ZEN Practice

What Practice Is Not


Many people practice and have strong ideas of what practice is. What I want to do is to state (from my point of view) what practice is not.

—   First, practice is not about producing psychological change. If we practice with intelligence, psychological change will be produced; I’m not questioning that—in fact, it’s wonderfull, I am saying that practice is not done in order to produce such change.

—   Practice is not about intellectually knowing the physical nature of reality, what the universe consists of, or how it works. And again, in serious practice, we will tend to have some knowledge of such matters. But that is not what practice is.

—   Practice is not about achieving some blissful state, It’s not about having visions. It’s not about seeing white lights for pink or blue ones). All of these things may occur, and if we sit long, enough they probably will.. But that is not what practice is about.

– Practice is not about having or cultivating special powers. There are many of these and we all have some of them naturally; some people have them in extra measure. At the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA) I sometimes had the useful ability to see what was being served for dinner two doors away. If they were having something I didn’t like, I didn’t go. Such abilities are little oddities, and again they are not what practice is about.

—  Practice is not about personal power or joriki, the strength that is developed in years of sitting. Again, joriki by product of zazen. And again it is not the way.

—  Practice is not about having nice feelings, happy feelings. It’s not about feeling good as opposed to feeling bad. It’s not an attempt to be anything special or to feel anything special. The product of practice or the point of practice or what practice is about is not to be always calm and collected. Again, we tend to be much more so alter yuan* of pun ike, but it is not the point.

– Practice is not about some bodily slate in which we are never ill, never hurt, one one in which we have no bothersome ailments. Sitting tends to have health benefits for many people, though in the course of practice there may be months or even years of health disasters, But again, seeking perfect health is not the way; although by and large, overtime, there will be a beneficial effect on health for most people But no guarantees!

— Practice is not about achieving an omniscient state in which a person knows, all about everything, a state in which a person is an authority on any and all worldly problems. There may be a little more clarity on such matters, but clever people have been known to say and do foolish things. Again, omniscience is not the point.

—  Practice is not about being “spiritual” at least not as this word is often understood. Practice is not about being anything. So unless we see that we cannot aim at being “spiritual,” it can be a seductive and harmful objective.

—  Practice is not about hightlighting, all sorts of “good” qualities and getting rid of the so-called “bad’ ones. No one is “good” or “bad”. The struggle to be good is not what practice is. That type of training is a subtle form of athleticism.

We could continue our listing almost endlessly. Actually anyone in practice has some of these delusions operating. We all hope to change, to get somewhere! That in itself the basic fallacy. But just contemplating this desire begins to clarify it, and the practice basis of our life alters as we do so. We begin to comprehend that our frantic desire to get better, to “get somewhere,” is illusion itself, and the source of suffering.

If our boat full of hope, illusions, and ambition (to get somewhere, to be spiritual, to be perfect, to be enlightened) is capsized, what is that empty boat? Who are we? What, in terms of our lives, can we realize? And what is practice?



What Practice Is

Practice is very simple. That doesn’t mean it won’t turn our life around, however. I want to review what we do when we sit, or do zazen. And if you think you’re beyond this, well, you can think you’re beyond this.

Sifting is essentially a simplified space. Out daily life is in constant movement: lots of things going on, lots of people talking, lots of events taking place. In the middle of that, it’s very difficult to sense what we are in our life. When we simplify the situation, when we take away the externals and remove ourselves from the ringing phone, the television, the people who visit us, the dog who needs a walk, we get a chance—which is absolutely the most valuable thing there is—to face ourselves. Meditation is not about some state, but about the meditator. It’s not about some activity, or about fixing something, or accomplishing something. It’s about ourselves. If we don’t simplify the situation the chance of taking a good look at ourselves is very small — because what we tend to look at isn’t ourselves, but everything else. If something goes wrong, what do we look at? We look at what’s going wrong, and usually at others we think have made it go wrong. We’re looking out there all the time, and not at ourselves.

When l say meditation is about the meditator, I do not mean that we engage in self-analysis. That’s not it either. Sowhat do we do?

Once we have assumed our best posture (which should be balanced, easy), we just sit there, we do zazen. What do I mean by “just sit there”? It’ s the most demanding of all activities. Usually in meditation we don’t shut our eyes. But right now I’d like you to shut your eyes and just sit there. What’s going on? All sorts of things. A tiny twitch in your left shoulder, a preasure in your side . . . Notice your face for a moment. Feel it its tense anywhere? Around the mouth, around the forehead? Now move down a bit. Notice your neck, just feel it. Then your shoulders, your back, chest, abdominal area, your arms, thighs. Keep feeling whatever you find. And feel your breath as it comes and goes. Don’t try to control it, just feel it. Our first instinct is to try to control thw breath. Just let your breath be as it is. It may be high in your chest, it may be in the middle, it may be low. It may feel tense. Just experience it as it is. Now just feel all of that. If a car goes by outside, hear it. If a plane flies over, notice that. You might hear a refrigerator going on and off. Just be that. That’s all you have to do, absolutely all you have to do: experience that, and just stay with it. Now you can open your eyes.

