I was at the gas station the other day standing at the pump, waiting for my tank to fill. A staff person was at an adjacent pump cleaning the handles and with an upbeat and friendly tone said Good morning! when he saw me. Then another vehicle pulled up to a pump closer to where he was working and he took to exchanging pleasantries and small talk with the driver. I overheard the driver ask him the stock standard how are you question, to which the worker replied: I’ll be happy when this is all over. I thought to myself: That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the crux of this coronavirus tune so many are singing – and it’s not at all different than our usual tune, the one where we think: after this happens, after I get this thing, after I land this job or this person or this whatever it is, THEN I’ll be happy.
We all do the dance of later I’ll be happy or later I’ll practice meditation, after things have settled down or later on I’ll get some rest when I have more time. I’ve been re-reading the classic Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki Roshi and also certain sections from two of my favorite books by Thay recently, which I’ve been referring back to quite a bit lately and receiving nourishment and strength from:
Peace can exist only in the present moment. It is ridiculous to say, “Wait until I finish this, then I will be free to live in peace.” What is “this”? A diploma, a job, a house, the payment of a debt? If you think that way, peace will never come. There is always another “this” that will follow the present one. If you are not living in peace at this moment, you will never be able to. If you truly want to be at peace, you must be at peace right now. Otherwise, there is only “the hope of peace someday.”
– from The Sun My Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh
To cook, or to fix some food, is not preparation, according to Dogen; it is practice. To cook is not just to prepare food for someone or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook! That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice.
It is necessary to sit in zazen, in this way, but sitting is not our only way. Whatever you do, it should an expression of the same deep activity. We should appreciate what we are doing. There is no preparation for something else.
– from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
Someone asked me, “Aren’t you worried about the state of the world?” I allowed myself to breathe and then I said, “What is most important is not to allow your anxiety about what happens in the world to fill your heart. If you heart is filled with anxiety, you will get sick, and you will not be able to help.” There are wars – big and small – in many places, and that can cause us to lose our peace. Anxiety is the illness of our age. We worry about ourselves, our family, our friends, our work, and the state of the world. If we allow worry to fill our hearts, sooner or later we will get sick.
Yes there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything…if we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone.
– from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh
This morning I started reading Zen is Right Here, which is compilation of short teaching stories and anecdotes of Shunryu Suzuki, who’s often called Suzuki Roshi. It’s a great read so far and I’m very much enjoying it – I also especially appreciate how short the stories and anecdotes are, as I wasn’t looking to launch into a long and heavily involved book.
From the book:
A student asked Suzuki Roshi why the Japanese make their teacups so thin and delicate that they break easily.
“It’s not that they’re too delicate,” he answered, “but that you don’t know how to handle them. You must adjust yourself to the environment and not vice versa.”
– Page 64
For the past few years I’ve been replacing the idea of New Year’s resolutions, which I’ve never cared for, with the development of new mindfulness exercises. I’m currently working with a number of new mindfulness practices to incorporate into my daily and weekly routine, which started at the beginning of the year. It’s worth mentioning, however, that typically I wouldn’t encourage the cultivation of so many new practices all at once, unless a practitioner has invested time in building a strong, diligent foundation in mindfulness, as trying to take on too much too fast is an easy undertaking, and an easy undoing of our stability.
My new practices include:
– Saying a short verse to myself upon waking up each morning
– Uni-tasking while brushing my teeth (verses multi-tasking)
– Saying a personalized closing verse to myself after breakfast each morning
– Jotting down observations I make in a small notebook when I’m in my car at red lights, or in other such instances where I’m stopped and waiting (at the bank, for instance)
– Mindful Morning Saturdays, where I devote the hours of 5:00-8:00am as a concentrated time to practice mindfulness (I read passages in our chanting book, do sitting meditation and three touchings of the earth, practice the 16 Qi Gong stick exercise routine, practice mindful eating of my breakfast, and watch a portion of a Dharma talk video online)
– Paying special attention to my preferences: what they are, how they show up in my life, looking deeply into whether they are helpful or harmful
“All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” –
(1905 – 1971)
I’m pretty sure I’ve shared this quote before on my blog but the way I figure it, when it comes to deep and important teachings, you can’t really hear them enough. In my experience understanding teachings is a long process. And the more “simple” the teaching appears the more complex the understanding process gets. It is quite easy to say to ourselves, “Yeah, yeah, that makes sense, I get it, and I totally do that already,” when really we have very little concept of a certain teaching. Just because we hear something and absorb it on an intellectual level does not necessarily mean we absorb it on an emotional level and know how to actually put it into practice in our everyday lives.
The above quote by Suzuki-roshi is one of my favorites. It speaks to the heart of our human condition and to the root of our struggle. For better AND for worse our collective society is very dualistic in nature. What this means is that we function in an EITHER/OR manner. For instance: people are either good OR bad, we feel either happy OR sad, life is either black OR white, decisions made are either wrong OR right. We can get terribly confused when it comes to teachings on non-duality, which involves the practice of seeing things as part of BOTH sides, not just one or the other.
What Suzuki-roshi is encouraging us to practice is seeing that in this very moment, with this very breath, we are all both perfect AND in need of improvement. When we get caught in duality in regards to this teaching we can become very off balance and cause a lot of distress for ourselves and others. If we only focus on the first part of seeing that we’re perfect we can become very self-absorbed, callous, and disconnected from the effects we have on others. Our ego becomes inflated, we form shallow relationships, and we are unable to grow. And if we only focus on the second part of seeing that we need improvement we can become very self-conscious, emotionally over sensitive, and unable to socially engage and interact with others. Our sense of self is deflated to the point of self-pity, loathing, depression, and worthlessness. In both instances we will be unable to grow and transform.
To begin to understand this teaching we need to practice seeing that both parts of us exist at the very same time. We are perfect just as we are AND we are all in need of a little improvement. Practicing with both sides allows our ego to not become overly inflated while also not beating up on ourselves for the parts of us we wish were different or better.
What a completely beautiful, complex, confusing, and enthralling opportunity it is to be human eh?
“All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.”
– Shunryu Suzuki-roshi (1905 – 1971)