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.”

To stretch

The pain in my legs has diminished considerably, but the pain in my heart has spiked.

Over the weekend, after feeling good and strong and together, I lost it on Sunday when some old stuff came up — probably as a result of all the sitting I’ve been doing.

I should have expected it, I suppose, because this has happened before when I was spending a lot of time on this self-improvement stuff. I guess I’m just out of practice.

Anyway, a whole truckload of crap came up, and my Sunday was hijacked — well into the wee hours of Monday, which I cannot afford to have happen. And I’ve ended up paying dearly for that mess.

Dearly, I tell you. Dearly.

Anyway, an interesting thing has happened, since I started sitting regularly. In the past couple of weeks, I have found my upper back to be a whole lot easier to crack than ever before. For as long as I can remember, my upper back has been stiff as a board — very tight with almost no movement. Even my chiropractors have never been able to really crack it.

But lo and behold, since I’ve started sitting (with pretty careful posture), I have been able to crack my back and move and get a whole lot more mobility in my upper back. Pretty cool, that. And when I crack my back, I get this incredible surge of really great energy.

It’s good to stretch. I just have to remember that with the stretching can come some aches and jabs. If I can keep that in mind and “manage to it” then I can handle it.

But not paying attention… well, that’ll get me every time.

Battling Zazen

Just sitting can be a struggle

So, after often reading about people’s legs going to sleep during zazen… and having all sorts of pain that you have to work through and overcome… in the past couple of days, I’ve gotten to that place.

Legs falling asleep. Ankles aching. Knees and hips stiff and sore and full of pain.

In Living and Dying in Zazen, Kosho Uchiyama says that zazen and old age are the same. That zazen prepares you for old age. And if old age is synonymous with your body doing unexpected things and insisting on its own way, no matter how painful it is and how uncomfortable it makes you, then yes, old age and zazen would appear to be the same.

Old age is a ways off for me, but zazen is right here, right now. And I realize that after having gotten back to it — actively engaging in it once more around the 2012 holiday season, when I HAD to get some relief of some kind, and no other avenue offered me solace — zazen is the path I’m on. Some would say, “Oh, that means Zen,” yet I would respectfully disagree. Zazen (to me) is a practice that can overlap with Zen, and since “zen” is in its name, then you’d expect it to be part and parcel. And yet, perhaps zazen encompasses Zen, as it’s something … other.

Now, I am not an expert in this. No way, no how. And I will very likely never be an expert in “it” — whatever that may be. Probably the best I can hope for is to realize till the end of my days, that I’m in no position to pose as an expert in any respect whatsoever… and that if others seek my help or input in any way, what they can expect from me is not so much expertise and reassurance from some philosophical or theoretical standpoint — rather a free and willing offering of my own experiences and my observations about what I think worked and what didn’t, so that they might avail themselves of my lessons and possibly go about their own full-bodied, mindful experiments in life.

Yes, that’s the best I can hope for, truly.

Anyway, back to the battle.

Yesterday (I can’t remember if it was during my morning, mid-day or evening sit), I noticed that my left leg was feeling strange. It was going through a combination of falling asleep and getting cramped up. And GOD, how it wanted to move! I mean, it was crazy. Every cell in my left leg started screaming to MOVE!!! and there was nothing I could do to get it to shut up. This crazy numbness was taking over my ankle… then my foot… then moving up my calf to my knee… and a heavy, cold ache was radiating out from my foot, as though my foot was dying. And this with 15 breaths left to go (for the record, I count my breaths and go to some number — sometimes 40-something, sometimes 50-something, sometimes 60-something, sometimes 100).

You would have thought those 15 breaths were eternity. I wanted nothing more than to move my leg, to get out of that posture, to take the pressure off, to just stretch. I felt trapped, pinned in place, helpless, hapless, stuck. And in pain. God, it was awful. I tried thinking about other things, but my left leg kept bringing my thoughts back to it, and I had this idea that I was going to permanently damage myself… with only 10 breaths to go… I wanted to speed up my breathing and move through to the “end” as quickly as possible, but that was no good. What was the point of sitting zazen, if I was just going to bolt, as soon as things got tough?

What indeed?

So, I stayed. I sat. I kept my breathing slow and steady and focused on my posture and counting my breaths. In fact, since yesterday was Saturday and I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be, I decided to push myself a little more, and go past my “quota” for that sit. I chose to breathe through the pain and discomfort and added about another 10 breaths onto the end of what I’d originally planned to go to. Maybe I wanted to see if I could do it. I found out — I could do it.

