Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Phone Call Zen

Today I made a phone call that I'd been putting off for a while: since last November in fact. I had built up a complicated lump of mental machinery around and about it. It had become representative of a whole side of my life, a symbol of whether or not I am able, when needed, to take the plunge into the unknown. I must have played the conversation a hundred times in my head. I had thought about what it would be like after I had made the call, how I would feel, what the next step might be like. Part of me knew I would make the call, the other half knew that I wouldn't. It really wasn't a momentous call; but I had made it that. Suddenly, today after my usual mental hamster-wheel had spun a while, the knot of stuff kind of dropped lower. I almost made a decision to let my gut do the leading. Before I knew it, I was on the phone. I got through to a different person to that whom I expected. She put me through to an answer phone where I left a shaky-sounding message. But I had done it.

I don't like to say that "zen does this" and "zen does that." Zen doesn't do anything. But that superhero power of "not do anything" sometimes comes in damned handy, especially for a Zen worrier like me. I'm far too much stuck in my ridiculous noggin, and things never turn out how they look from in there, in my experience. But it's so easy to get bogged down in mind-mud. I don't despise the worrying or the fretting. They are part of life, they represent the impetus, the itch to grow and to seek change. But it's nice to let the dust settle sometimes.

Go on, make that call, whatever it is.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Resistance is futile

I came to a realisation a couple of months ago: not an all-conquering "I am one with the universe" epiphany, but just a common garden variety sort, and it was this: zen makes things easier.
Okay, okay, I hear what you 're crying out: I know, you have to sit a lot. Yes, that can be painful. There are weird cultural Japanese things that take some getting used to, and yes, one's own faults and peccadilloes come into uncomfortably sharp relief. Believe me, I've wrestled with the difficulties of zen, in fact I think that most of my practise thus far has been in resistance to it. And there's lots to resist in zen: uniforms, hierarchy, ritual, right-wing craziness by the Japanese and so on and so forth. Sometimes I've thought I would ditch zen in favour of Vipassana or something else that's a bit groovier , a bit more..modern, a bit more accomodating. But then, I've also realised that there's a bit of me that loves the arcane crustiness of some aspects of zen. I like that it's not too easy. I like that it's not too shiny or overwhelmingly positive in that Californian way. Because I sometimes feel a bit grey myself, a bit grim, and zen is cool with that. And you know what? I love putting on my best throaty pseudo-Japanese impression and rocking the Hannya Shingyo. It's fun. Participating in these cultural strangenesses can be thought of as our offering to the long line of zen practitioners.Some gave an arm or a finger: we can offer our bewilderment.
My resistance then, is lessening. If I remember my own good advice, that zen makes things easier, then I'll get on the cushion regularly and not flounder about trying to run from suffering. And that'll be better for everyone.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Knotty Problems

Hakuin feared the embraces of Hell. Bankei was mortally afraid of death. Dogen wondered if we are all perfect, as Buddha said, why bother with Buddhism? The great Zen masters often had some gnawing doubt early on in life which propelled them to the doorstep of the Zen temple, and ultimately to self-enquiry of the keenest sort. It was often the case that other types of Buddhists, Shinto-sorts and Confucians sent people who were particularly troubled down the road to the nearest Zen master (they probably didn't want to deal with the really mad ones), so I guess Zen is something you don't enter into lightly.
William James, the founding father of American psychological thought, divided people into two groups “once-born” and “twice –born”. The former group were the hardheaded, hale and hearty sorts who didn’t see what all the fuss was about, and why people couldn't just buck the hell up and stop being so damned wet (I may be paraphrasing the great Dr. James). The latter were the dramatic no-gain without pain crowd, who only felt at one with world after having undergone an arduous journey into the hinterlands of the spirit and then come back to tell everyone about it, much like people who’ve been backpacking to Goa. I used to think I was of the former group...I'm actually slightly envious of those individuals for whom existence presents no particular quibble.

But I wonder, does sitting on a cushion, apparently deeply interested in the  wall, whilst fervently praying that the bald man behind rings the bell before kneecaps explode like firecrackers in a welter of gristle and blood: does it really help with those existential-type woes? Personally, I  think about death a lot, and correspondingly just what life is all about (see former post). When I'm on top of my Zen game, I know that there really is no truth to those thoughts: they are just that, thoughts, no more relevant than those concerning lottery wins and ownership of small tropical islands. That doesn't mean to say that death isn't going to happen, and that the leadup to it will be fun and games exactly. It just means I don't have to live that now. Or going completely the other way, death is going on all the time, so my limited and partial view of it doesn't come anywhere capturing it. The universe, and my being know just fine how to cope with death: it's just the little bit of fretful,conceptual intellectual icing on top that doesn't.
I came to Zen after I felt, in one dramatic afternoon, that there was a hole in my life; nay, in my existence. My normal reaction had always been to stuff something in the gap to fill it. Zen is one of the few things one can do that lets you have gaps in your busyness. In fact, it encourages them. 
Have you got a knotty problem? Maybe Zen is for you. No knotty problem? You'd best get one sharpish.