Good Sitting, Bad Sitting

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.

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10 thoughts on “Good Sitting, Bad Sitting

  1. “Can we see that and let it be — without judgment”

    A situation developed when I was visiting my son and his young family. We were on a day-long excursion at a museum, and just as we were leaving I asked one of the attendants if she could recommend a good place to have a nice meal. She gave us her recommendation and directions how to get there, and so we went. After quite a distance (and we were ‘starving’) we got to this out-of-the-way place, but immediately my son noticed a biker type of fellow and some motorcycles parked at this particular establishment. “Okay,” I’m thinking, “but this place doesn’t really look like a biker hangout even though it is rustic looking and way out here,” so I went inside to check it out. As soon as I entered I was greeted by a very friendly hostess, and many of the ‘bikers’ looked to be in their fifites (and sitting and interacting like any normal restaurant patrons). I told the hostess we had a two-year-old to which she replied, “Get them all the time!” and pointed to a few high-chairs off to the side. So, I went outside to reassure my son and his wife that this place is fine – is safe. But he couldn’t see past the motorcycles and one fellow leaning over a fence wearing ‘leathers’ and with a beer in his hand (it was a barbecue place with an outdoor patio where you get to choose and cook your own steaks, which sounded like a lot of fun). At one point when I was trying to deal with my son’s attitude and obdurate stance, one of the older lady bikers came over to our car where we were standing (I suppose she could see something was ‘brewing’) and with a very friendly demeanor started talking to us in a ‘is there anything I can help you folks out with?’ sort of way. My son rudely ignored her, while I politely tried to interact with her and my son at the same time. My son, however, was unmovable in his stance and so we had to leave, or else cause a real scene (and I felt real bad because ‘these people’ were really trying to be nice and accommodating).

    This event had a watershed effect for the rest of our visit – it put a real damper on it (and I should mention that my son lives many thousands of miles away and we don’t see him very often). At one point just before leaving to go back to our own home I told him something to the effect, “Listen, Ben, I don’t *judge* people, I *assess* situations. I take the people factor out of the equation and make a calculation as to whether the *situation* equates to being either good or bad, and to what degree. If Jesus could dine with the publicans and sinners (my son is an ardent Christian), then I think you could have dined with a bunch of older folk who drive motorcycles, wear leather protective clothes, and have a bottle of beer on the table.”

    Hope you don’t mind me sharing this, if it isn’t totally on topic, but above the quote reminded me of it. My son would certainly benefit meditating on some aspects Zen Christianity!

    Mmm…..am I judging him?

    Gassho

  2. wow, I love the name of your blog and your blog title. I’ve always considered myself to be somewhat of an existentialist, and I’m about spirit more than laws. I’ll be starting a Buddhist panel on my blog in a couple weeks. Interested in joining?

  3. For some reason I never got this on my notification. But thats okay. Glad someone clicked through from your blog because I forgot about it and want to read it more. I’ve been thinking about the link between existentialism and Buddhism -still trying to flesh it out. Maybe you have a post you recommend me?

  4. The advice I’d been given that most revolutionized my meditation practice was that there is no good or bad meditation. It’s all good because we’ve done it, even if the experience wasn’t what our minds had told us it should have been. I could hear this nugget of wisdom over and over again. Thank you for the reminder.

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