And when I got to the end of my counted breaths, I could stretch.

Funny thing was, though, that when I was finally able to move, I didn’t get the immense relief I was expecting. The pain subsided, but it wasn’t replaced by euphoria or anything like that. In fact, when I stretched out my leg, it actually felt less painful and cramped than in the past. Now, one of the things about this is that I’ve only been able to sit cross-legged in the past six months. All my life — nearly 50 years of it — I’ve been extremely tight, and sitting cross-legged has never been easy or comfortable for me, until I started pushing myself to do it in the past six months. Now it’s quite comfortable for me, when I’m sitting on a cushion. It feels normal, even, which is more than I ever thought I dared ask. But the first months of training myself to sit cross-legged have found me unable to move my legs without sharp shooting pains, after I unfolded my legs from the position. There have been plenty of times when I had to spend a lot of time after my sitting, stretching and massaging my legs and struggling to walk around after getting up.

Yesterday, though, after I unfolded my legs (and was expecting some sort of excruciating pain), there was none of that. Quite the contrary. My legs actually felt normal. And I was able to get up and walk around without the usual pain and stiffness. Strange. I guess maybe the pain “quota” happened up front, so that when I got up, I wasn’t bothered by it.

One thing that surprised me was that after I started to move after this slightly extended sit… after I had done this fairly impressive thing of overcoming the urge to move and get some relief, I expected to feel some sort of elation or pride. But I felt the exact opposite — I felt equanimity. I didn’t feel a rush of anything, either pride or shame. I just felt… steady. Very matter-of-fact. Not thrilled at all. Just … so.

Of course, I was relieved that I hadn’t totally trashed my legs, after I finished yesterday morning/mid-day. But I wasn’t overcome by a rush of emotion — intense relief that I’d escaped some potential danger. It felt more like a little pulse of realization — a silent message that Yes, I’m fine. I’m not hurt. I haven’t hurt myself. In fact, I feel quite well. Not dramatic, just so.

I think the same kind of thing happened during the mid-day or evening sit, but yesterday is a bit of a blur to me, now, so I can’t say for sure.

What I can say for sure is that today, this morning, when I sat, I had the same sort of experience. I was fine and doing well for the first 3/4 of my sit, then at the very end, when my mind had quieted considerably, my left leg started freaking out on me again. I’d spent the first half of my sit with monkeys running around in my mind, jumping from limb to limb in my limbic system and only managed to get myself to quiet down after 20-some breaths — the last 5-7 of them deliberately slow and steady (in fact the deliberate slow, steady breathing preceded the monkeys chilling out, so I’ll have to remember to do that more, ’cause the monkeys are just driving me nuts, lately).

After 20-some breaths, I got into the zone where I was good and fine and feeling much more relaxed and centered… then the pain in my left leg started in, around 30-some breaths. The weird thing was, I suspect my leg had been feeling that way for a while, I just hadn’t noticed it because the monkeys were keeping me occupied. Once I settled in, however, the pain and numbness and discomfort thing started. The overall sense of it was worse than yesterday, with sharp pains and dull throbbing and numbness and a really intense desire to move. Interestingly, however, I didn’t have the same panicked reaction to it that I had yesterday. I was able to sit with it better today. It was like I was familiar with the sensation, and while it wasn’t particularly pleasant, it was just what it was, and I knew it wasn’t going to last forever (or, I hoped so, anyway).

It was still extremely uncomfortable, I have to say. And it was driving me crazy, just sitting there, while my leg ached and throbbed and pained me and felt like it was falling off. It really felt that way, and everything in me wanted to move just to get some relief.

But no, that wasn’t the point of sitting. The point of sitting was to just sit. To sit through it, and not let the sensations dictate my actions and choices. I was the one making the choices in that situation, and because I’m committed to this path, I chose not to move, but to sit with it. Still and silent and counting my slow, steady breaths.

Again, when I got to the end of my breaths, I sat for just an instant longer than I could have, and when I stretched out my legs, I didn’t feel a sudden rush of blood to my legs bringing their dying cells back to life. Nothing was dying. Nothing needed to be brought back to life. And I got up and made my bed and changed my clothes and got into my day. No biggie.

