After the evening sitting, we stow the zafus and return the zendo to its pristine state. William regrets not being able to meditate properly tonight. His head is filled with thoughts of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday — the family he has not seen for ages, the tasks remaining to be done. Matthew sympathizes with him. His sitting didn’t go so well either. He is consumed by impotent rage about the conflict in Gaza. He wants to knock heads together to bring about peace. I am the grizzled Zen veteran in this conversation. I tell William to lighten up, that getting lost and returning is the very heart of Zen practice. I tell Matthew that his passionate anger is understandable, but can he sit with it and see what it is doing inside of him? Can he breathe and observe without feeding it, without denigrating it? Can it be transmuted into skillful and compassionate action? The world is, at times, a violent and terrible place, and we are only one drop of water in this storm-tossed sea. Can we see what’s possible for us to accomplish as this one drop — committed, firm and resolute — but without grandiose aspirations to omnipotently control the ocean? Show up, pay attention, do what’s needed — and then let go?
William and Matthew are at the start of their Zen journey. They’re beginning to learn that sitting isn’t about perfect concentration and bliss, but about seeing the mind as it is — a mirror that reflects everything — including the energies of holidays and far-off conflicts. Thoughts about these ongoing events rise and stir the emotions. The goal is not the elimination of these thoughts and emotions, but developing our capacity to observe them in a kind and interested way. If all that we can observe is how helplessly caught up we are in them — how our minds have a mind of their own — then that, in and of itself, is the beginning of wisdom. We are not the masters of our own house, and learning to work skillfully with the energies at play is the work of a lifetime.
We tend to label our experience — good sitting, bad sitting. Zen is about dropping labels. Every sitting reveals the mind as it manifests in this moment. If we haven’t slept, the mind is drowsy. If we had an argument, the mind is agitated. Everything is the result of “causes and conditions.” Our minds too. That’s the way it is.
If we try to stay with being with things as they are, if we try to stay present and aware, sometimes the mind calms down. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the energies that are roiling the mind are too intense to be conquered by our weak intention to be present. That’s how this moment is. The next moment may be different.
Can we see that and let it be — without judgment?
Sitting is a strange process. In the beginning, it’s hard to grasp what it’s all about. Later on, it doesn’t get much easier. The only thing that’s clear is “just do it.” Whether the sitting is “good” or “bad,” just do it. You never get any better at it. Not really. But this whole idea of “getting better” is part of the problem, the endless self-improvement and self-manipulation game.
We don’t sit to get better. We sit to be with life as it is.