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.


Finding that New Balance

Feeling it out...

No, it’s not about looking up as you’re driving out of Boston and seeing the New Balance logo shining brightly on the side of a building. It’s not about shoe shopping. It’s not about any of that.

It IS about finding my new balance and fresh center in the midst of this new way of living and being.

I’ve been sitting zazen regularly (some might say religiously) each morning since the week before Christmas, and it’s really starting to make a palpable difference in my life. I’ve got greater equanimity than I can recall having in many years. It’s also rekindled my interest in reading and contemplating — that, too, was gone for a number of years.

And all this sitting, all this being, all this breathing, has served to stir up a lot of “stuff” with me, and it’s putting me into a whole new relation to my life, which I can’t recall having in several decades. In truth, I used to feel this — something like 30 years ago. But ever since I ‘grew up’ and started to get ‘responsible’ it just hasn’t been there.

Now it’s back. Not sure I’m being clear, but I just wanted to put this out there.

Zazen makes a difference. And a really good difference at that. Now I have to learn to handle the good… after so many years of becoming adept at handling the bad.

That balance has got to be there somewhere.

Think I’ll sit quietly till I find it (again).

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.

Never mind this enlightenment business

Looks pretty, but pretty won't last

This is how things changed:

One morning about 20 years ago, I was standing in front of my bedroom closet, looking for what to wear to work. Nothing in my life was going the way I wanted it to, I was intensely dissatisfied with just about everything around me, and I couldn’t see a way out of any of it. Not immediately, anyway.

I hated my job. I was doing work that didn’t suit me at a company I deeply resented. I wasn’t making nearly enough money to support my household, but the economy was unfavorable, and I didn’t feel I had the skills or the time or the energy to go out and find another job.

I didn’t like any of my clothing. It was all worn and boring and not very stylish. It didn’t suit me at all.

I didn’t like the apartment where I lived. It was full of fleas, the building where it was located was cheaply constructed of flimsy materials, the refrigerator kept icing up, my landlord was a hard-ass, we had trouble making rent, the neighbors were loud and obnoxious, and the space was too small for my family.

I had money problems. I was deeply in debt, my credit rating was abysmal, I could never seem to get ahead, and the expenses just kept piling up. My partner and I had lost one of our beloved cats while living in that apartment, because we didn’t have the money to get her the necessary medical treatment when she needed it.

I had relationship issues. My partner was usually angry with me, we were fairly estranged, and we couldn’t seem to overcome our differences. Many of our problems were related to money and social isolation, and those problems didn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

Everything around me seemed to be falling to pieces. My car had been nearly repossessed, and it wasn’t even worth the $400 I paid the repo man to keep it from being towed away. We had nearly been evicted from this apartment for a check that bounced, and there was never enough money to do anything we wanted – or even needed – to do. My partner was not able to get adequate medical and dental care, and they had a lot of physical ailments that had been problematic for some time. I couldn’t see my way out of the mess we were in, and any kind of positive change seemed miles away. I was operating in a constant state of low-level desperation, just trying to keep a few steps ahead of total disaster.

Now, I meditated regularly, but frankly it just pissed me off, when I “came back” to the everyday world around me. I did feel bliss when I was “away” in my meditative state(s), but the real world with all its aggravations was always waiting for me when I got back.

By no means was I in a mental, emotional or spiritual space that prepared me for what happened next.

As I stared resentfully at my clothes closet, suddenly I was suffused with a Light and a Knowing that I cannot fully describe. The heavens themselves seemed to open up above me, and I saw the dark and luminous universe filled with pinpoints of starlight cascade down towards me. I also felt myself opening up to it, melting into the celestial heavens above, and from above and below we merged as one. In an instant, the shirts and pants hanging in front of me blurred and melted away, and I felt all the world around me blend into one continuous, uninterrupted whole. There was no them, there was no me, there was no separation, there was no differentiation. There was nothing but the Truth that I was One with All.

