Transcription of talk given March 20, 2007
Some time ago I made a comment during one of the discussion circles that I actually got a couple of emails about afterwards. And the comment was that, “it worries me, when people talk about Zen practice as being their place of calming, of escape: ‘the place where I come to relax and get away from the business of my life’”. It worries me because this practice works. In spite of our best intentions, in spite of what we think is happening, in spite of what we think this practice is for, if we do this practice, it functions, it brings about awakening, it brings about awareness.
In the beginning of our practice, there is this wonderful feeling in Zen practice. For the first time we have this opportunity to sit, to be with our bodies, to be with our breath, to be with our mind. And as we sit we find that the busyness begins to settle out. We begin to experience a calming of the mind, of the body. We experience some stabilization in our emotions. And we begin to think, “Oh, this Zen stuff is really starting to work, this is great.”
But then, for many people, they come to a stage in practice where suddenly there are some cracks in the firmament; all of a sudden, sitting is something which I find difficult to do. All of a sudden I’m finding excuses to not sit. All of a sudden I’m finding that my thoughts, or my emotions, the way I’m interacting in relationships or at work is getting really raw all of a sudden; I’m sharp, I’m grumpy; What’s going on? Zen practice doesn’t seem to be working anymore.
The reality is Zen practice is continuing to work. The beginning of practice, this settling, is just the tip of the iceberg, it is just the beginning. This settling allows us to come into a place where we can actually begin to investigate our lives. We can begin to look at our habit patterns, our fears, our anxieties. In the beginning we have these busy minds, these busy bodies, and we think that that’s the source of our difficulty. But in truth, these things are fruits. They’re the results of deeper difficulties. They’re the results of how we deal with our fear, how we deal with our anxiety, how we deal with our grief, and our anger.
We feel lighter as these things settle down. But what starts to happen is that we begin to get closer to the source of our difficulty. We become closer with our grief, closer with our anger, closer with our anxiety and our fear. We begin to gain insight. We begin to be aware of our experiences in which our desires lead us to suffer. All of a sudden our practice becomes something which is quite uncomfortable. All of a sudden practice, which used to be our refuge, the place where we ran to, becomes something difficult and we have to make a choice in Zen practice at this stage in the game: do we give up and go find something else which makes us feel good again, or do we take a stand, or rather take a seat, and face what is difficult?
The teaching of Buddhism is that it is only in facing, only in gaining insight, and not running away from, not covering up, not avoiding these things which make us uncomfortable that we can ever be free of them. It is by breathing into these difficulties, experiencing then fully as not outside of us, not separate from us, but rather as the very content of our lives, that we can realize that in our attachment to them, our attachment in avoidance, our attachment in indulgence that we have made these things, these difficulties, the definition of ourselves.
Through practice, we investigate this thing that we call a self. And from the outset the Buddha taught that there isn’t anything that we can call a self; there is nothing fixed, nothing lasting, nothing permanent. But in our tradition we are asked not to accept anything as a matter of faith. We are asked to investigate this: “what is it that I take as a self?”
As we continue to practice we find more and more that these anxieties, these angers, these grief emotions, we are strongly attached to. We use them to strongly identify ourselves: “I don’t like that kind of thing; that kind of thing scares me; that kind of thing really makes me mad.” As we continue to practice, these ideas, these teachings—craving, desire being the root of suffering—goes from being an idea, suffering goes from being a concept—the concept of suffering, the idea of suffering, the idea of desire—to being an experience.
As we continue to allow the mind and body to settle we come into the experience of our own suffering. Maybe a family member dies, maybe a relationship breaks up, maybe an employment situation falls apart and because we are no longer distracting ourselves, we actually experience the suffering. And we can have these feelings like, “gosh this feels terrible and I shouldn’t feel this terrible.”
It’s a strange place that we find ourselves in when we feel that we shouldn’t be sad when somebody dies, we shouldn’t feel lost when a relationship breaks up. If not then, then when? And yet, even in these situations we find ourselves trying to avoid our emotions, avoid the difficulty, avoid the suffering. In Zen practice, when these situations happen, when we have taken the time to settle the mind, to settle the body, and we come into the experience of suffering it provides us with an opportunity to investigate these teachings not as an idea, not as a philosophy out there, but in the actual experience of what it is to live; “I’m suffering, where does it come from?”
We follow the teachings and it’s very easy to see that this statement, “suffering arises from craving.” We start to investigate what it was that we expected out of this person, or this relationship, or this thing.
I always observe in funerals that so many people are crying. When we really ask the question, “who is it that we cry for”, it’s rarely for the person who’s died, but for ourselves. We had some plan, we had some idea, we had some belief that this would go on and on and on, and now that it hasn’t we are at a loss, we suffer.
Now this stuff makes practice sound terribly difficult, uncomfortable and unpleasant, but this is the beginning of practice. It’s where we take this practice as being an idea that they talk about in universities, an -ism, Buddhism, and we start to engage in it as the practice of awakening; we start to investigate these teachings and apply them to our lives. And what we find is as we apply them, as we investigate the nature of our own desire, our own suffering, as we experience our lives as they are in this moment, we become free, less motivated by our desire, less fixated with “I am this” and “I am that.” We become more able to engage in this moment just as it is, without the expectation of it being this or other.
I like to say that as these emotions arise, one of the most important things that we can understand and take advantage of is the third jewel, sangha, community. I was talking to a student today and I said, “who is it that can’t practice when things are easy? Who is it that when it’s just a matter of calming the mind and calming the emotions can’t get their butt onto a cushion? Anybody can to that.” When we start to experience, gain insight into, our suffering pretty much anything sounds better than sitting. And this is when we have to investigate this teaching of the three treasures. There are three: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Having friends who can support us, having friends who have experienced this in practice, having friends who can help us to continue our practice when it is difficult is of tremendous benefit. I intended this Tuesday evening sit as an opportunity for people to come and try this practice out. If they found that it was to their liking, my hope was that they would get more engaged and come and take a course at the Zen Centre, become a part of the community and engage in practice at a much deeper level.
Some people have done that, some people have taken those steps. And many people haven’t; many people continue to practice on Tuesday evenings, and this is fine. But my concern is that as things get difficult, without connecting with that community, practice can just become too difficult; and off we go looking for another way to feel good. For me this is a really sad situation. So I encourage all of you, if you are finding yourself coming up against this in your practice, coming up against the icing—the crust is starting to wear off, “I’m starting to get edgy with my friends and family, I think it has something to do with practice”—then please, seriously consider going further, and seeking the support of the sangha, the community of practice.