zazen

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 13 - 90 Days of Sitting

This is the thirteenth (and final) in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

The end, my friends!  It has been 90 days.  I was asked recently by a student who knew I was undertaking this challenge, whether I had “stuck with it.” I had to answer honestly: for the most part, yes.  Did I miss some days? Yes.  Did I meditate when I really didn’t feel like it? Also yes.  Do I regret committing publicly to meditating for 90 days? Not in the slightest. 

It has been over a week since the 90 days officially ended.  I have had a hard time sitting down to write this, the final post in this series.  It has felt like I have been doing this for a long time. Perhaps it’s ending has put off my writing.

Hopefully, I have begun the process of charting a path for some of you through the murky waters of engaging in a meditation practice.  I know I have begun that process myself.  I am still unclear where I am going, but I am at least a little more familiar with what the journey feels like.

As a way of bookending this little experiment, I would like to offer a few of the things that I learned along the way.  This list is personal, so your experience may (will) vary.

1)      Consistency is Key. I obviously missed some days.  What I found was that this was more likely to happen when I got out of the practice of practice.  As I have stated in a previous post, I like to meditate in the morning, after a few sips of coffee, before doing anything else.  For a while, I got into the habit of telling myself that I would meditate later in the day, or that evening.  While I sometimes would follow through, I was much more likely to skip these days if I broke up my routine.  My word of advice here is to sit, even if it is only for a few minutes (instead of the length of your regular practice) just to keep the mind and body on a schedule it can grow into.

2)      Presence is Passing. I very rarely found myself in the state that one might consider “present.”  My mind was a chaotic mess most of the time.  Thoughts about the day, my family, my work, the news, it all became a constant parade behind my closed lids.  Much of the “work” was just becoming aware that this was happening.  I would re-center, focus on the breath, relax my clenched jaw, and sink into an exhale. For that moment, I really felt lighter, and at rest. Then I would think about feeling that way, and off I would go again!  I really think this is a “enjoy the journey, not the destination” type of activity.  My insights came from doing the practice, not getting to any sort of enlightened state.  My advice here is to be okay with the process.  Be process-oriented and sit and watch and learn and breathe.

3)      The Body Speaks.  Sitting still for 10-30 minutes can be a strain on the body.  Even if one has mastered the art of aligning the body in a way that this is less of an issue, my experience is that when you aim to quiet the mind, the body’s voice can be heard.  In sitting, I became aware of imbalances in my flexibility, aches that didn’t exist previously, the internal sounds that are usually drown out by living and I found places that were doing just fine.  Our minds and our bodies are often seen as separate.   I found that sitting helped the process of reintegration of mind and body.  Emotional thoughts brought tensions in different places.  Relaxation was as much held in my hips as in my head.  On the days that frustration grew, it was often because I was nurturing a disdain for the body – feeling like the soreness of the knees or back or jaw was a betrayal.  It is no surprise that when one demonizes their own flesh, they end up in a foul mood.  My advice here is simply to listen.  In the same way we should listen to the other people in our lives with compassion and openness, we can extend this practice to our bones, our blood, our joints and our scars. 

4)      Complexity is Compassion.  I am reminded of something a teacher of mine once said (paraphrased): Becoming intimate with anything makes it less personal.  My practice opened my awareness to the complexity of my inner life.  The dialogues always running in the background, layer upon layer until it all just felt like white noise.  By really seeing the depth of that conversation with myself, I gained a much greater appreciation for the dialogue that must be going on in others.  If I am this way, then it is difficult to imagine that anyone else is less so.  This has allowed me to become more compassionate in my living.  Each person I meet has this same cacophony of voices all wanting to be heard.  They are complex constructs of experience and feeling and competing desires.  Knowing that, makes it all less personal.  It reminds me that I am not the center of anyone else’s actions, decisions, and needs.  A slight I might feel is more about me than them, and it is my job to remind myself of this reality.  My advice here is to be intimate with the world.  Know that very little is ever personal.  Most people are just trying to navigate their own way, just as you are.