In an instant, everything was revealed as right and in Divine Perfect Order. Everything was whole. Everything was intimately meshed with All That Is, and I was smack-dab in the middle of it. There were no hangers, no fabrics, no shirts or pants or shoes in the closet in front of me. There was no job, no apartment, no schedule, no bedroom, no indoors, no outdoors. There was no separation at that instant. There was only Wholeness, Completeness, the Knowledge that All Is Well and Everything Is In Its Right and Proper Place.

At that moment, I knew – I felt – I was ONE with All. I was One with my crappy, demeaning job, I was One with my unattractive wardrobe, I was One with my estranged partner, I was One with my rusty, dilapidated car, I was One with my flea-infested apartment. All was One. I was right in the middle of it. And everything was in Perfect Divine Order.

I stopped for a few moments, transfixed by the realization. I said nothing. I had no words for what I was experiencing. I could not move. I could not speak. All I could do was simply stand there, staring at my clothes, feeling the expansiveness grow and swim within me. I felt cells come to life, pulsing with light that unfolded to the stars… into the earth… melting and melding into the flowing vital essence that permeated everything in that room, all my atoms mixing and blending with the atoms of every created thing on this plane and all others. The universe in all its immensity expanded around me, then made itself known in my heart. In that moment, it felt as though years, even lifetimes, of blame and fault and error were wiped clean and made completely new. Everything that was or had ever been “wrong” in my life, no longer mattered. Not in the least.

At that instant, the truth about my essence being One and the Same as that essence which animates everything in the implicate and explicate orders, came front and center and went from being an abstract quantum concept (which I hadn’t yet encountered and wouldn’t read about for years, yet), to being a living, breathing reality. Indeed, I believe that much of my research over the following years stemmed from my innermost desire to explain just what had happened to me.

From that unexpected moment, I have never been the same. In the following weeks, months, years, I would frequently get surges of bliss while I was standing in front of my clothes closet, thinking about what to wear, first thing in the morning after I got out of the shower. That same type of realization of the truth about the universe would pulse through me, enlivening my cells and thrilling my entire being with an exhilaration that still to this day amazes me … and frightens me a little, too.

Nothing about my experience of life has been the same, since that moment. My entire world view changed “in the twinkling of an eye.” I’ve tried to describe this experience many times in many pages of writing, but it hasn’t been easy – again, it’s difficult to describe in words something that is visual and experiential and lots of other people have no concept of — or that the common assumptions of separation and alienation stubbornly attempt to ignore or suppress or wipe out, day after day, month after month, year after year, generation after generation. The best I can do, is try. And I have. But I have rarely succeeded to my own satisfaction.

Words cannot do that experience justice.

Ever since that day, I sense no real separation between “myself” and others. I sense no division between religions or faiths. My life has since been marked by a combination of earthbound disorientation, divine indifference, lack of attachment, unconditional acceptance, cosmic consciousness, moral weightlessness, peace that passeth understanding, and a sense of Love that is unparalleled by any human interaction I’ve had. It is both personal and impersonal, transmuting and transfiguring my life, yet wholly transcending it. If nothing else, there is… Love.

That experience served to turn me into someone quite different than I had been before. And yet, as much as it benefited me, it also hurt me. Because the more caught up in my “enlightenment” I was, the less involved in my everyday life I became. It was like I was in a trance of some kind, thinking that the only thing that mattered was my own elevation, my own perfection. It felt great, but it was hell on the rest of my life.

Bullshit. What matters is how I carry that into my everyday life. And the best thing to do, under the circumstances, is to remember that what I experienced is really, truly, nothing special – it’s the right and possibility of every single person. In fact, it’s the only true thing about us all – that we all have this capability, if we just quit trying to engineer something that fits our “logic” better than what life puts in our path.

Like Shosan, I have “decided it didn’t suit me. It was nothing more than a realization based on a particular state of mind. So, I [have] discarded it and returned by my previous state.”

It took me a number of years to get back to where I can just take it all in stride, and those were years of much hardship and inability to truly participate in my life as it presented itself to me. I caused others pain and disappointment and I failed to live up to my potential in so many ways. But now things are different. I am still a disappointment in many ways, and I fail frequently. But I am HERE. And that’s something.

Because even though that sense of newness, that sense of connection, is still with me, it is now in every part of my life. It’s not separate, it’s not reserved for special times away from the everyday. It’s not something that needs to be sheltered from the everyday and protected. It IS the everyday. It just is.

