Transcribed from a talk given November 4, 2008
I wanted to talk a little bit this week about commitment. Last week, I feel a little like I came off a bit off a heavy for those of you who were here. I was speaking about difficulty facing the wall in practice-- how we react or how we respond when, as we continue to practice, difficult stuff begins to come up in our meditation or our life. Commitment seems to be something that we struggle with... I don’t know if it’s a modern thing, or if it’s a cultural thing, or if it’s just something that people have always struggled with ... commitment. Whether it’s committing to a course of education or whether it’s committing to a job or whether it’s committing to a spiritual practice or relationship ... it seems like we have a great deal of difficulty committing.
One of the more common conversations that I have with women has to do with the difficulty in extracting commitment from their significant others. We’re always looking for this way that we can sort of have our cake and eat it too. How we can have the good aspects, what we call good aspects, of a relationship or spiritual practice or employment or education without having to commit ourselves, without having to give ourselves fully to what it is that we’re doing.
I feel that I am highly qualified to talk about this, not because of my remarkable ability to commit, but rather because of my remarkable, historical ability to avoid commitment. I was definitely one of the guys that I think my significant other spoke frequently about the difficulty of extracting commitment from me. But I’m not going to get into those stories tonight. Spiritual practice is something that requires us to commit. When we find ourselves engaged in a path, we find early on, particularly with a practice like Zen, that there are some very rapid... quick effects, we start to notice a calming of the mind, we start to notice an improvement in our awareness, the ability to be present in this moment. And then as these changes begin to impact, begin to really take effect, as we begin to distract ourselves less from what’s going on inside of us... as the practice really begins to work this is where we start to struggle. This is where, if we’re going to break, if we’re going to leave, if we’re going to turn away from practice this is the place where we’re going to do it.
It isn’t any different than commitment in other aspects of our lives. Who can’t enjoy relationship in the first couple of months where everything is fresh and new, where everything is a new discovery and a new spell and a new sensation? But then after the newness, after the ornamentation begins to fade into the background, and we begin to see what’s really going on, this is when we break. Whether it’s relationship, or whether it’s employment or whether it’s our course of education or our spiritual practice it doesn’t matter... it’s at this point that we say, `Ohhh, you know, this looks like it’s going to be work, and I think I’d rather do something else'.
So take caution. We have to be wary of this because, just as I was talking about last week, we have this remarkable ability to distract ourselves from what’s going on. We can begin...in this culture of so many possible relationships, so many possible jobs, so many possible courses of education or spiritual practices... we have the opportunity to turn something which is aimed at realization, at deepening, at working through what is difficult, into just another distraction. Maybe as we continue to practice we find `Ohh, Zen’s tough ... it’s starting to feel like it’s too much work ... I think maybe I’ll try yoga, that’ll be better. Or maybe I’ll try martial arts, that might work’, but what happens is we start to find that it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter what it is we choose if it’s authentic practice, whether it’s yoga or whether it’s martial arts or whether it’s a committed relationship, sooner or later we come up against this difficult spot where the shininess isn’t functioning anymore and it requires us to make an effort, to engage.
My point, I guess, is that this difficulty, this struggle that we face each time we cut through the honeymoon isn’t dependant on the activity that we’re doing, it’s not because of the relationship, it’s not because of the job, it’s not because of the courses that you’re taking or the spiritual practice that you’re doing. It is rooted in how we hold our self. It’s the bag that we pick up and carry around with us wherever we go. So it doesn’t matter if you quit doing this practice and it doesn’t matter if you break-up that relationship or quit this job or decide to move to a whole different course of study or different school. No matter where you choose to sit, no matter where you choose to practice, no matter who you choose to spend time with it’s always going to involve YOU. There’s a great Bob Marley song `You’re running, and you’re running, and you’re running away... but you can’t get away from yourself’.
So in Zen practice what we do is we ask you to commit, and there are many different ways that we can practice commitment. It’s in the way that we bow. Do we bow as a function of fulfilling what’s expected of us, because we have to bow, kind of dip our head, or do we understand that in this moment what is called for is bowing? Do we turn into the moment and give ourselves completely to the activity of bowing, dying into the activity of bowing? Nothing else to do... nowhere else to go...we begin here in Zen practice. Each moment, each breath that we experience in practice offers us an opportunity to die, to stop running, to stop looking for the next way of getting away from ourselves, avoiding what’s going on. It offers us an opportunity to commit.
Zen practice, I think, is a very steep wall because there isn’t a lot of allowance for half measures. In the formal discipline we ask for commitment. If you don’t want to commit that’s o.k. but you shouldn’t practice then, you should go do something else. Find something else that you can commit to... if you’re going to commit to practice we ask for full commitment. Give yourself to practice fully without hesitation. People start to think ‘what’s this guy asking us to commit to ... what is it that we’re being asked to do?’
This practice is about living your life. This practice is about not being distracted by thinking, reminiscing about the past or dreaming about the future. It’s about committing to the activity of this moment...committing to the activity of arising in this moment...being born together with everything else in this vast universe, in this moment. It’s committing to letting go...completely allowing all things to dissolve...to disappear. It’s committing to experiencing ourselves as not separate, not two...to experiencing ourselves as one with all things in this vast universe.
Commitment is frightening. For most of us, when we’re confronted in such a face to face way with a request or demand for commitment, our general approach is to immediately run in the opposite direction. But when it comes to practice, and for that matter, when it comes to life...when it comes to our relationships...when it comes to our work...when it comes to our education...each moment offers us the opportunity to commit. To commit to what’s going on in the moment that is unfolding before us, to commit to the activity of this moment which, as I say over and over again, is the content of our lives.
We keep running...we keep trying to avoid that which is difficult that arises in this moment. But all we’re doing is running from ourselves... running from our own life... running from what’s happening right now. In the first koan of the Mumonkan, which is a collection of teachings in our tradition, in the comments there’s a statement that if you are unable to break through this barrier, if you’re unable to commit to what’s happening in this moment, then you’re condemned ‘to live like a ghost, clinging to bushes and weeds’...looking for comfort, looking for shelter, looking for distraction and this and that...a half person.
So, what I want for all of you, what I want for everybody, is for you to give rise to the courage to meet the commitment of your life. Stop running around trying to get away from yourself. In the studies that you’re engaged in, focus! Commit! In the work that you spend your time with, commit! Stop looking around! In the relationships that you’re using your life doing, commit! In your spiritual practice, commit!
If you’re in a situation, whether it’s your spiritual practice, whether it’s your relationship, whether it’s your job, whether it’s your school and after serious consideration you just don’t feel like you can commit, then get out! Find something that you can commit to!
There’s another saying in our tradition, it’s a verse that’s often said. ‘Birth and death is the great matter. Time passes us by us swiftly, and the opportunity to realize is lost. We must strive to awaken... AWAKEN! LISTEN UP! Don’t waste your life!’ If you’re engaged in something, whether it’s work, or school, or relationship, or practice and you’re not committed, you’re just burning the candle for no reason. Get in, or get out!