I think what’s happening is that my body is starting to settle into this zazen sitting in new ways. It’s adapting to this posture… I’m slowly moving towards half-lotus… and eventually full-lotus… and this is something new and different that my body doesn’t yet “know” it can do. So, as it shifts and adjusts, there’s going to be adaptation and adjustment in my bones, my ligaments, my tendons, my muscles. My body is going to have to learn to assume this new posture, and some lessons are harder than others.

The main thing for me is to keep steady. So that I don’t lose the ground I’ve gained. I’ve gone from sitting for a few minutes intermittently, whenever I get a chance, to sitting “religiously” each morning and again each evening — and at mid-day whenever I can. I’ve started stepping away when I’m at work to sit for 15 minutes. I’ve taken to practicing that slow, steady breathing while I’m driving, which is helping me to make the most of the commute to and from work, when I can’t be doing anything “productive” with my time.

I’ve been reading, too — Suzuki Shosan and other zen teachers (I won’t say masters), particularly those with a focus on zazen. Zen is fine. Buddhism is fine. But zazen is the main thing for me. I’ll get into why that is in more detail later, but for now, I’m focusing on this pain battle thing.

Yesterday and today when I sat, I felt tremendous pain, discomfort, and pressure. And I triumphed over that. I battled back the desire to move and get instant relief with what I hope is the kind of ferocity that Shosan talks about when he recommends having the energy of a “Vengeful Spirit of the Buddha Dharma”.

That man, born in medieval Japan in 1579, speaks as clearly to me now as I imagine he hoped he would speak to others in his day. It’s my understanding that he felt he’d failed… he was way ahead of his time, probably, and the Zen he teaches, with its emphasis on the vital energy and warrior spirit, also probably has appeal only for certain kinds of people.

I’m one of those people, and I’m glad I found him. All the Zen talk that comes across as mellow and non-confrontational and chill… it just makes me crazy. And while I don’t want to be judging anyone about their practice, I wonder just what people are doing when they’re sitting. It seems to me that sitting zazen is one of the most difficult and challenging, painful and uncomfortable activities a person can engage in, and if you don’t come at it with the stance of a warrior, with a ferocity that emanates from the tanden and radiates through your whole being, what the hell is the point?

Zazen, the way I’ve been experiencing it these past few days — and may continue to experience it for years to come (if I’m lucky?) has been a real battle for me. It’s been a real struggle, to keep level-headed and cool in the face of this overwhelming impulse to just MOVE…  And while I haven’t had this experience for more than a few days, it feels like it’s through and through me a though it’s been centuries in the making. Perhaps it has.

In any case, I’ll battle on. If anything, having it be a battle makes zazen more appealing to me. I’ll explain more later about why having it be a battle is particularly useful in my circumstances — much moreso than having a mellow sit or just sitting in calm mindfulness. There’s a bio-chemical-mechanical basis for this, which has deeply practical applications for the full spectrum of my life.

Shosan said, “Hone your fearless mind and become a Vengeful Spirit of the Buddha Dharma.”

Yes, do that.

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.

Five Points in Buddhist Practice – Shosan’s deepest wishes regarding practice

“The Buddha is infinite grace and perfection.  If you practice without aiming at infinite grace, you are not a disciple of the Buddha.  Now, without the ripening of your fearless mind, you won’t be able to make use of this infinite grace.  Infinite grace can be used to the degree that your fearless mind has matured.  That’s why I hope you will practice with this aim in mind.  Using this infinite grace involves detaching yourself from ego.”

Suzuki Shosan (1579 –1655)

Five Points in Buddhist Practice – it means nothing

The Master spoke again:  “Although I’ve written about these five stages, it means nothing.  I wrote about them because I will die soon, and I wanted to have people understand these teachings thoroughly.  But they cannot be applied in this way all at once.  It takes many lifetimes of continual practice before you can understand them and make a true vow to apply them in your life.  Don’t think you will make full use of them in one lifetime or even two.  Even though I have thoroughly understood these teachings and clearly grasped the seed, I’m still not able to use it freely.  You may discover gold, but if you don’t actually take it from the ground, you can’t make any use of it.

Suzuki Shosan (1579 –1655)

Five Points in Buddhist Practice – destruction of evil passions

The fifth point in Buddhist practice is the destruction of evil passions.  Here, the luxury-seeking mind, the flattery-seeking mind, greed, and the fame-and-profit-seeking mind all disappear.  I wrote about this mind and called it ‘the jewel used to pass through this life’ because people today mistakenly think that Buddhism is of no use to society.

Suzuki Shosan (1579 –1655)