This is it! As far as writing on this experience is concerned anyways.  It has truly been an honor to share a piece of me with those of you who have followed me on this path.  I will continue to sit, to reflect and to share.  I hope you find the time to do the same.

 

Be well, friends.

 

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 12 - Unpacking Our Own Stories

This is the twelfth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

For another project I am working on, I have been writing a lot about the concept of contemplation.  While contemplation can take many forms, my own contemplative practice is meditation.  I use meditation to unpack the thoughts that are taking up space in my mind.  I do not clear my mind, instead I flit from one thought to another to my breath, then back off to another thought again.  While ultimately, I believe the goal of meditation is to flit less and less, this way of practicing has yielded some really great insights into my personal narrative.

What I mean by narrative is the story that I tell myself about the events in my life.  When I sit down, I have a view of my street, and as I see snow clouds rolling in, I am likely to think, “Can you believe it, snow again, what an inconvenience!”  This is a natural response.  Another way of approaching this thought, however, is to look for the way I am telling the story: These clouds are a problem for who?  For me.  Why? Because they don’t give me the weather that I want. I am inconvenienced, the injustice! So, I take it kind of personally.  If nothing else, I find my mood souring, or I begin thinking about all the things I am missing out on because of the selfishness of weather patterns. 

Either way, I am telling the story of disappointment.  I am let down.  I am not getting what I want. 

These sentiments are now going to affect the next thing I do, and the next.  Usually, this can go on for quite a while. Usually, there is a cascade of emotions depending on how I have written my own story.   What meditation has done, however, is allow me to engage in a contemplative way with my emotions.

By unpacking the narrative, the flavor of the story, I can become far aware of my own effect on my day.  I can instead choose a narrative that supports growth and happiness.  I can choose to say, “More rain clouds, I guess that means I work inside today!” or “That’s the weather for you, what can you do!”  The difference, though subtle, is noticeable if one is paying attention.

Spring arriving has me thinking about how we tell our stories.  It is a time of growth and renewal and, naturally, the end of winter.  In each season we see how the cycle keeps moving forward: growth, life, death, birth.  We often get stuck in our preferences - like a preference for personal/environmental and spiritual growth - or get preoccupied with our fears  - ones surrounding stagnation, change and death - and this flavors all the other aspects of our lives.  As Maezumi points out, each of these states serves as a teaching point.  None are intrinsically good or bad – they offer us a perspective through which to see events as they are presented to us:

“So what is life? What is sickness? Who is getting old? Who is dying? What are these different perspectives teaching us? 

It is not a matter of four kinds or two kinds of perspectives as such. Each one of us has a different life and yet the same life-the life of birth, illness, old age, and death. How do we best live this life…?”

For me, contemplation and meditation are about answering Maezumi’s question.  How do we best live this life?  Do we taint our experience with (often unconscious) obsessive insecurity and fear, or do we take the lessons, realize that we each have the same life and work to unpack our thoughts one day at a time?  My practice has allowed me glimpses of the stories I tell myself, and I look forward to learning many more.  This week, consider your own stories.  What are they tell you and what perspective does that bring?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 11 - The Perks of Guidance

This is the eleventh in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

I have officially reached 75 days of practice.  75 days of sitting and contemplating, feeling successful, feeling frustrated, feeling here.  Thank you for coming along on for the ride.

Meditation is a practice, and not all practice days are your best.  As I have said before, I started writing this blog as a means to normalize meditation.  To show you that it is not all “sit and clear your mind and everything else is going to be alright.” I came up against this hurdle when I started sitting years ago, feeling like there was a wrong way to do it, feeling like I wasn’t getting it.  It is hard to stick with something when you don’t feel like you “get it” or that progress is not being made.  I think it is hard to track the progress of mental attunement, especially when you don’t exactly know what progress means!

