Photo by Getty Images/Kate_Koreneva.
I want to remind you once again how well you’re doing. Not only are you above ground but you’re also vertical. It’s rather unusual and remarkable to sit in meditation or to spend a day in silence. I think we sometimes take for granted or forget how unusual it is to sit quietly, experiencing our experience, tasting and knowing, touching our lives. To sit in this way and to walk in this way and to spend the day quietly is to experience the self in ways we don’t usually have the opportunity to do. It’s rare to notice the moments of life in more detail, or to feel our feelings, or perhaps to notice how much the mind races, or to find that we are still and quiet. Often we’re rather busy in our lives and not quite so aware. We don’t typically touch or taste or experience so intimately.
Just so you know, whatever you experience today, this is awakening. This is realization. We may have various ideas about what we might attain or accomplish: a special experience we might have that would be particularly peaceful or quiet, brilliant or dazzling. And of course, from time to time, people have such experiences. And then what? Usually, you will want to repeat it. When it doesn’t last, you wonder, What’s wrong with my practice now? Yesterday I had such a great experience. Or maybe you try to tell everybody, “I’ve had this great experience. I expect you to bow to me from now on.” What will a picturesque experience do for you — once it’s over?
Any experience that can appear and that you can describe will also disappear. It will be one more experience in all the experiences that arise and disappear. It’s not possible to have any experience that would make all the difference in your life from now on — though it’s tempting to want to have the one experience that will make all the difference from now on. Often we think, If I could get rid of my anger or my desire or sit more still or be more concentrated or be more settled, then I would get the experience that will make all the difference in my life from now on.
Do you understand how difficult this is? Not only is it difficult — it’s impossible. In other words, it’s a kind of mistake to try to get these experiences that will make all the difference. I say “a kind of mistake” because in making this big effort, we begin utilizing resources from deep beneath the surface of our lives, which in itself is valuable.
In Dōgen’s school of Zen, we encourage ourselves to practice actualizing the present moment closely, not in order to attain a special experience but to let the experience come home to our hearts. By letting our awareness be touched by our experience, we wake up, we are moved by things, and we begin to respond to things from our hearts.
I think the biggest burden in life is to not like ourselves. Why would we not like ourselves, not accept ourselves, our humanity? Why would we do that? We think that in order to like ourselves, in order to respect or love ourselves, we would have to improve a lot. If we could meditate better or if we didn’t have so many problems, then we could like ourselves.
We think we need to improve a lot before we can like ourselves, and we forget that we could accept or appreciate someone who is quite sincere, with good intentions, with a good heart, who isn’t perfect. We could accept ourselves.
Sitting and practicing meditation, moment after moment, we are also practicing accepting ourselves. Sometimes we have good practice of accepting ourselves. Sometimes we’re not so good at it. We may even encourage ourselves to accept somebody who’s not so good at accepting themselves.
Some Buddhist teachers will say, “You don’t have to practice for ten or twenty or thirty years to accept yourself. You can have a slight smile for yourself or decide to accept yourself or forgive yourself or others any time. You could decide to just sit and be with yourself. You could decide to receive your breath and the light and the presence in the room with you.”
These are not the usual instructions for meditation: Sit there and appreciate yourself; sit there and accept yourself. It’s too hard. It’s a big challenge, and most of us aren’t ready. So instead we say, “Why don’t you follow your breath? Sit up straight, and don’t lean to the left or the right. Don’t lean forward or back.”
Why don’t you just sit in the middle of your life? See what it’s like here. Welcome yourself home.
When we sit together in a group, we’re also giving support to one another. Together we create this presence, or state of being, and all of us can sit in the midst of it. Presence and awareness are two of the gifts we share.
There are many ways in which our lives are challenging. People in our lives become sick, and sometimes loved ones die. We would love to heal them or save them, yet we do not have the capacity to make all the difference. There’s the challenge of relationships and where we live and work. It’s not particularly easy being a human being. The American myth is that it will be easy. If it’s not easy, something is wrong with you, or someone else — take your pick.
I mention this because the fact that life is difficult means we may look for help and want someone else to take care of it, to make it all work better, whether we look for a partner, or to our children or parents, or to our teachers, our spiritual teachers. Someone else will make the difference and make it all work better.
Zen emphasizes the notion that you can rely on yourself and trust yourself and that the difficulty of your life, when you respond to it, brings out your resourcefulness and your resilience. We have the understanding not to look outside, but to look within. I sometimes use the expression that my therapist friend George Lane would employ, “Help is not on the way.”
Suzuki Roshi’s expression was quite direct, “When you’re dying, nothing will help you. Not even enlightenment will help, as you have no more moments to live.”
So in this moment, realize yourself fully. Express yourself fully. Have the fullest experience of your life.
It’s like getting married to yourself. Will you have this body and mind in sickness, in health, in difficulty, in success, in wealth, in poverty? Will you have this body? Will you have this mind? Yes, I will. I will have this life. I will have this body. I will have this mind. Then you don’t need to look anywhere else for an answer, for a solution, for some way out. When you’ve accepted this body, this mind, this life, you find your way.
Excerpted from The Most Important Point: Zen Teachings of Edward Espe Brown, by Edward Espe Brown and edited by Danny S. Parker. Sounds True, April 2019. Reprinted with permission.