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Friday, November 26, 2010
Personal Reflections ... Socrates Cafe ...

I’ve been hanging out with a Zen sangha since the start of this year (Clear Mountain in Montclair), and it’s pretty cool. But as with all other groups, there is some group-think involved with it. Despite the Buddha’s own warning not to think a particular way just because other people are thinking it, our group –- and really, every other Buddhist group –- espouses the view that meditation is a great thing, and the more the better. One of the senior members recommended that I sit in silence at least 15 minutes each day; 30 minutes would be better.

Well, I’ll be the first to admit that sitting in silence can be a really good thing. And I try to do it on a regular basis. But as to giving up a half hour of my waking life every day . . . I dunno. There are a lot of good things to be awake for in life, if you take a positive attitude. Our days and hours and minutes are numbered; and every minute spent with eyes closed in silent isolation is a minute that could have otherwise gone to seeing, smelling, touching or otherwise experiencing something in our world. Or to doing things, including many things which need to be done in order to live a responsible and caring life. Or to reading, learning things, talking with people, etc.

So, I think that meditation is great. But as to those Zen masters who think it good to spend hours and hours seated on a cushion, following their breath towards a world of not-world and not-self, well . . . I don’t think I’m ready to go that far.

Thus, I have to share something I heard at the local Socrates Cafe discussion group last Tuesday. It was from Zella, a long time loyal member. Zella is a grandmother in her early seventies, but you wouldn’t think so. She’s full of life and vigor and energy, and she lives life to the fullest. She’s been through a lot in her time; she’s twice a widow, lost two husbands to disease. Her father died when she was a child. She’s tried to save the world in many ways (teaching in a high school in Newark, working in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, helping out at a community radio station, teaching seniors to write up their life stories, etc.). I know that it gets frustrating sometimes when despite all of your efforts, the world doesn’t seem any closer to being saved.

And yet Zella still gets “high” just seeing the sun shine and hearing the birds sing. The Cafe group was discussing the nature of happiness, and Zella offered a short story about one of her late husbands; about how he took up a meditation practice and was quite diligent with it (twice a day for at least half an hour). According to Zella, after several months of practice, he said to her (paraphrasing, of course): “Zella, I meditate diligently every day, trying to find inner peace and fulfillment. And yet, I wish that I could gain what seems to come so naturally to you in your daily life; I wish that I could achieve your unshakably positive outlook on things”.

Well, I believe that meditative sitting can be a source of happiness similar to what Zella gets from her many activities and involvements with people. Especially when it is done in a group setting, and also at times when it is done at home all alone. I think that we need both Zella and Zen.

Both the Buddha and Aristotle taught that the best in life was found through a balance between extremes; the “Golden Mean”, as Aristotle said. Hopefully the Zen group-thinkers can get beyond their thoughts, as their koans admonish then to!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:40 pm      

  1. Jim, I couldn’t agree with you more.

    The whole business of “I MUST do 15 minutes of meditation in the morning and 15 in the evening” (or any such religious concept–there are so many of them put out by so many groups) ends up being a kind of compulsion, a kind of obsessive approach to a concept that was originally intended to aid the individual in the pursuit of whatever religious or philosophical concept is being put forth to attain some desirable spiritual goal.

    And with all due respect I make the following observation: Even for those who spend their lives in some type of monastery or secluded place where their specific “work” is attaining particular spiritual goals through the scheduled prayers or meditations–these practices often become simply routine. Routines can be comforting; one “knows” one is doing the “right thing” at the “right time.” But this comforting feeling does not actually mean that a person is attaining any spiritual goal. Even the whole concept of Sunday as the day reserved for the Lord can become routine. Why not Wednesday–or any other day–be a day reserved for spiritual goals?

    I agree with you: I don’t know why enjoying nature and people, as Zella seems to do, can’t be a spiritual practice. Basically, the only reason I see that Zella’s practices (and other such individual practices) usually are not considered “spiritual” is that those who are supposed to be the leaders of any religious or philosophical group say such things are not the proper way to achieve spiritual goals.

    I do think that for any individual (that is, those the leaders and those not the leaders of any religious, spiritual, or philosophical movement) actually following the rule that one’s conscience is the REAL rule of all spirituality is quite difficult. It requires an ability to discern when and under what conditions to follow one’s own conscience, which is a serious, genuine, tangible, and palpable responsibility; that is, it’s no joke. One must take the responsibility of following one’s own conscience on one’s own shoulders. In following one’s own conscience one takes on a real burden that people, too often, would rather avoid. It’s so much easier to simply follow some rule someone gives out as being the way to attain a spiritual goal. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — November 27, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

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