Thursday, July 24, 2008

What are you waiting for?!

As the fact of my own mortality sinks in and becomes more and more internalized, I am beginning to notice the fleeting nature of everything, and everyone, around me.

Frankly, this is sort of weird.. a little disturbing... but, in its own perfect way, I find it to be achingly beautiful.

Knowing and accepting that this life of mine will end, and that I mostly likely (almost certainly, actually..) have less time to go before I die than I have already lived brings this into focus in a way that is so clear-cut, and so inarguable that I actually find it difficult to put it aside.

What I come away with when I do, see, hear, taste, smell, think or feel anything... is that this is important!

I was walking home from work last week (my vehicle was in the shop.. and I didn't have much in the way of options...) I was shocked to find that instead of being miserable due to the heat (it was nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit), fatigue (I had worked a full day, on my feet all day... and it was about a 5 or 6 mile walk..), or pain (I had a full compliment of blisters on my feet from the previous day's stroll... and my muscles were stiff and sore... I hadn't walked any great distance in a good while...) I was actually grateful. This struck me as an odd emotion under the circumstances... but there it was.... The sky was incredibly blue... the sun was shining... I was seeing plants and birds and insects that I usually miss as I drive past... My body was working.. but I felt very much alive. Rather than viewing it as some sort of punishment, or as a torment to simply get through, I allowed myself to simply be.. to be completely present... and to let things unfold, without judging, without ruminating, and without wishing that things were somehow different than they were.

I was still hot, tired, and in pain... but I was happy. I was here... and I was very much aware that this is a priceless and precious gift... because I will not always be here... and with that realization, I felt a deep and abiding appreciation for everything... the act of breathing... the feel of the breeze on my skin... the dragonflies, plovers, thistles and sorrel... the smell of the grass.. the physical sensation of walking... and of being able to push through the discomfort and continue on..

Appreciation is a very, very important attribute, I think.

So important that without it .... we suffer.

As a matter of fact, I will go so far as to say that in the very moment we stop appreciating; we begin to suffer.

If we find ourselves in a situation that we don't like or didn't plan on, very often our response is to feel aversion, dislike, discomfort, or some other emotion that leads to a desire to escape. We so desire to be elsewhere, or in a different situation, that we cease being present in the moment...thereby losing our appreciation for the present moment.. and we begin to suffer.

We want to be relaxing on the couch, watching TV, or out with our friends... or doing whatever it happens to be that we want to be doing. However, we must do the dishes, or homework, or pay the bills... or some other chore that we don't want to do....

So. Although we are doing the dishes, we are not there while we are doing the dishes; we are thinking about where we want to be... or what we want to do... so we just try to get through doing the dishes so that we can be where we want to be. How many people live almost their entire lives not appreciating the moment... and just getting through the now in order to get to some imagined future that they will very likely also miss by not being there when it comes?! This strikes me as a very sad and regretful waste of life. Even a mediocre authentic life must be better than a non-existent wished-for exciting life... whatever it is... is what it is. You can only have an effect upon your future by acting in the present. In any case, it happens to be the only real moment that we ever have... and we always seem to let it slip through our fingers. We have an experience... a true and authentic experience; and then we have a thought about that experience... and we are removed from the moment.. the experience is past.. the thought is a thought. A picture of a tiger is not a tiger. A photograph of food will not fill you when you are hungry. In order to live... you have to live. Thats all.

The problem that we create is twofold; firstly, we create a situation in our mind of what we would like to be doing... and we have expectations of how it should go, or how it should make us feel when we are finally where we would like to be; and if what actually occurs is different from our expectations.. we suffer. Secondly, while we are doing the dishes in the present... our mind is in the future; planning how things are going to be, or thinking about how they should be... or in the past, remembering how it was the last time that we were doing what we enjoy.

But we live here.. now... in the present. So... why sacrifice living now, for a memory of the past... or a plan for the future??

Why suffer now... wishing we were elsewhere.. or that things were different, when we could, instead, simply accept that now is the time when we must wash the dishes, or pay the bills, or what have you... and remain fully present, and completely mindful as we do whatever it is that we must do??

Whether we are washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, or out with our friends; this is our life.. just as it is!

My suggestion is to learn to accept the moment that life unfolds and reveals to you with an open and gracious heart. If we must do the dishes, then why not DO THE DISHES?? This is a task that displays a great deal of optimism; we must have some hope of eating again in the future, or why care whether we have clean plates?? This task is a perfect task for teaching appreciation and gratitude. You can feel the water on your skin... how many people put forth great effort to treat and purify that water so that it can reach your faucet? How many hours of work and toil were involved in designing and laying the pipes and valves and tanks?? There had to have been a meal in order for the plates and implements to have gotten dirty in the first place.... each and every meal is a gift of the Universe; for every morsel of food represents a sacrifice of life for some organism. The fact that you are still in the same place where you ate indicates that you were safe and secure; you didn't have to flee scavengers or predators... or marauders... or invading armies. How many people give everything they have in order to keep us safe and secure? The dishes had to be designed, manufactured, packaged, transported, stocked, and sold.

