Picking up Shosan… again

So, I woke up this morning at a good time. With the time change, it is later, but I had a long, long nap yesterday, so I figure I’m a little ahead of the game today.

And I sat. For a “long” sitting. I had a luxurious weekend sit that’s twice the length of my weekday sits. I stretched my back, set my posture, and started the long, slow counting of breaths that takes me to a “zero point” place — neither up nor down for any period of time, but a center point where I can return regularly to interrupt the automatic cycling of my mind.

It was a pretty typical time, although I can tell that I am becoming more acclimated to this renewed practice. I settle in more easily. I don’t have as fast a racing heart as before. I am more aware, more quickly, of the cycles of my breath. And while the thoughts still race, I am less distressed by them, when they do.

One thing I noticed towards the end of my sit today, was that I was not quite where I was hoping to be. It’s hard to put a finger on that ineffable quality I was/am looking for — many people have many names for it: Buddha-nature, satori, kensho, enlightenment, peace… many, many names, none of which I actually use. What I was/am actually looking for — I remembered, near the end of my sit — is a warrior quality, a focused quality, a vital energy… where was it?

Where indeed?

And I remembered (roughly) what Shosan said:

“In Buddhist practice we carefully guard the self. In the Soto sect, older monks and novices alike say, ‘Let go of the self.’ These are good words. Based on these words, I wrote in the Kusawake [Parting of the Grasses], ‘Don’t forget the self.’ Look carefully into this stage of practice. The importance of practice lies solely in guarding the self with care. All delusion arises when you relax your vital energy. So firmly fix your gaze and don’t relax your vital energy throughout the day. Remain sharp and alert while guarding the self, and the six rebellious delusions will be annihilated. You should guard it so thoroughly that even in your dreams you don’t let down your guard. Though you think your guard is sufficiently up, you may relax unknowingly and be overcome by delusion. Your horse-consciousness will run wild in a field of delusion; and your monkey-mind will prance about on branches of fame and fortune. Resolutely open your eyes, let the phrase, “Don’t be deluded” be your reins, brace yourself sternly, and keep up your guard. Don’t relax your vital energy for even a moment!”

So yes, I had relaxed unknowingly. I had relaxed to the point of not paying attention any more to Shosan’s words… letting my attention wander off to be drawn into exploits and endeavors over the past week that excited me, but also tired me out and depleted me. I had relaxed. In some good ways, in some other not-so-good ways.

And I had let down my guard. I had let myself get tired and had not reined in my horse-consciousness… as my monkey-mind pranced about on those alluring branches. I had dropped my attention, abandoned my focus, and so marauding hordes had overtaken my proverbial castle.

At the time when I was sitting this morning, I had not fully recalled the substance of Shosan’s words above. But I had recalled the gist. I’d remembered Shosan. I’d remembered Death. And I spent the last part of my sit this morning studying death, as he encourages us to do.

When I did turn my attention to death, at first it was tentative and ginger, like stepping out onto a frozen pond, feeling for thin spots or slush. But the ice held. And I stepped out farther. I thought about death, the sense of my spirit leaving my body, the hold that my body might have on my spirit… what it would feel like, what it would be like. The sense of this body no longer being animated, of the essence removing itself from the vehicle… some koan.

And the more I studied it, the more I felt it, the more I sense it, the more I realized it. I will not be here forever. None of us will. I must make all that I can of each moment. Each of us must. Or we lose an amazing opportunity — the ultimate opportunity.

No more bullshit. No mas.

“Only study death,” Shosan said. “Only study death.”

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.

Warrior of Zen

The Nio wooden Statue (Agyo)

For many years, I have been a practicer of zen – not a perfect adherent by any means, and not constantly devoted, but still practicing.

My practice has put me in the midst of the everyday. It has rarely taken me into the midst of others who practice formally.

Hence my moniker, solozen.

I have never found a zen approach which was 100% compatible with my world view — until I discovered The Religion of the Samurai and Warrior of Zen: the diamond-hard wisdom mind of Suzuki Shōsan.

This first post marks my first full day of working with this approach to zen — a warrior’s approach which makes the most sense to me of any.

If you read The Religion of the Samurai and Shosan’s words and agree with them, too, you may very well be like me — someone who sees great worth in this path, but needs a different approach than the usual, in order to live it more meaningfully.