Saturday, April 4, 2009

Something to Count On

Quite a windy morning at the zendo! Blustery spring days like this are hard, aren't they? For wind not only kicks up dirt and leaves; very often it seems to sneak into the mind itself, kicking around inner dust and leaves, like the little aggravations that won't go away or annoyances that nip, nip, nip at the psyche. Such days always leave me feeling tired and a bit exasperated, as there is just no way to tidy up when the atmosphere is so unsettled.

This experience got me to thinking about my practice of late, and my own unsettled feelings about where I am in my life and what I'm doing. It's a typical self-questioning that ultimately lands me square in the lap of, "who am I?" And, just like any good seeker, I return to the assurances of my practice: form is emptiness, there is no self, and emptiness is form.

This last for oh, about a minute, and like the blustery day outside, my mind inside scuffles up the debris once again...And again, I return to Buddha's assurance...And again, the leaves fly...And again, Buddha...

This is exactly why they call it "practice", for on and on it goes!

Luckily, there are some nice little techniques one can use to trick the mind at its own game. In zazen, newcomers are taught to sit and "count your breath" in episodes of 10 out-breaths. But this is not just a "newbie" practice; make no mistake, in zen we honor the beginner's mind, the mind of not-knowing, the mind of a fresh, open approach to each and every moment. And so, each time we sit facing that wall, we count: one. two. three....

Keep in mind, the practice is not about counting; indeed, you're not aiming to "get to 10" by any means. This is an effortless effort, so no such goals are necessary. Instead, you are counting to give those blustery thoughts a focus, a project to attend to while the rest of your body settles into meditation.

I began the period feeling crooked and wild-minded. I gave myself a moment to find my composure, accepting my senses and feelings just as they were, deciding not to fight them. Once I felt a little more bottom-heavy, I began to count those slow out-breaths. I was elated to make it to ten; I stifled the elation, and in the next go, made it to 3 before I realized I was planning the night's dinner. Back again... and realizing I'd just counted "13". Slowly I pointed back to "1".

And on it went, until I realized: My thoughts are quieter now. My senses are a little sharper. I can feel things more succinctly in my body. And so I dropped the counting, and simply sat in that freshness, shikantaza, or "just sitting".

There really is nothing we can count on in this life, but for change itself. Practicing zazen helps one come to a deep appreciation for that change. And counting the breath offers a great way to approach raking leaves in the wind.

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