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Sitting in the zendo…

by Ekyo Susan Nelson
Practice Director, Hokyoji Zen Practice Community

Sitting in the zendo at Hokyoji, I was serving as doan one day during Winter Practice Period and found myself multi-tasking in my mind during zazen, running through ideas for a dharma talk, activities for the family program, ideas for a priest training. When I noticed I was doing this, I pulled myself back and took a look at the time. Only 15 minutes had gone by! Being lost in my ideas and plans had seemed to make time move slowly, even crawl. That was surprising, and good motivation to drop the planning and come back to the body and breath without the sense of wasting time. It would have been wasting valuable time to continue to plan and to think.

Being the time keeper during group practice is an essential job. Because of the time keeper, the rest of us can relax into our moments. We don’t have to peek at the clock, or set an alarm. Once we get to the cushion, we don’t have to do anything but enter the moment, and bring our attention back when it wanders. Maybe we get in touch with the spaciousness that exists right in the middle of the busy, churning mind. Maybe we will have some insight into our patterns by taking the time to stop and notice what the mind is doing, and how that feels in the body. Maybe experiencing spaciousness will end up giving us more choice about how we react to what comes our way. Maybe so, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Just sitting is not about some effect, some goal in the usual sense. It is useless. In the times we’re living in, it’s becoming more and more countercultural to do something unproductive or useless. Of course, it is not useless in the conventional sense, either. It is both a valuable use of our time and without any value simultaneously. We need to respect time; thus the importance of the time keeper in Zen practice. But just because we respect time–our own and others’–we don’t have to be oppressed by it. Within time, the timeless space is always present. Time on the cushion gives us the opportunity to taste that, to enter into it and somehow that helps create space for us. The value of practicing in a group is that we are held by the activity of the time keeper, the others sitting next to us doing their individual practice alongside us, and the uncluttered practice space itself.

The simple activity of bringing the mind back to here/now, again and again, and noticing the mind’s tendencies is not easy. Simple does not equal easy, as we well know.  How often do we expect things to be easy, though, and then wind up feeling let down when they feel really challenging instead, anything but easy? How often do we catch ourselves harboring a belief like: “This relationship is too hard! It should be easier than this?” or ” This commute is too much. It should be easier to get around.” or “This weather is just TOO much! We should move to ________, where life is easier!”? Is it possible that doing things that feel hard to us, even arduous, like bringing the mind back again and again in a sesshin or retreat and not moving or resisting our experience, has some value for us?

Is it safe to say that we need to exert ourselves toward a noble or larger aim and to know that we have done so, and that in fact this is part of what brings satisfaction and meaning to our lives? If so, then isn’t our constant comfort-seeking a problem for us?

Zen practice and study always emphasizes direct pointing to the real, facing this moment with no escape and seeing clearly. Compassion and kindness arise from seeing clearly and facing what just is without turning away. What is helpful is to see our own foibles and tendencies clearly. We all share some common characteristics of being human that are problematic for us. Buddhism has systematized the precise study of all the ways that we make things difficult for ourselves. The Abhidharma is one such collection representing hundreds of years of studying the mind, which operates under basically the same kind of conditioning that people 2500 years ago were dealing with, our human conditioning. In addition we each have our own unique issues to work with that come from our particular genetics, family history and culture. Plus, we now have the effects of a sped-up society and technology to cope with.

No matter what standard against which we might measure our lives, we have plenty of material to work with on the cushion and off to do the work of uncovering our basic clarity and openness, our inherent freedom and good will. Then everything that happens to us is a teaching. This path is one that leads to more freedom, less bondage. This is not a part time job, but is actually a full time job, though I like to take time off to read and watch movies.  All we need to do is return, to remember, to come back to here/now, reflect on our actions to see where they may be out of step with our aspirations, and then return again.