Are the boxes supposed to be black?

Open sesame

Someone just told me that having black boxes makes my last two posts appear as though something is wrong.

The boxes are actually black by design. How’s that for a blog koan? The black boxes are what I think of when I contemplate death, as I have been, lately.

Black, because of the void it represents. A box, because death to me is a proverbial “black box” — some collection of mystery that can’t be discerned from the outside – a koan, of sorts, which is likely one of the reasons why Shosan urged “Study death” when students came to him seeking guidance.

Today I started the day sitting. I sat a (very) brief time yesterday morning and the morning of the day before. Not nearly long enough. I have had early appointments each morning, so that’s been my excuse for not sitting. I’m sure Shosan would disapprove. Early appointment? Then get up a little earlier to sit, you slacker. Of course, I tell myself that I’ve been working non-stop from morning till evening, on my feet and moving pretty briskly for the past five days, so that’s set me back, time-wise and energy-wise.

But still. If zazen is important to me — and it is — and if it’s a central foundation of my life — and it is — then I need to make the extra effort to just do it.

Enough excuses. Just get on with it.

Fortunately for my zen slacker self, I am pretty much OFF DUTY for the next five days, when I won’t be pressed for time to sit. Then I am back to my regular routine, where I can do some more work on my everyday “boring” practice. I put quotes around “boring” because it’s anything but — for me, at least. For others, the schedule and the discipline is drab and boring, but for me, it’s invigorating. And it makes so much more possible in my life. It’s pretty exciting, actually.

I didn’t always feel that way. I once felt like routine and structure were my worst enemies. I believe I felt that way because my fight-flight / rest-digest autonomic nervous system was fried, and I had to keep chasing excitement to feel alive, to feel like myself. I had to keep things “interesting” by constantly mixing them up and never doing the same thing twice. It was total chaos, but I thought it was “creative” because the adrenaline was always flowing, and I felt so alive.

The fact was, though, that I wasn’t being nearly as creative as I thought I was. I was just chasing one high after another — highs that never lasted. They never had any durability. It was just one quick fix after another.

Now THAT was boring.

Since I started getting my ANS more balanced out — with zazen, with breathing, with regular exercise and structure in my life — this has changed.

So, what does this have to do with a black box? It’s pretty simple. A black box is something that is completely and totally mysterious, which has no point of access. You just have to accept it as it is, and not question, only take on faith what it offers. Black boxes are usually put together by people in positions of some kind of power — technological, especially. Their secrets are either so complex that it’s no point in even questioning or exploring them, or they are so proprietary that no one is allowed to open them up.

Once upon a time, Religion was a black box. So was Government. So was Authority. And so was most stuff in life.

Including the autonomic nervous system and the things that trigger and drive us and “make” us do the things we do.

And nobody asked any questions. Or, if they did, they got burned at the stake or drowned or stoned or crucified or whatvever.

Things are different now, though. A lot of black boxes are being opened. Or, we’re finding out that they’ve been open all along, but we’ve been afraid to look at them.

The thing about zazen, is that when you really get down to it, you end up opening up a lot of boxes that used to be black and that used to be closed. It just seems to happen — not necessarily by intention, as there are always surprises, but by design.

Because what happens during zazen — and this is important for any warrior out there who is dealing with the challenges and after-effects of battles (of just about any kind) — is that the autonomic nervous system gets balanced. The fight-flight response is toned down, and the rest-digest part of us kicks in. The stress hormones and biochemistry that suppresses completely formed thoughts are reduced, and we become physically capable of complex thought.

That’s an important aspect of this all — that we are physically capable of complex thought and processing all the information that comes to us each and every day.

We are bombarded, day in and day out, with opportunities to evolve and gain enlightenment. As an elderly zen master once said, “We don’t practice zazen in order to get enlightened; we practice zazen being pulled every which way by enlightenment.” ( – Sodo Yokoyama from Living and Dying in Zazen, p. 25). Just keeping up is a challenge, and when you live full-on, as I do, you have to find ways of keeping your energy and your spirits up. That’s what zazen offers me. That’s what warrior zen offers me. That’s what studying the black box of death offers me — life.

In sitting and breathing, I balance my autonomic nervous system, which makes it possible for me to tap into ALL my energy WHENEVER I want/need/choose. When I balance my ANS, I am not driven by fight-flight-freeze. I am not constantly triggered by all the activities around me. I become myself again – I become capable of becoming more than I was before. When I am not fighting or fleeing, I literally have access to the full range of reason and strength and power and perspective that gets cut off when I am stressed and cramped and overwhelmed.

And the more balanced my ANS is, the more closely I can see into the black boxes of my life. They all open up, one by one. And they open by themselves, not necessarily by any hard work on my part. I’m not saying it’s all that easy, but it can be pretty simple, when you get down to it. I’m the one who complicates things.

I know it’s heresy to say that we can and do have an inside view to the black boxes of life. We’re supposed to just keep quiet, keep our heads down, and not make trouble, right? We’re supposed to just accept things as they are, and whenever we get some crumbs of hope or positivity, we should just be glad for that, and never mind asking for more.

But I’ll say it anyway — the boxes are not supposed to be black. We are supposed to see inside and understand the inner workings of them. We are part of it all, and we are entitled to learn what’s there — and learn how to use it. Sure, everything comes with a price, and the more power you have (and we do), the more responsibility you have to take. You just do. You’ll blow yourself up, if you don’t mind your sh*t. But any of us can step up at any time and start to figure it out. The only reason so many of us don’t, is that we’re conditioned to think we can’t. And we just settle into that “comfortable truth” for the duration of our victimized lives.

Needless suffering. Pointless “dukkha”, as I think it’s called. That shit can be reversed. It’s supposed to be reversed. Just sit. Quiet the stupidity in your brain and pay no attention to that ridiculous BS for 10-15 minutes a day, and see where that gets you. Breathe. Sit and breathe. At a slow cadence, that lets your autonomic nervous system calm down, already. Give it a rest. Give yourself a rest. And find out what’s possible.

For those who wish to see life as a huge black box that can’t be questioned or explored or challenged… for those who want to just take the words of the patriarchs on faith and at face value, this blog is not for you, and I’ll probably just piss you off.

But for those zen warriors who question every damn’ thing and aren’t willing to let the black boxes of their lives sit closed for long, come on down and make yourself at home.

Are the boxes supposed to be black? Oh, hell no.

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