I have been fortunate to have been taught about meditation, both in person and in books and podcasts, by people who stress the importance of just showing up.  I think that has inspired me to write this series of posts.  And it has inspired the theme of this week’s post: having some guidance can be a really great thing.  Now, I live in a northern town where meditation teachers are not exactly plentiful.  As such, I have had to find guidance through podcasts, books, and a lot of question-asking.  I have not had the perks of an in-person teacher for more than a few days at a time, but that does not mean that guidance wasn’t accessible.  The internet is your friend.

The reason I have been thinking about this so much is that this week I have been using the aid of guided meditation to help me when I sit.  For the first several years that I dabbled in meditation, I never sat without an audio guide.  I just couldn’t sit in the silence. My mind was too loud and distracting.  I found that by making someone else’s voice the focal point of my sit, I could at least anchor my thoughts to that. 

Some days I feel like my mind is a wide-open plain, and as gusts of wind just keep flashing thoughts through my mind, I have no way to anchor myself and not get swept up with them.

Listening to a guided meditation helped me to find my way back.  This week, I have been going through a fairly typical upswing in deadlines and workloads and have found that sitting with myself has become a fertile ground for all kinds of thinking, and not a lot of letting thinking go.  After a few days of this, I decided to meditate with the guidance of an old teacher, Michael Stone, through one of his podcast episodes.  The episode is a meditation of breath and lasts about 15 minutes (link here).  This aid was anchor I was looking for.  These kinds of guided meditations often remind you to focus on the breath, bring your thoughts back, or pay attention to the body – things that can get away from us when we are left with our own silence.

So that is what has come to me after 75 days of sitting - more acceptance of the process, more struggle, more success, more redefinitions of both.  Of course, Maezumi’s excerpts have also been there the whole time.  This week I want to share one of those excerpts just because I think the message is a wonderful one:

In your daily life, please accept yourself as you are and appreciate your life as it is. Be intimate with yourself. Taking good care of yourself is always the best way to take care of everything. Then your life, I am sure, will go all right. I want you to be a truly intimate being. Beneath your robe is the same as outside your robe. Inside and outside the robe are one. There is no division. Please take good care of this life. Enjoy yourself!”

Taking good care of yourself also means accepting your practice as it is right now.  Sit, breathe, enjoy yourself.

In the coming week, where can you let go of non-acceptance? Where is there room to let in some enjoyment? Is there a form of guidance that you can accept to have a little help on your journey?

Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 8 - Prioritizing this Moment

This is the eighth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

Writing this blog has made meditation a big part of my life.  I read, I sit and I write.  It’s a sort of rhythm that runs in the background of my normal daily routines, a rhythm that pervades my interactions, my choices and my internal dialogue. It has made me more aware of the thinking me and is, slowly but surely, helping me prioritize my thoughts and time.

There is a common instruction for meditation:  If you choose to keep your eyes open during the practice, choose a spot just a little in front of you, on the floor and focus on that spot. Your gaze should not be too far, nor too near, when you are practicing.  This instruction is designed to place your focus on what is right in front of you, as you breathe and move with your breath. Too often, both our minds and our thoughts are so far ahead of us they are distorted by the curvature of the earth.  When we focus too much on the future, we stop living right now – we live in a distorted possible future instead of an experiential present.

My experience is no exception.  In the same way that I have found a meditation rhythm that gently plays in the background of my life, I have also found a future-focused rhythm that dominates my weeks.  I start Sunday nights thinking about all the work I must do the coming week.  I am focused on the classes I’m teaching and the clients I’m seeing, I think about my schedule and the work that needs to be done and all my deadlines.  I wonder if I’ve forgotten to schedule or plan for something the following week. I begin to plan my “free time” so as to not lose out on an opportunity for maximizing the space between work and sleep.  Even writing it all down is exhausting.

