17 November 2009

Here and Now...and There

Was sitting this morning and thinking.... Whoops.

Well, I've learned this much: I'm not going to use any of the following verbs "supposed to" or "ought" or "should" when it comes to what goes on when I'm sitting. What I keep hearing and reading in Zen Buddhism is: "Just sit."

That means let it all pass by: the ideas, the stories, the plans, the regrets, the fantasies, the to-do lists, etc etc etc. It doesn't mean that this stuff isn't going to come up but this moment, as it is, is all there is so sitting in this way is a pretty rigorous exercise in retraining my mind and body to stay in the here and now. Given a lifetime atrophy of the mental focus to do that, it is no wonder sitting can be so uncomfortable.

All this is a flimsy acknowledgement of the fact I got stuck this morning on one notion in particular and it was caused by a letter from my ten-year-old niece, Marley.

It was the best letter ever. My niece wrote to thank me for some silly birthday presents I'd sent (let's just say, soap in the shape of dentures was among them) but it was my first real letter from her and it was really fun to get. I can't share the contents because the final sentence said: "Don't show this letter to ANYONE els!!!" (sic)

So, as I was struggling this morning, to "stay in the moment" which included letting go of an unpleasant dream and the free-floating, low-level anxiety of every-day living, I used the thought of Marley's letter to reframe my perspective of my life. I have a ridiculous number of things in my life that call for gratitude and, this morning, that letter and all that it signified, topped the list.

There is no way to keep counting my breaths from one to ten, over and over again, when you're thinking all of these things. That is what beginner sitters are supposed to be doing until their mind is still enough to no longer need the prop of counting. After more than twelve years of off-and-on meditation, eighteen months of zazen, this is my progress: I can watch my mind working. If a really delicious topic comes up, it may take me a bit to notice I've gone off somewhere, but I do eventually notice.

But here's my question, the question that came up for me this morning: If it weren't for my curiosity, my ability to think several steps out, to concern myself with the problems I see in the world, to imagine something better, I'd never have started this project or come to Buddhism in the first place. It is precisely that curiosity and plan-making brain that gets me to the mat and enables me to keep coming back to it, to see what might happen down the road if I put up with the discomfort of the present effort. So I'm supposed to sit and toss what supplies both the determination to sit and the steady stream of mind chatter that makes sitting so difficult? No wonder Zen Buddhism is rife with riddles.

Second, that letter from Marley isn't "in the present moment," right? It was only in the present moment when I read it. I guess it will be in the present moment when I answer it. But what's so bad about indulging in the glow of it for as long as possible? Yes, it can take me out of where I am and what I'm doing right now, for instance, as I type this on a bright sunny Southern California day at a desk covered with books, papers and a cooling cup of tea because my thoughts are also in Texas with that ten-year-old who has given up pink for lime green.
I mean, isn't one of the very first skills we learn as an infant "object permanence?" You know, that just because an object is behind my father's back doesn't mean that it ceases to exist. The Buddhist focus on impermanence makes a lot of sense to me most of the time. How can you argue with the fact that absolutely everything you can think of is, finally, impermanent? But, within the confines of my daily life, it feels very difficult - and perhaps even counter-productive - to apply this notion of impermanence to joy, true though it may be. I am attached to my niece and that attachment will eventually cause me suffering but I am okay with that. I plan to wring as much joy out of that note as I can for as long as I can, even if it causes me to miss a few of my own breaths.


  1. We are Americans, after all. We learn that life consists of active verbs: doing, talking, achieving, planning, winning (losing, too!). Silence and stillness are rarely taught or modeled or praised. It took me years of First Day meetings -- and Fifth Day, and silence before bed and at meals -- to shed scenarios and desires and commentary and just wait.

  2. For me the crux of your perspective is found in your viewpoint of joy. I believe that the experience of joy is what we are after - without conditions attached. My parents did not develop us well for the real world - huge family - but what they did do is show us the grounded experience and quest after joy. The joyful experience of being human w/out conditions. Even during hard times, it is the driving force. Thanks for giving me a perspective on joy I had not thought of.

  3. Deborah, when you refer to "First Day" and "Fifth Day" meetings are you talking about Quaker meetings? If, so what's the difference?

  4. R:

    What a lovely note. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

  5. Marley, "Fifth Day" is Thursday -- many Quaker schools have a school meeting for worship on Thursday -- like an assembly, only not. I moved from a kind of chosen enforcement, Meeting for Worship on Sunday, to a self-scheduled period of silence. There's a famous Quaker family story, by the way, of a child visiting a friend for dinner and returning home to say, "Mommy, in that family they stare at their plates before dinner, too!"


I'm interested in any and all comments although it may take me a while to post them.