Just doing the dishes gives us a window in the thousands and thousands of hours of effort and work by thousands of other people just so that you would be able to have a dish to eat off of.

This is surely something that shouldn't be taken for granted...

If you take this meditation a step further, each one of the people involved in the production of only one dish had to have clothing, tools, supplies, vehicles, materials, and a workspace... each of them had to be administered in order to be paid, supplied, etc. (they were employees of some company, or they own their own, I am assuming...) - and this is just for the dish!! What about the flatware, glasses, cups, pans, pots, potholders, implements, counters, stove, refrigerator, cabinets, table, ... house... and so on?? What about the garbage?? That has to be taken away and properly disposed of....

What does this tell you?

Mainly, that although we often consider ourselves as self-sufficient islands who need little or nothing from others, simply washing the dishes mindfully can illustrate that we are inextricably bound to every other being on this planet... our lives not only dance with and around the lives of others... but are dependent upon the efforts of others.. and they are equally dependent upon us.

If you pull the camera back and look at everything around you.. at everything that you use each and every day... roads, signs, glass, doors, medicine, soap, cosmetics, electronics, chemicals, what have you... you begin to see that we owe a great deal to many, many people... and they also owe a debt of gratitude to us.

Pull still further back, and we begin to realize that we fit in to a greater reality than we ever even considered....

How can we afford to miss such a realization by being stuck in the past, or reaching for a future that will either come anyway, or, which we will not survive to experience... which renders it a moot point in the long run??

As a monk, I spend a great deal of time in meditation. Not as much as I would prefer, but, nevertheless a great deal of time. When I began this practice, (I am speaking of Zen practice in general... rather than 'Dying Practice' specifically in this case.) I was often waiting for it to happen... When I would spend time sitting Zazen, and nothing happened, I found it frustrating. I felt that I was doing something wrong.....

On the other hand, when I was out and about and actually doing things that involved action and moving and effort; I found that I was holding back... conserving my strength for ..... something.

After a number of years of practicing, I finally realized that that something that I was hoping would happen during meditation was very much the same thing that I was saving my strength for everywhere else... and that it never was going to happen.

In Zazen, we sit... completely still. Very quietly.

We breathe in. We breathe out.

In Rinzai Zen, we often sit with our 'koan', which is a question or phrase that defies logical, intellectual understanding.

So we sit there... and nothing happens. We just sit.

Clouds don't part. Angels don't sing. Lightning doesn't strike (well... not yet).

Nothing. Zip. Nada. Bupkiss.

Often, one's feet and legs go to sleep... and pain begins to gnaw at us. Ankles and knees scream. Backs howl. Rear ends go numb.

And we sit.

Eventually, however... it begins to dawn on us that we don't have to do anything. We are already doing it... there is no big 'SOMETHING' that will happen.

Zazen is a microcosm of life... you see.

When we are doing the dishes... we can be completely present, and appreciative of doing the dishes... of being alive... of being HERE... doing THIS... right NOW.

There is a subtle perfection in doing something... anything... when we do it completely... giving it all we've got. No matter what we are doing.

What is the most important thing? Whatever we happen to be doing at the moment. That is the correct answer.

Death is coming. There is no way to avoid it. We are human beings, and as such we are of the nature to grow old, to grow sick, and to die. We cannot escape this fate.

Running around, treating one another like crap so that we can gather more and more stuff, or have more power than others, or point out other people's weaknesses.. this does not bring happiness. It only numbs our own suffering temporarily. There is no filling the mouth of desire... desire expands faster than we can feed it. There is always a bigger, shinier, faster, more powerful, thing.. and we will never be happy with what we have so long as we are constantly looking towards the new thing. Controlling others, judging others; well.. this is simply projecting our own weaknesses and hiding them beneath indifference, ignorance, brutality, cruelty, or hate. And this brings no lasting happiness either. We can run around as fast as we like... but we all end up the same way... so why rush it?

As I practice "Soft Belly" meditation and work on bringing it into my daily life, and as I practice "Noting & Observing" I am finding that I can calmly enjoy the simple act of being.

Being alive. Breathing. Loving my family and friends. Loving and showing compassion and kindness to those around me; even the difficult people who are acting out of their own sense of pain and confusion... this is a gift. I wont have it forever. I wont have it for a very long time. I may not have it for very long at all. But I have it now.

Are you so very different than I am in this respect?

Start appreciating... or start suffering. Every breath is a choice. So... what are you waiting for??

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