But then, every week, it all passes and I wonder where it went.  Sometimes on Friday afternoons, I step out of my office and I’m suddenly aware of the present moment.  I have the conscious thought that it is all done, that I have a brief reprieve from the things that I was so worried about.  There is a sense of relief, like a light switch being clicked off.   The difference now is that my meditation practice  has added another thought to this process: “Where was I during the last week?  How did it all go by so fast?  Why does it feel like I was just going through the motions while worrying about getting it all done the whole time?”

This same mindset can be applied to the practice itself.  We can sit down at our practice thinking: When am I going to get it? Am I doing this right?  Did I think too much?  What is enlightenment, anyways?  Maezumi states that this kind of far-gazing is really doing us no favors:

The awakening experience is important, but relatively speaking, it is rather minor. What is more important? This life that we are constantly living minute after minute is most important. Our practice is here! Now! How to do it? In fact, you are doing it.

 He reminds us not to completely abandon our “important” things, but rather see them as a part of a whole.  That the week to come is not to be ignored, but perhaps put into perspective.  The things we feel are of huge importance on Sunday night come and go in the same way as every other moment leading up to and following them comes and goes.

 It is easy, and natural, to get lost in the far-off horizon.  To look for what is to come in order to prepare, worry about, and try to get ahead of it.  However, being in the moment is also important, and you are right here right now.  This coming week, invite yourself to prioritize your moments, giving the present moment the top spot.  How does that change your week?  Is there something to be gained from letting go of the distant future?  What does this minute have to offer, and what are you doing with it?

 

Be well, friends.

 

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 7 - The Fabric of Crazy Thinking

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

As I sat down to write today’s blog post, I was a little lost.  I didn’t feel like I had any great insights this week or had experienced anything that was worthy of a blog post.  I was restless and kept getting up from my computer to pace around the house, trying to think up some great lesson or hurdle or experience that I could share.  I was feeling the need to perform, to produce interesting content without sounding too cliché.   The truth of the last week is that I had been practicing, had missed a couple sittings, had “made up” for them by sitting twice a couple days, and just generally struggled with balance and finding time in an otherwise busy-feeling schedule.

The truth, as I expressed it to my partner, was that without that nugget of wisdom, I felt like a fraud.

She asked me why I didn’t just write that?  I couldn’t, I said, it was way too vulnerable.  It would be too much of me, just…out there.

Meditation is as much about personal practice as it is about the practice of a community: as Rumi puts it, a community of spirit.  Somehow, in my feelings of inadequacy, in my need to produce a weekly blog, I convinced myself that vulnerability, openness, and raw experience should be cordoned off. It was a subtle script running in my head: You can be vulnerable only when you feel strong, on-track, and capable.  

I think we all really know that those moments are not when vulnerability yields its greatest rewards.  We like to see the struggle in the other and to know that struggle is universal and normal.  We have enough people that only show us their “good face.” We need to know we are all human. 

So I felt like a fraud. Though strangely enough, as I confess this in the moment, this process is absolving me of that feeling.  I think we can only feel like a fraud when we hide, deny, mask and pretty-up our surface.  When we believe the fraudulent story we tell ourselves – the story that we should obfuscate real emotion, real experiential personhood.

Maezumi has something to say about this too:

"Regardless of what you think, even your crazy thinking itself is nothing but that, do you see? It is no other than the dharma."

What this says to me is that, like everything else, our “crazy thinking” is still the practice.  We are not just taking part in finding clarity on the cushion.  We are exploring the dharma, the Zen principles of living, even in our crazy-making.  Even in my feeling like a fraud, I am practicing the way of meditation as clarity.  To put it simply: Crazy thinking and the associated stories are all you, they are me, they are as much the fabric of our lives as every other thing. 

What a relief! Our stories are all equal in that they are just stories.  Under close examination the fabric of those stories comes undone and unravels. What is left is just your experience, here and now.

As you move through the next week, I invite you to take a look at your stories.  If they were all made of the same stuff – nothing, or everything - how does that inform the way you move through your day, your week, your life?

 Be well, friends.