And like Shosan, I have deep reservations about putting it up on a pedestal to be revered and regarded as something unusual. It is very usual. It is normal. It is how we are, based on our states of mind — and body.

Thank you Suzuki Shosan, for talking sense to us.

Forgetting about enlightenment

Is the sun coming up or going down? ... ... Who cares?

From Warrior of Zen, page 35:

The samurai said, “After I practiced zazen for a while, light appeared before me. When I reported this to the Elder Mutoku, he said it was the light of the Dharma-body, and that if I exerted myself more and more, my whole body would be filled with light. I thought that I would become ordained and cultivate this practice for a sustained period.

The Master said: “You have made a great mistake. That light often appears because one’s vital energy is withering. If you treat it as something worthile, you will eventually go crazy. Haven’t you noticed a drop in your energy level?”

The samurai responded: “Yes, it has dropped quite a bit. The sound of something being ground in an earthenware mortar echoes in my chest until I can hardly bear it.”

The Master said: “Look at that! See how you’ve lost significant energy?” You still have valuable time left. Quickly discard this practice.”

Beware the “light” of “enlightenment” – it can lead you astray and leave you depleted and less “light” than before.

One of the things I really enjoy about Shosan, is that he repeatedly says to forget about enlightenment and focus on the everyday. He talks about farmers being in the perfect circumstances to practice. And he talks about merchants also being in a great position to practice. Because they/we are in the midst of the flow of life. And zen/zazen is not only something for the cushion, but something for the everyday.

“Always practice,” say the zen masters whose words I have been reading lately, in addition to Shosan. Living and Dying in Zazen shares this with us.

Shosan goes on to talk on page 36 about experiencing Kensho and dancing with gratitude, “feeling that nothing existed.” Then he discarded that, because he realized it did not suit him. And he went on with his life.

I, too, have had those kinds of experiences. Several of them changed my life completely and altered forever how I see and relate to the world. But they were only gateways to the Greater Matter — the matter of living my life to the best of my ability… the matter of maintaining equanimity and composure in the face of anything and everything.

No matter what.

I think I’ll write more about this in a moment.

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.

Other deaths…

I have been thinking about studying death, wavering today between resisting what is in front of me, and engaging full-on by choice. I have these waves of reluctance, of hesitation, of holding back, that plunge me into a rigid mindset that makes me feel like I have no choice in the matters of my life.

It’s a terrible feeling, but one that has followed me throughout much of my life.

It feels like I’m dying. And it doesn’t feel good.

When this comes up, I am reminded of a short story I heard about once, that was the tale of a Japanese couple who had terrible money troubles. They were in such bad shape, that they made a pact to kill themselves, rather than continue to live under the burden of their debts. But when they immersed themselves in their suicide pact, and they prepared to die, they realized that a different kind of death was freeing them – the willingness to die at any time.

They essentially died to their present lives and plunged head-first into a quality of living that cause them to “die” to the life they wanted to leave – without needing to physically kill themselves.

And they were free.

I have no idea who wrote the story – I just heard/read about it one day – but the lesson stays with me. The act of dying, the choice to die, can take many forms. You can end your physical life. Or you can end your dependency on a certain type of physical life. You can end a certain outlook that has been “life” to you. You can be ready to die – physically or mentally or spiritually – at any time.

And this sort of death can be studied, though the types of vital energy that are released feel quite different to me. The vital energy released from studying my physical/material death feels much more physically compelling, than, say, the vital energy released from studying the end of a certain mental or spiritual frame of mind/being. It is all a kind of dying, and it can all be studied, while sitting.

I’ve been studying it this morning, as I’ve gone through the actions of my day — actions I do not want to participate in, but must, because this is my job and this is where I am right now. Letting go of that kind of thought, that mindset which pits me against what is right in front of me… letting that die… it’s making today better than bearable. It’s making it fine. Rising and falling. As it is.

Shosan talks about the importance of doing zazen in the course of your day, not just at appointed times. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve done for years, even before I ever found out about Shosan. I do it, not because he recommends it, but because it makes sense.

As it is.