Friday, February 21, 2014

the 100% solution

With due acknowledgment of the catcalls from anyone who has actually tried it, this morning I am in the mood to praise zazen, the seated meditation of Zen Buddhism. By "zazen," I mean the literal, physical sit-down-erect-the-spine-sit still-shut-up-and-focus-the-mind activity that in reality does not open itself to praise or blame and does not concern itself with such things as wisdom, virtue or accomplishment.

Looking back, I am happy to have run into zazen and glad I gave it a try, not least because it helped to unlock a world that tended to be imprisoned by halos.

Speaking the language of broadbrush, I think many if not most people allow their throughts, words and deeds to operate at something less than full capacity. Some safety net is always in place as daily life comes and goes. It's a 95% effort passing itself off as a 100% effort.

Holding back, keeping things secret, injecting explanations and beliefs and meanings -- there is always some value-added aspect to this invaluable life. What things are is not so important as what anyone says they are.

And the only trouble with this holding back is that it makes everything uncertain and unsatisfactory. Everything gets edgy. Everything needs to be in control and the more anyone tries to control it, the more obvious it becomes that things cannot be controlled. A perfectly good life is constantly dogged by care and conniving, elevating and dismissing, improving and failing to improve. It may seem to work on the outside, but inside it won't wash.

Zazen is like blowing yourself to a quart of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. It's a self-indulgent treat ... and you deserve it -- an activity that addresses and cares for the folly of a 5% withholding in a 100% life. The fact that zazen is described as being central to Zen Buddhism means nothing ... that's just more 5% eyewash. Robes and incense and rituals are all fine as far as they go, but they never really go far enough. Only the individual can do that: No one else can know the pleasure of Ben & Jerry's.

My hunch is that everyone knows or has tasted a 100% moment. Perhaps, like Ernest Hemingway, they have faced down a charging rhinoceros.  Perhaps there was a spectacular orgasm. But the problem with "peak experiences" is that they do not last and like as not the experiencer is left pining and longing and bereft in the wake of the experience. A "high" may be wonderful bit of advertising, but it is always shadowed by a nagging "low," a time when things feel like an unending compromise. Not everyone goes so far as Hemingway and blows his brains out, but that doesn't mean a compromising life can't feel sympathy for his act. Why can't life always be as clean and clear and alive as a peak experience?!

Zazen is a patient activity. It is just an activity -- one of many in a busy life. The difference is that this activity allows individuals to set aside (sometimes with enormous fear) the 5% formula for living life ... the formula that makes things so edgy. It's not as if anyone could actually live a 95% life, but that doesn't mean they can't put a hell of a lot of effort into trying... holding back, laying out the safety net, using camouflage and secrecy, improving, believing, finding meaning... me too!

Anyone who has tried zazen knows that there can be a terrific tug of war. A 5% lifestyle isn't conquered overnight. And so, when sitting in zazen, the mind rushes around trying to assert the 5% formula ... oh, I have lost my focus; oh, I'm a lousy Zen student; oh, a bit of wisdom and clarity just came calling; oh, the teacher or teachings are so wondrously profound; oh, if I were a monk or nun, I would be ever so much better off!

Zazen is quiet. Zazen is alone. Zazen is inescapable. Zazen is an opportunity -- not to become a Zen Buddhist, that would be dumb, but rather to live the 100% that no one could avoid living in the first place. And what is possible on the meditation cushion is possible in the supermarket or at the funeral or skipping rope or holding hands or ... doing whatever you do and really could not do otherwise.

It is hard to praise zazen. Someone is bound to think that praising zazen means that the fallout from zazen is somehow unavailable to anyone who never even heard of zazen. This is clearly not the case. But what is the case is that leading a 5% lifestyle -- the edgy, in-control, meaningful and belief-strewn lifestyle -- may be hard to correct and zazen is one pretty good tool for seriousing-up. Nothing needs to change. Virtue is not the point. It is a nice gift to give yourself -- a realm in which to relax.

Yes, zazen is hard and long and determined. But a 5% lifestyle built over a lifetime of practice is not without its wondrous wiles. Zazen is a good tool.

Yeah -- it's like calling blue sky blue, but doesn't there come a point when it's time to acknowledge the obvious, take a chill-pill so to speak ... to treat yourself to a bit of Ben & Jerry's?

I can't believe I just wrote all that shit -- let alone hit the "publish" button.

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