anger or defensiveness.
The mistake I’m making is the age-old human mistake: I’m telling myself, “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I’m fostering anger! I shouldn’t foster anger!” Or, “I’m not calm. I’m agitated! This isn’t how I’m supposed to be. Stop it, stop it, stop it!”
In fact, this aversion to our own states of mind is such a classic, human, universal mistake, that it forms the cornerstone realization of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.The first is that life brings suffering. The second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by clinging. When I try to escape my fear or my anger, I’m clinging to the idea that this is not how it’s supposed to be. This is not how I’m supposed to be. I’m clinging to an illusion and trying to turn away from what is right with me, what is going on in my body.
In this Zen practice, we cultivate presence. Simply being intimate with what is. I think we’ve all experienced this truth. That’s what brings us back to our meditation cushions again and again. There’s something about that intention and presence that begins to fill our awareness.
We think we’re doing our practice, but I think our practice really does us. Slowly, or maybe not slowly, we begin to find that presence and intimacy when we’re in moments of stress and anger and reactivity. And I begin to realize that when I’m agitated or scared or angry, I’m in my practice. We are in our practice in every moment, just as much as when we’re in the blissful moments of clarity here at Harwood.
Maybe you’ve heard me say this. The best Dharma talk I ever heard was by David Rynick, one of the founding teachers of our parent group, Boundless Way Zen. He was talking about what do you do when you’re completely seized by a powerful and hard emotion – fear, for instance. He says, “Great! Just be a Buddha of fear.” Another teacher, Mike Fieleke, says, “Scared? OK. Just show up that way.” I think they’re telling us the same thing.
What they are not telling us is to allow that rage or fear to control our actions, or to harm others. Maybe we can change the term a bit: be a Boddhisatva of fear, to remind ourselves to be present with compassion, for ourselves and for all beings.
What they are saying is be completely present with your experience. Remember our practice starts with observation and curiosity.
When we’re angry or agitated, we can notice our own scolding thoughts, telling us I shouldn’t be experiencing what I’m experiencing. We can just let them arise and observe them. Instead of trying to escape or wrench ourselves away from the miserable sensations, we can remind ourselves just to be curious. We can notice my quickening heartbeats, our clenching muscles, or the blood rushing to our faces. Just pay attention to it. Just be intimate with it.
Maybe David’s teaching is not just the best Dharma talk I have heard. Maybe it is the best Dharma talk there is. Maybe it’s the only Dharma talk there is: just be intimate. Be a Boddhisatva of intimacy with what is. Just be here. Just this.