If you can just do that for three minutes, that’s miraculous. Usually after about a minute we begin to think. Our interest in just being with reality (which is what we have just done) is very low. “You mean that is all there is to zazen?” We don’t like that. “We’re seeking enlightenment, aren’t we?” Our interest in reality is extremely low. No, we want to think. We want to worry through all of our preoccupations. We want to figure life out. And so before we know it we’ve forgotten all about this moment, and we’ve drifted off into thinking about something: our boyfriend, our girlfriend, our child, our boss, our current fear . . . off we go! There’s nothing sinful about such fantasizing except that when we’re lost in that, we’ve lost something else. When we’re lost in thought, when we’re dreaming, what have we lost? We’ve lost reality. Our life has escaped us.

This is what human beings do. And we don’t just do it sometimes, we do it most of the time. Why dowe do that? You know the answer, of course. We doit because we are trying to protect ourselves. We’re trying to rid ourselves of our difficulty, or at least understand it. There’s nothing wrong with our self-centered thoughts except that when we identify with them, our view of reality is blocked. So what should we do when the thoughts come up? We should label the thoughts. Be specific in your labeling: not just “thinking, thinking” or “worrying, worrying”, but a specific label. For example: “Having a thought she’s very bossy”. “Having a thought that he’s very unfair to me”. “Having a thought that I never do anything right”. Be specific. And if the thoughts are tumbling out so far that you can’t find anything except confusion, then just label the foggy mess “confuson.” But if you persist in trying to find a separate thought, sooner or later you will.

When we practice like this, we get acquainted with ourselves, how our lives work, what we are doing with them. If we find that certain thoughts come up hundreds of times, we know something about ourselves that we didn’t know before. Perhaps we incessantly think about the past, or the future. Some people always think about events, some people always think about other people. Some people always think about themselves. Some people’s thoughts are almost entirely judgments about other people. Until we have labeled for four or five years, we don’t know ourselves very well. When we label thoughts precisely and carefully, what happens to them? They begin to quiet down. We don’t have to force ourselves to get rid of them  When they quiet down, we return to the experience of the body and the breath, over and over and over. I can’t emphasize enough that we don’t just do this three times, we do it ten thousand times; and as we do it, our life transforms. That’s a theoretical description of sitting. It’s very simple; there’s nothing complicated about it.

Now let’s take a daily life situation. Suppose you work in an aircraft plant, and you’re told that the government contracts is coming to an end and probably will not be renewed. You tell yourself, “I’m going to lose my job. I’m going to lose my income. I have a family to support. This is terrible!” What happens then? Your mind starts going over and over and over your problem. “What’s going to happen? What shall I do?” Your mind spins faster and faster with worry.

Now there’s nothing wrong with planning ahead, we have to plan. But when we become upset, we don’t just plan, we obess. We twist the problem around in a thousand ways. If we don’t know what it means to practice with our worried thoughts, what happens next? The thoughts produce an emotion and we become even more agitated. All emotional agitation is caused by the mind. And if we let this happen over a period of time, we often become physically sick or mentally depressed. If the mind will not take care of a situation with awareness, the body will. It will help us out. It’s as if the body says, “If you won’t take care of it, I guess I’ve got to”. So we produce our next cold, our next rash, our next ulcer, whatever is our style. A mind that is not aware will produce illness. That’s not a criticism, however. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t get ill, including myself. When the desire to worry is strong, we create difficulties. With regular practice, we just do it less. Anything of which we’re unaware will have its fruits in our life, one way or another.

From the human point of view, the things that go wrong in our lives are of two kinds. One kind are events outside of ourselves, and the other are things within us, such as physical illness. Both are our practice, and we handle them in the same way. We label all the thoughts that occur around them, and we experience them in our body. The process is sitting itself.

To talk about this sounds really easy. But to do it is horrendously difficult. I don’t know anyone who can do it all of the time. But when we practice in this way, becoming aware of everything that enters our life (whether internal or external), our life begins to transform. And we gain strength and insight and even live at times in the enlightened state, which simply means experiencing life as it is. It’s not a mystery.

If you are new to practice it’s important to realize that simply to sit on that cushion for fifteen minutes is a victory. Just to sit with that much composure, just to be there, is fine.

