Monday, July 17, 2017

Zen and the Art of Border Collie Maintenance

The pain hit me out of nowhere, as it always does. As I paused in my circuit around the zendo to bow, a stabbing sensation streaked through my lower back and down my leg. I staggered back to my cushion, wondering whether I could tolerate another 40 minutes of stillness. At the break, I wrote in my journal: "The pain is a reminder that plans are only possibilities and that attaching to them only leads to suffering. The pain is my own greed and selfishness attacking me. The pain is bringing me into each moment, asking me, do I feel it now? Maybe the pain is a blessing." Then I excused myself from the rest of the sesshin and limped home.

12 hours later, lying on an ice pack, it didn't feel like a blessing. I had planned to complete a half-day of sitting, come home, and catch up on a long list of personal to-dos. But the back injury that has plagued me for almost a decade put the brakes on all that enthusiasm. That night, in too much pain to sleep, I felt disappointed and lonely- not centered and at peace. My day hadn't gone according to plan at all. Your expectations are creating your own suffering, I told myself. So what, my self said back. It was a good plan. I'm pissed off now. Leave me alone.

If I am on a path to enlightenment, I am going to need some sturdy shoes.


My meditation journey began in a place of professional self-interest. I had hired an executive coach to help me step up my game. Rather than running me through Myers-Briggs and orchestrating 360 feedback, he prescribed a media fast and zazen. These were his trusted antidotes to the anxiety that manifested in my leadership as reactivity and righteous indignation. Under his instruction, I made a half-hearted effort to sit a few times a week but assured myself that meditation wasn't for everyone. I was more of a yoga gal, with its tantalizing promise of multi-tasking: sculpting my arms while cultivating an inner peace.

Over the next decade, as I weathered tides of personal and professional successes and failures, meditation came and went. My longest run was the three months I spent in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class, during which I meditated almost every day in the name of taming my brain chemistry. We didn't talk about Buddha; we didn't talk about spirit at all. The instructor preached meditation from a pulpit of scientific evidence, a body of research all supporting the positive impact meditation could have on stress.

When the class ended, without the support of community, my practice became irregular. Life got in the way. I reminded myself that meditation was not for everyone. Even during the year that I had a dedicated meditation space in our house, it was usually easier to lie in bed for an extra 20 minutes with my phone in hand, sneaking in a few more rounds of Word Streak before seizing the day.


I have lived in Japantown during all of the eight years that Middle Way Zen, a Soto Zen center, has been there- about five blocks from my house. I walked by a hundred times, coming or going to sushi, the eye doctor, the ukelele store, the coffee place. But it wasn't until last August, a month away from starting a new job, that I decided to enter.

Prior to that, meditation had largely been a solitary practice for me (unless you count the three cats that typically sit with me, hoping that meditation is my way of preparing to open cans.) I first went to MWZ on a Thursday evening, when meditation is followed by a service and dharma talk. I returned the following Thursday. A week later, my clock wound forward by jetlag, I woke up unusually early and went for morning zazen. For 40 minutes, I sat in the dark room, facing the wall, my mind bouncing around like a pinball. Who was in there with me? Was I doing it right? I didn't know the words to the Robe Chant that followed zazen. I didn't know anything. I felt uncomfortable. But at some point, I went back. And went back again. And before long, I learned the Robe Chant, and when to bow, and when to put my hands in prayer position. Soon, sitting zazen at an hour when most of the world wasn't even awake seemed right.


There are no Zen workshops promising to transform you in three days. This is not the Landmark Forum. My teacher has been practicing for almost 30 years. Living and working in Silicon Valley, where we're infatuated with technology that will eliminate effort, embracing a practice where effort is sort of the point can feel as if it comes from a different world.

At Middle Way Zen, we meditate at 5:30 AM, in a state of minimal activity that Suzuki Roshi calls "just-to-sit." I make my way there most weekday mornings. On Wednesdays and Fridays, there is a short service that follows sitting. We turn our mats to the altar and chant and bow. Sometimes, I am the Kokyo, the person who leads the chanting. Sometimes, I am the Doan, the timekeeper who rings the bells before and after meditation. On mornings when I feel too tired to get up, knowing that others are relying on me for their practice gives me the motivation to go. I never regret it.

Even after almost a year of faithful attendance, my mind is like a Border Collie puppy, straining its leash at every turn, wanting to chase the ball. Stillness is elusive. Every few minutes, I catch myself in the midst of an imaginary conversation with someone I want to tell off, or drafting an email I want to send, or rehearsing the way I will gently and compassionately wake my daughter even though she has overslept again. In between, when I have that momentary recognition that I have wandered off, and I feel the whoosh of energy rushing back into my body like a student racing back to her seat, I have to remind myself not to score my performance. This is a practice. It is reflexive for me to give myself a grade, but that is not what it's about. I get no points for paying attention. I lose no points for wandering off.

It takes most people years of dedicated practice to start feeling a change. For someone like me, whose mind is continuously ricocheting off past and into future, the payoff seems unattainable. It is hard work, and there are no cheats. But I am settling in. I am starting not to worry about the payoff and to practice for the practice itself.


In the service, we chant the metta sutta: Let no one deceive another nor despise any being in any state. Let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another... with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things. Suffusing love over the entire world... let one cultivate an infinite good will... 

I am fighting it the whole way. I want to put an asterisk in there, a footnote that lets me despise certain people who deserve to suffer. I wish to leave certain addresses out of my radius of kindness. But that is not how we are taught. "In coming face to face with their life in all aspects," says the Soto Zen Association website, "{Zen Buddhists} come to know themselves and find their relationship to all other things. They learn to be truly here and to serve in all ways."

Our teacher is careful to make this point; we do not just sit for ourselves. We sit for everyone. We have a responsibility to work for the benefit of all beings. Even, I remind myself, those I don't like. Even those who bug the shit out of me. It is a new bar in my meditation journey: this practice does not just revolve around me, the Center of the Universe, and my own stress and anxiety. It is stretching me beyond what I know how to do. It is bringing my own bad habits into sharp focus. I have some nasty biases in the way I treat people. I can hold a grudge like a boss. But Buddhism challenges the notion that we are truly separate from each other. Does that interconnectedness mean that I am only hurting myself when I'm hurtful to others?

The stretch is challenging. But the stretch is also what keeps me going back, because this is the path I know I have to be on. It will lead to a new level of honesty about how I really am, how frenetically I cycle between remembering, judging, and planning, how willing I am to shake up a cocktail of truth and fiction to justify my own behavior.

I still spend most of my waking hours wandering away from the present moment, inattentive and distracted and drawn into my own delusion. But I am starting to call myself out more often. To link my unhappiness to my own undisciplined desires. To change my relationship with my chronic back injury: from victim mentality to acceptance of the pain for what it is, nothing more and nothing less. I am starting to recognize that it causes suffering for others when I conflate reality with the story I tell myself about it. Begrudgingly, I acknowledge that I might just be part of the problem.


This morning, my back is not in pain. Between breaths, I catch myself thinking about a set of three enameled bracelets that we just sold on eBay. Did we accept too low an offer? Would a counter of $25 have been accepted? A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. I wonder how much our total inventory is worth....

And then I notice where I have gone, and I straighten my posture, and I call the Border Collie back. Here, girl.