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.

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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.