If we were afraid of being in water and didn’t know how to swim, the first victory would be just to lower ourselves into the water. The next step might be getting our face wet. If we were expert swimmers the challenge might be whether we can enter our hand into the water at a certain angle as we execute our stroke. Does that mean that one swimmer is better and the other worse? No. Both of them are perfect for where they are. Practice at any stage is just being who we are at that moment. It’s not a question of being good or bad, or better or worse. Sometimes after my talks people will say, “I don’t understand that.” And that’s perfect too. Our understanding grows over the years, but at any point we are perfect in being what we are.

We begin to learn that there is only one thing in life we can rely on. What is the one thing in life we can rely on? We might say, “1 rely on my mate.” We may love our husbands and wives; but we can’t ever completely rely on them, because another person (like ourselves) is always to some extent unreliable. There is no person on earth whom we can completely rely on, though we can certainly love others and enjoy them. What then can we rely on? If it’s not a person, what is it? What can we rely on in life? I asked somebody once and she said, “Myself.” Can you rely on yourself? Selfreliance is nice, but is inevitably limited.

There is one thing in life that you can always rely on: life being as it is. Let’s talk more concretely. Suppose there is something I want very much: perhaps 1 want to marry a certain person, or get an advanced degree, or have my child be healthy and happy. But life as it is might be exactly the opposite of what I want. We don’t know that we’ll marry that certain person. If we do, he might die tomorrow. We may or may not get our advanced degree. Probably we will, but we can’t count on that. We can’t count on anything. Life is always going to be the way it is So why can’t we rely on that fact? What is so hard about that? Why are we always uneasy? Suppose your living space has just been demolished by an earthquake, and you are about to lose an arm and all your life’s savings. Can you then rely on life just as it is? Can you be that?

Trust in things being as they are is the secret of life. But we don’t want to hear that. 1 can absolutely trust that in the past year my life is going to be changed, different, yet always just the way it is. If tomorrow I have a heart attack, I can rely on that, because if I have it, I have it. I can rest in life as it is.

When we make a personal investment in our thoughts we create the “I” (as Krishnamurti would say), and then our life begins not to work. That’s why we label thoughts, to take the investment out again. When we’ve been sitting long enough we can see our thoughts as just pure sensory input. And we can see ourselves moving through the stages preliminary to that at first we feel our thoughts are real, and out of that we create the self-centered emotions, and out of that we create the barrier to seeing life as it is; because if we are caught in self-centerd emotions we can’t see people or situations clearly. A thought in itself is just pure sensory input, an energy fragment. But we fear to see thoughts as they are.

When we label a thought we step back from it, we remove our identification. There’s a world of differencebetween saying, “She’s impossible” and “Having a thought that she’s impossible.” If we persistently label any thought the emotional overlay begins to drop out and we are left with an impersonal energy fragment to which we need not attach; But if we think our thoughts are real we act out of them. And if we act from such thoughts our life is muddled. Again, practice is to work with this until we know it in our bones. Practice is not about achieving a realization in our heads. It has to be our flesh, our bones, ourself. Of course, we have to have life-centered thoughts: how to follow a recipe, how to put on a roof, how to plan our vacation. But we don’t need the emotionally self-centered activity that we call thinking. It really isn’t thinking, it’s an aberration of thinking.

Zen is about an active life, an involved life. When we know our minds well and the emotions that our thinking creates, we tend to see better what our lives are about and what needs to be done, which is generally just the next task under our nose. Zen is about a life of action, not a life of passively doing nothing. But our actions must be based on reality. When our actions are based on our false thought systems (which are based on our conditioning), they are poorly based. When we have seen through the thought systems we can see what needs to be done.

What we are doing is not re programming ourselves, but freeing ourselves from all programs, by seeing that they are empty of reality. Reprogramming is just jumping from one pot into another. We may have what we think of as a better programming; but the point of sitting is not to be run by any program. Suppose we have a program called “I lack self-confidence.” Suppose we decide to reprogram that to “I have self-confidence.” Neither of them will stand up very well under the pressures of life, because they involved an “I”. And this “I” is a very fragile creation—unreal, actually—and is easily befuddled. In fact there never was an “I.” The point is to see that it is empty, an illusion, which is different from dissolving it. When I say that it’s empty, I mean that it has no basic reality; it’s just a creation of the self-centered thoughts.

Doing Zen practice is never as simple as talking about it. Even students who have a fair understanding of what they’re doing at times tend to desert basic practice. Still, when we sit well, everything else takes care of itself. So whether we have been sitting five years or twenty years or are just beginning, it is important to sit with great, meticulous care.