Why Do I Practice?

I ask this really just wondering what you think. Is there something in meditation, or something that comes out of meditation, that you think can/should/could help you focus on the things you want to achieve?

A friend of mine asked me this some time ago, and ever since I’ve really wanted to answer. Yet it’s not nearly as simple a question as it might seem; in fact, it’s both fundamental and impossible. Why do I practice? How do I know—or rather, how can I put into words what I but dimly sense (and which, besides, doesn’t lend itself to verbal expression)?

There is a custom in some corners of the Zen world called the way-seeking mind talk: an account of how we come to the practice. I suppose the Now and Zen page of this blog represents something like this for me. Without repeating too much of what I wrote there, I’d like to explore this notion of (to put it bluntly) “What’s in it for me?” when it comes to meditation (or practice in general).

Part of the challenge in doing so derives from one of those essential Zen paradoxes: we’re taught that seeking something outside yourself is illusory, and also that practice requires determined seeking, a strenuous, prolonged effort. In this context, I find the following Zen story particularly apt.

A young but earnest Zen student approached his teacher, asking, “If I work very hard and diligent, how long will it take for me to find Zen?”

The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years.”

The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast—how long then?”

Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.”

“But, if I really, really work at it. How long then?” asked the student.

“Thirty years,” replied the Master.

“I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?”

Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

To quote the Harmony of Difference and Equality sutra, “If you don’t understand the way right before you, how will you know the path as you walk? So okay, then: concentrate on where you are, not where you hope to go. Don’t try to get somewhere or gain something…right?

And yet the very concept of the way-seeking mind rests upon seeking as being not only acceptable, but indispensable. There exists within us some sort of knowing wants to show us what’s really going on; that wants to take us somewhere or transform us, revealing the truth of who we are, and we need to get in touch with that knowing.

Practically speaking, if we didn’t find life somehow unsatisfactory (aggravating, confusing, painful), why would we even consider meditating? As Steven Hagen puts it in Buddhism Plain & Simple:

If we’re not expecting to get anything from being awake, what reason do we have to awaken? There isn’t any reason. You already know what not being awake is. It’s confusion. It’s pain. It’s suffering…If you’re getting tired of that, why don’t you stop?

Why are so many countless millions seeking, yearning, restless? It’s because we know, at some level, that there’s got to be a better way. And we’re not going to find that way by simply wishing for it: we have to do something, even if that “something” involves a lot of sitting still and breathing. We must balance, or blend, an unstoppable drive to grow with a letting go of any particular goal or outcome.

Returning to the original question, I think there’s a simpler, more direct way to answer it. What do I get out of meditation? More presence (occasionally). Better vision (somewhat). Glimpses of a different way of being in the world. And it’s taken quite a lot of sitting even to gain even these glimpses.

But it’s not as though I’m a certain distance along some hypothetical road to enlightenment. It’s rather that I feel the effects of meditation when, unexpectedly, I find myself less reactive. When I encounter something that would typically trigger an emotional reaction, and yet I have this sense of distance or delay: something like what’s used during “live” broadcasts for bleeping out inappropriate content.

Or it’s about reaching a place where I tend to take things personally less often, where I have a back-pocket, handy-dandy refuge of returning to the breath. I make quiet a regular aspect of my daily life, as well as an aspiration to spread peace and compassion by building on a foundation of inner peace and compassion toward myself.

But does this make me more “focus[ed] on the things [I] want to achieve”? I don’t know. For sure, it’s a process. I recall at my first dokusan responding to the question of what brought me to practice by saying something like, “to become more who I am.” At a later dokusan I believe I said, “to see what’s there to be seen.”

Why do I practice? Because meditation helps…somehow…I’m pretty sure. I’m pretty sure that Zen practice, while not therapy, can be therapeutic in the sense of guiding one toward a healthy life of intuition and engagement, a genuine, full life. In this way (among many others), I think it has something in common with Sudbury schooling.

But what do I know?

Sitting meditation won’t help you to be something different or someone better—though it may help you to see what you are doing to add on to, or fuel, your problems. When we hold still and just observe over time, we see the contrast, the hidden impulsive movements that tie emotions into knots.
~ Sokuzan Bob Brown
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1 Comment

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One response to “Why Do I Practice?

  1. From the Austin Zen Center’s Facebook page…

    “We sit to make life meaningful. The significance of our life is not experienced in striving to create some perfect thing. We must simply start with accepting ourselves. Sitting brings us back to actually who and where we are. This can be very painful. Self-acceptance is the hardest thing to do. If we can’t accept ourselves, we are living in ignorance, this darkest night. We may still be awake, but we don’t know where we are. We cannot see. The mind has no light. Practice is this candle in our very darkest room.”

    ~ Kobun Chino Roshi

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