J

90 Day Commit-to-Sit: Week 5 - Examining the Other Shore

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts aimed at capturing my experience following the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care’s 90 Day Commit-to-Sit challenge.  Each day, I have been sent an email that contains an excerpt from Maezumi’s Appreciate Your Life with a brief reflection afterwards.  My intention is to share my experience each week to foster discussion, illuminate the process of working on a practice, and reflecting on an excerpt that stuck with me from the week.

There was something redeeming about opening my email a couple of days ago and seeing that I had made it to Day 30.  One of the reasons that I decided to write these blog posts was to create some accountability for myself, and to semi-publicly proclaim that I was going to actually follow through on a 90-day commitment.  As I write this, I sit with 32 days (having missed a total of 2) of regular meditation under my belt.  As these blogs hopefully convey, it has been a learning experience.  Each week brings new insights, new obstacles, new perspectives on the way my mind works and has allowed me to connect and speak to a community of people who also have an interest in meditation.

One of the things I have been exploring through this process is the idea that meditation “solves” some of the problems that we have in life.  These can manifest as stress, anxiety, bills, loss, grudges, worries, fears and a whole host of other unpleasant emotions.  When you dive into the literature on Zen meditation, however, it becomes clear that this  is not the intent of developing a practice.  Meditation is not an escape, but a return.  A return from the thoughts listed above, back to the body, the breath, the presence of now.  As Meazumi puts it:

“We have a practice know as the paramitas. Paramita means "to have reached the other shore." Dogen Zenji says, "The other shore is already reached." In other words, the meaning of reaching the other shore is to realize that this shore is the other shore. This life is the unsurpassable, realized life. There is no gap.

So if there is purpose to our practice, it is to realize that this shore and the other shore are the same. The purpose is to close the gap, to realize that there is just one shore, there is just one life. To reach is extra. Until you realize that this shore where you stand, this life that you are living, and the other shore, the life of the buddhas, are the same shore, you cannot appreciate your life to the fullest.”

As I see it, Maezumi is reminding us that when we sit, that sometimes we can get caught reaching for a better version of us.  A version that doesn’t worry, or fear, or love too deeply, or have the aches and pains of living. 

A version detached from suffering. 

In this same excerpt, he brings our attention the idea that reaching for the other shore allows us to convince ourselves that there is another shore.  That there is something outside of us that we can get to that will solve our issues.  When I sit to solve the problem of interpersonal strife or work stress, I am reinforcing the idea that I am that stress, that thoughts are things to be solved.  That they can be escaped by receding into practice.

I have come to realise that this is not the case.  That as Maezumi points out, I was (and am) already that other version of me.  I am that version of me because there is no other shore, and as such no other me.  The grass isn’t greener on the other side because the other side is make-believe.  The stress we try to escape in practice is a pattern of thoughts that you can not get away from, because things that are not real can follow you anywhere.  Instead, we turn to those things and sit with them.  We look at them and try to internalize the thought there is no other shore, and in doing this, we sit with who we are here-and-now.

To be clear, I am not saying that there are not real problems and concerns that we face in our lives.  There can be many, and they may pose real risks and hardship.  However, the thinking portion of these problems exist only in the space between the neurons and atoms of our mind.  The anxiety of returning to work tomorrow steals from me the option of being here right now, fingers on keys, contemplating mindfulness and enjoying the view from my living room window.  There is no meditating practice that will banish my obligation from work.  There is, however, a practice that will “close the gap” between the ideal me, who doesn’t worry, and the experiencing me, who is here, enjoying my afternoon.

My goal moving into this next week is remind myself that there is no other shore. That this is the moment I exist in, and that it is my sitting practice that can bring me back to that.  I do not sit to be another version of me, I sit to actualize that I am (and that is all there is).

This week, I encourage you too take some time to look at where you might be reaching in your own life.  How much of your time is thinking about who you should be or could be.  What would happen if you looked around to realize that you have everything you need in this moment? That you were already standing on the other shore?

Be well, friends.

J