This morning on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center for mid-morning practice, I walked down the graffiti-covered alley known as Modica Way, as I usually do whenever I visit the Zen Center. I’ve showed you many individual images of the ever-changing graffiti on this wall, but I’ve been wanting to assemble a panoramic shot of the entire thing to give a truer sense of scale. It’s one thing to view something in pieces; it’s something else entirely to take a long view.
Giving Sunday morning consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center feels a bit like stitching together a wide-angle panorama from the individual pictures of another person’s life. The folks who come into the interview room to ask me questions–or in many cases, just to talk–are often fixated on some individual aspect of their life: mainly, whatever problem is the most pressing right now. It’s human nature to zoom in on whatever is troublesome right now; because you’re so close to the problem, it seems overwhelming and huge. It’s difficult to step back and take a broad view, figuring out how this individual scene fits into the much longer play called Your Life.
As a Senior Dharma Teacher, a large part of my job in giving consulting interviews is to give newer practitioners a sense of perspective. Yes, right now Problem X might seem insurmountable, but having struggled with Problem X (or something similar) myself over the years, I can assure you it’s a passing problem. Just give it five, ten, fifteen years or more to marinate, stew, and simmer. This isn’t about the quick fix; it’s about slow growth. As my grandfather used to say about marriage, “Being married is easy. It’s only the first fifty years that are tough.”
I can’t count the number of times, for instance, that new practitioners have asked whether they are doing something “wrong” in meditation, claiming that the practice isn’t “working.” When I ask them what “working” would look like–how, in other words, they would know they’re doing meditation “correctly”–I usually get a vivid sense of what the person wants from their practice: they want meditation to make them calmer, happier, more blissful, etc. What is interesting about this, of course, is that meditation doesn’t really offer any of these things: if you’re meditating to become “more this” or “less that,” you’re missing the point of meditation, which is to make peace with what is. If you sit down to meditate only to realize how extremely scattered you are, you’re doing your meditation exactly right. Instead of getting rid of your scattered-ness, meditation means waking up and making nonjudgmental peace with it: “Right now in this place, I’m scattered. What’s it like, right now in this place, to Be Scattered?”
In the zoomed-in, closely cropped version, this view of meditation practice seems insane. Why would anyone in their right mind spend time making nonjudgmental peace with the very flaws they want to eliminate? If you want to become calm, why sit with a racing mind? If you want bliss, why sit and stew in your own miserable juices? The reason “why” emerges only in time, in the long, wide-angle view that takes years to develop. Sometimes, meditation feels good in the moment…but most of the time, you won’t realize until later how the seeds of self-acceptance have taken root in your psyche. Years later, after having struggled with and finally forgiven yourself, time and again, for your own scattered, stressed-out nature, you’ll notice yourself not getting so upset about it. Being scattered and stressed won’t be as much of a Big Deal because you’ll have perspective: “Oh, yeah. This is a passing mood. It comes, I fight against it, I eventually get tired and give up fighting, and it eventually leaves of its own volition.”
Once you recognize the patterns that repeat themselves through the overlapping pictures that stitch together into the panorama of your personality–once you recognize that you often fall into the same habits, obsessions, and behaviors Buddhists call “karma”–you’re one step closer to being free from it. Once you recognize the pattern (“Whenever I have one glass of wine, I end up drinking the whole bottle”), you’re that much closer to managing it (“I’m making a conscious decision not to drink that first glass”). But even after you’ve grown adept at recognizing and managing your karma, you still aren’t rid of it. The patterns don’t go away; you just see them more clearly. Your karma still wants that glass, that bottle, that brimming barrel of wine, and time and again, in each individual moment, you face that pattern and make peace with it. Yes, my mind wants alcohol; I’m consciously saying no. Yes, my mind wants to wander; I’m consciously bringing it back. This pattern will repeat five, five hundred, five million times, and you’ll train yourself through long practice: “Every time my mind wanders, I bring it back to the moment, to my breath, and I do it gently, with infinite patience and self-forgiveness…even when I’m not feeling patient or forgiving.”
It’s a habit, like my grandfather’s view of marriage, that takes a long time to cultivate…but that’s okay, because it’s the practice of a lifetime. In the short view, we’re all just beginners stumbling our way through a play without knowing our lines; in the long view, that play is a great cosmic dance that will lead, prompt, and nudge us, all in due time.
The panorama’s perspective is distorted toward the right side of the image: because my photo-editing software couldn’t stitch together the dozen-some photos I took, I had to merge these photos in batches, and the merge of the final two pictures reflects a different aspect-ratio than the previous merges of four pictures. Next time, I’ll know to assemble the panorama in even sets: a bit of perspective gained over time, with experience.