A Practice Story: Things As They Are

Submitted by a student in the Meditation at Work Class

My familiarity with sitting meditation stretches back several years, but this year marks the first time I have committed myself to some sort of daily practice and, specifically, to a practice of zazen. My early experiences with sitting meditation were sporadic and usually geared toward the purpose of relaxation and stress reduction. Practicing zazen has, not surprisingly, been quite a change from these experiences.

Of course, the change in purpose from my previous comfort-inducing exercises has meant a change in the nature of my effort. My perceived need for physical, mental, or emotional “time-outs” from daily life originally characterized my sitting meditations, thus precipitating a haphazard and occasional practice. In contrast, my daily practice of zazen is, by definition, integral to my daily life. The emphasis of this practice has been on the effort of the practice itself, and the daily commitment to that effort, rather than on the alleviation of some type of stress. In fact, it is fair to say that daily zazen has been, among other things for me, a practice of the practice of commitment.

In terms of the actual experience of zazen itself, I am amazed at the universe of invariably self-centered chatter that fills my mind and distracts me from attending to my breath as I sit. The apparent composure of my relatively calm body in zazen belies the near constant time-traveling between past regrets and future worries that simultaneously steals my mind away from the present moment.

Sitting with “things as they are,” in particular the nature of my mind, has had the effect of increasing my awareness of the frequent disconnect between the activity of my mind and the activity of my efforts in all things throughout the day. The main result of this has been a quicker recognition and easier acceptance of the various forms of “mind-tripping” – baseless assumptions, fantasy scenarios, self-serving judgments, unproductive anxieties, etc. – in which my mind indulges itself, and in turn, a greater facility in shifting my attention to the world beyond my small self and to whatever task is at hand. Beginning my mornings with zazen has been critical to my ability to carry this awareness with me, as best I can, throughout the day.

This readjustment of attention from my “monkey mind,” as Suzuki-roshi calls it, to the world of my senses and to my behavior has, in turn, led to a number of behavioral changes. For one thing, I am less likely to be careless and more likely to take the time to act with deliberation in order to be respectful of the surroundings with which I interact. I am also purposely engaging fewer of my senses at a time. So, for example, I do not turn on the radio as background stimulation while eating meals as often as I used to, the better to focus on the eating of the meal. Also, perhaps as a result of focusing on proper posture during zazen, I am more keenly aware of my posture and movement throughout the day. When I have this awareness, there is more of an “artistic economy” to my movements.

Perhaps most importantly, becoming more cognizant of my activities and of my daily world has led me to begin a reassessment of which activities in my life are necessary and which are unnecessary, both in the short term and in the long term. This reconsideration ranges from whether or not grocery shopping needs to be done today to whether or not it is important for me to continue my work as a board member for a particular organization rather than to now use my time and efforts in support of another, perhaps more constructive, need.