Monday, December 20, 2010

pleasure in all things

At a Zen center I once attended, students who had been around a while would be called upon to give a talk on a public meeting night -- a Thursday, if I recall. This was the night on which visitors sniffing the edges of Zen practice were invited to visit and give things a try.

I was at a point in my practice where I felt honored and delighted to give such a talk. For one thing, it made me feel noticed and appreciated and for another it fed into what seemed to be an innate desire to be a ham.

But whatever 'positive' feelings I might have had, there was inevitably a sense of anticipation and dread as the time approached when I would sit in front of the meditation hall and say something 'important,' when I might (or -- oh my God! -- might not) wow others as I myself had been wowed in the past. I seemed to be in what I now think of as a natural phase of spiritual practice -- one in which I would have the snappy robes and I would inspire recognition and devotion and I would ... dwell among the anointed, I guess. I wanted to be a teacher and to be acclaimed as such. I wanted to hang out with the big boys.

And within this often sub-rosa longing, there was a feeling that you had to learn how to please others -- be as pleasing as you had been pleased. When talk-night came, I wanted to be pleasing ... pure and true and ... pleasing. You know -- the kind of stuff where someone talks about compassion as if it were some elevated, oozy-goozy altruism or about emptiness/satori/nirvana as if it were some clarity that existed at the end of a mythical rainbow ... together with the leprechaun's pot of gold.

An indicator of my state of mind and state of practice was the sense of disappointment I invariably felt after giving my own version of a Thursday-night talk. "I should have said this" or "I shouldn't have said that" whizzed through my mind after the fact, stinging like a swarm of bees.

I wanted to be pleasing and, post mortem, I had failed. I knew I had failed because no one came up and patted me on the back as I subconsciously wished they would. There was no applause. There was no offer of a corner office in the corporate, climb-the-ladder structure I imagined Zen practice to be. No one crowned me king ... or even prince. I saw other kings and queens and princes in the realm and ... how come no one crowned me?

As I say, I now think this is something every student goes through, one way or another. Maybe they aren't as insecure as I was, but still.... And I suppose it should be mentioned that there are those who never leave the pick-me realm of spiritual life and it is possible to make a life-long corporate venture out of it. What a pity.

This morning I was thinking of the be-pleasing aspect of spiritual life. Of course it's nice to be nice and kindness is better than cruelty, but contrived niceness and contrived kindness is just a starting point, a way of trying to revise habits that have proved useless and painful in the past. Sure, take the precepts and do your best. It's a start.

But today it seems to me that the object of spiritual adventure is not to please or be pleasing to others. The object of spiritual life is to take pleasure in all things. Enjoy yourself. No need to harm others. Just enjoy yourself.

I realize that it's a sticky wicket in the sense that plenty of egotistical assholes seem to enjoy themselves immensely. But they are enjoying themselves at the expense of others. They rely on those others for their enjoyment and their enjoyment, therefore, falls short. How can you possibly rely on anything and fulfill the requirements of enjoyment?

As the Zen teacher Rinzai once said to his monks by way of encouragement, "Your whole problem is that you do not trust yourselves enough."

Of course there may be some question as to what self anyone might actually trust, but, hell, that's why there's practice.

Never mind being pleasing. Just take pleasure in all things.


  1. Thank you. I enjoy reading your blog a lot. This was one of those beautifully timed observations(?)
    I had the precisely the right ears to hear it today.


  2. "an innate desire to be a ham" :-) Classic.

    Beautiful, thanks very much..


  3. Hi. I am new to reading your blog and this touched me. As Jon mentioned above.. I too had the right ears to hear this today. Thank you for posting . I am truly enjoying wandering through your pages here.