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.”

Advertisements

When nothing is everything

I once read somewhere that a state of “blah” that most people complain about is actually the ideal for a spiritual practitioner, especially those of the Buddhist ilk.

That being in that place of neither-good/neither-bad is the optimim “locale” for our spirits, when we’re on this path.

And it made sense.

I also found it comforting.

I still do, in fact, as today I am feeling particularly “blah” — neither-good/neither-bad — which in the modern US mindset is actually “bad”. Somehow, we need to have something going on, all the time, or we’re not being “productive”. We’re not being “effective”. We’re not being the “change agents” we’re supposed to be.

Blah blah blah. Life is its own change agent. It doesn’t need me jumping in.

An Indian colleague once told me “Nirvana means ‘naked’ so when you’re experiencing Nirvana, you’re naked.” And he giggled. He was a funny guy. And he liked to have fun.

I’ve never forgotten what he said.

And I look around me at the world as it is. I read Gudo Nijishima. I think about the earthquake in Japan and and Suzuki Shosan, and I think about the story I once heard about — a short story about a Japanese couple who were having terrible money problems. They were in such dire straits, they planned to commit suicide together. Then, when they were about to do it, they realized that if they simply lived their lives as though they were ready to die at any moment, they could actually be free of the spectre of financial insecurity.

And so they decided to live.

I wonder if this is what Shosan talks about when he urges us to “only study death”… if he realized that this was the only way to truly find the freedom to practice. I know that it has helped me, the study of death. And in it, I do find freedom. To practice.

Today I am reading Nijishima, eating peanut butter & crackers, drinking water, and making a point of not chasing anything. I watch and wonder and offer what I can in return, but I intend to not chase.

Which is hard. No sooner do I state my intention to not chase, than I start following something or someone, to see where it leads. Much of our lives are structured around the Chase. In getting Something. In creating Something. In doing Something. If you get/create/do nothing, you’ve somehow failed to live up to your potential. If you don’t chase, you’re somehow deficient.

But what if all that is completely beyond the point of … well, everything? What if nothing is Nirvana? Nakedness. Nothingness. What if nothing is… everything?

First settle, then decide

Gray day...

It’s a gray day today. Perfect for laying low and reading and writing and doing a little work. Also perfect for taking care of some errands, as the weather tends to keep people inside watching television, which means less impedence when I’m out and about.

Some days, I just want to get things done. And gray days like today are perfect for that.

So, I’ve been wrestling with some conflicted feelings about my work / career. The path I started down 20 years ago, has turned a lot of corners in the past couple of decades, and I’m not sure it’s even where I want to be anymore. There’s so much hustle and go-go-going that plenty of days pass when I’m not exactly sure what I’ve gotten done. And I’m not sure when I’m going to get anything done. And I wonder if that’s even the point – getting things done.

I’ve been trying to change jobs, on and off, over the past three months. Some of the opportunities have sounded really good, others not so much. And I’ve been a little ground down by the process, really wanting to get out of the situation I’m in, but not seeing any good alternatives in my immediate future. Even the one that did look good to me, last week, seems more and more like a chaotic mess — out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The question that comes to mind, more and more, is “Should I stay or should I go?” And that old song by The Crash won’t get out of my mind.

So, I sit. I sit with it. And I breathe. And it occurred to me in the last day or so that rather than running after any possible alternatives right now, what I really need to do is just sit. Just sit with it. Let my autonomic nervous system stabilize, thanks to regular, steady zazen, and get the hell out of this damned constant fight-flight state.

Because fight-flight impedes clear thinking. And my thinking has been impeded for years, thanks to the line of work I’m in.

Now, you (and I) might think, “Well, if your line of work puts you in persistent fight-flight state, wouldn’t it make more sense to step away and make up your mind under different circumstances?”

Yes and no. I’m in a state of mind, these days (and have been, for years) that is so driven by adrenaline and sympathetic nervous system overdrive, that I really feel that a lot of my faculties have been dulled by the biochemical stress soup. My thinking is not clear. I can’t remember it having been truly clear, in terms of what I want to do with my life, in over 15 years. I’ve been bouncing from one crisis to the next, one health problem to the next, one money problem to the next, one family drama to the next, that some parts of my ability to reason have been severely tamped down and all but taken offline. I know how to deal with crisis. That’s a no-brainer — literally. But now I handle things going well… that’s a whole different story.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to sit with it. Literally sit. Every morning and every evening to the best of my ability. And I’m not going to think about it. Not about changing jobs, not about changing careers, not about anything job-related. I’m going to settle in where I am and focus on my semi-monastic zazen life. I’ll do it for a year — that’s the plan, anyway — or unless/until my job goes away or changes so dramatically that I cannot possibly continue in it and have to make a move.

I’m giving myself a year to settle down, settle in, and not go chasing after what’s-next, like I always have in the past. There’s no sense to it — literally. So, I’m going to give myself the room I need to get myself back on track, recover from all my sympathetic overdrive damage, and find a place in myself and in my life where I can actually think coherently and rationally and hopefully about where I want to go and what I want to do.

The thought comes to mind that, if I’ve been so stunted by all that sympathetic overdrive bias, what makes me think I can ever get any of it back.

Because that’s how the human system works. We’re plastic, we’re adaptable, and even though our brains may be dulled by an overabundance of adrenaline, we have a whole other half to ourselves that can heal that — it’s built to do just that. It’s the parasympathetic nervous system, and it is designed to get us to rest and digest, beef up the immune system, regulate the body’s automatic functions, and basically recover and recoup the depleted resources from (supposedly transient) crisis.

I need to give myself a year. I’ve been in one form of crisis or another for a long, long time — as long as I can remember, actually. And I need to just settle in and focus on strengthening my foundation for future growth. Most of all, I just want to enjoy myself again and learn how to relax. I’d like to work my way to being able to assume a half-lotus position in the next 12 months. I’d like to deepen my practice to sesshin level. I’d like to really delve into the whole zazen experience and learn firsthand what that is like, rather than reading the words of a lot of other people.

And I need to strengthen my vital energy, as Shosan talks about. I need to strengthen that with all my warrior zen might, because that is what will keep me going through it all. Sitting zazen regularly for a year, while the sh*t is hitting the fan (my workplace is actually really stressful and ridiculous and our home-office bosses are as out of touch as they are embarrassingly arrogant) is a way for me to cultivate the vital energy I require to progress and, well, get my life back.

Yes, get my life back — the vital energy that keeps me buoyed and on-going, in the face of whatever comes up.

We cannot always control the things that come up in front of us. But I sure as hell can strengthen the internal systems I have that will let me respond appropriately to what I encounter.

So that’s it.

Just sit.

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.

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.