The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, December 23, 2012
Spirituality ... Zen ...

I made my usual Sunday morning trek this morning to my local zendo for our weekly zazen. The sensei gave a teisho (i.e., a “wisdom talk”, aka “sermon”) as he usually does. But he made a somewhat unusual observation today in his teisho. He said that he recently decided during one of our sitting periods to observe the sangha members around him, as they sat on their cushions and focused their over-active minds on breath, as per his teachings (even if it was OK for him to take a break from it as to look around). He noticed how serious everyone looked; he described our expressions as being “like people in a cancer ward”.

Yes, well . . . sitting in silence, a person can sometimes sense the texture of being, of sheer existence itself. (That is, if the meditator is not looking around at her or his fellow meditators). One can almost hear the clock of one’s life ticking. One comes face to face with one’s mortality. It is serious business.

But according to our teacher (and his friend, a fellow sensei from a sister Zen sangha in the next county), we should focus on joy during our sittings; we should be smiling. Happy to just be alive, to just be in the moment, and not be tied to that clock ticking eventually towards something like a cancer ward (if not actually to that ward). Maybe he has a point. But all this “in the moment” stuff in Zen really goes against the grain of being human. Our race did not expand and reach the point at which it is today without a strong sense of time, both past, present and future. Yes, I do agree that too much fixation on the remembered past (often mis-remembered past) or an imagined future causes unnecessary suffering. It takes too much away from what joys may indeed be available in the moment. But there’s no way we can just pull the plug on our time-sense and just smile our way through everything.

I thought I would share his “cancer ward” thought here and his idea that there should instead be joy. I myself sometimes (not always, maybe not even 50% of the time) reach a mental state of contentment and peace when sitting quietly in a community of fellow meditators. It can be nice. That’s why I do it. But even in such contentment, I doubt if my face looks much different than the “cancer ward” face. Smiling is nice, but it’s not something that anyone does for more than a minute or two (grinning too long starts to look phony or even evil — let’s face it, smiling is not always sweetness and light). Contentment is serious business. Smiling is too self-conscious, even if Thich Nhat Hanh recommends it. Contentment, by contrast, allows you to just dissolve into the backdrop, lose your extreme focus on you. Not a bad thing, in my book.

Perhaps the sensei has a point, in that many Zen meditators seem to think that they can work to find such a contentment state; perhaps by studiously counting their breath, the preferred technique taught by the sensei to “let go”. For some people, I’m sure it works; but if the sensei looks out and sees facial expressions indicating a grim struggle to wrestle their minds into a state of inner peace . . . well, instead of saying “try smiling”, perhaps he should say something else. Here’s what I would recommend: “don’t struggle so hard; don’t worry if you don’t find it every time you sit; if counting breaths doesn’t work for you, just keep working in your own way to find relaxation and peace when we all come together. You are not here to pass a test with me, you are not here to compete with anyone else; Zen is not like Marine Corps basic training. Just do whatever you have to do in your head to feel calm and peaceful and good about just being here with the rest of us.”

That is my kind of Zen!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:51 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I’m not sure I would go for the “smiling” all the time approach to meditation nor would I go for the “cancer ward” approach. I’m not sure what the look on one’s face has to do with anything when one is meditating.

    I tend to think that these approaches are more evidence of the person advocating them than that of the individuals meditating. What has one’s “face” got to do with it anyway? Why does one have to have a particular look?

    I agree with you: Just do what you have to do to empty your mind and let peace enter. Isn’t that what it’s all about? And I think that’s basically waht you said. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 24, 2012 @ 11:55 am

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