Every Wednesday night I walk down the bikepath into Central Square, Keene, to lead our Zen group. Every Wednesday night, I can think of a thousand reasons why I don’t wanna lead the Zen group: I’m too busy. I’m too tired. The weather’s too bad. The weather’s too nice. I led the group last week. What’s the use of Zen practice, anyway?
Whine, whine, whine. This is the soundtrack to each week’s repeat of Don’t Wanna Wednesday.
Last night was no different. Yesterday I was feeling particularly exhausted and drained. I just wanted to sleep. The last thing I wanted to do was walk into town, unlock the space our group rents one night a week, set up our makeshift altar and lay out meditation mats and cushions. I just wanted to curl up with a book and DO NOTHING. I wanted to veg. I wanted to stay in for a change. Why go anywhere, why get up, why do anything?
In my Zen school, we have a terse answer to this question of “why do anything.” Why get out of bed and drag my sorry ass to Zen practice? “For you!” Sometimes I don’t want to practice. When I ask myself, “What’s in it for me,” I can’t come up with any good reasons…but I can come up with plenty of reasons why I don’t want to practice. So this motto “For you!” reminds me of the true direction of my practice and my life: even if I don’t wanna, maybe you need me to show up and try my best anyway. Maybe my “don’t wannas” are just a form of internal static, a kind of self-sabotage by which I keep myself inert and inactive, procrastinating the very things I need to do for my own wellbeing as well as that of others.
So last night I dragged my sorry ass out of bed and onto the bike path: trudge, trudge, trudge. “I don’t wanna” was the mantra I uttered in time with each step. “Maybe no one will show up and I’ll go have a margarita!” I solaced myself. “Maybe no one will show and I’ll take the night off!”
I have this secret wish on every single Don’t Wanna Wednesday: “Maybe no one will show up!” And on every Wednesday, someone shows up, and on every Wednesday night, I’m glad. I’m glad to have dragged my ass into town, I’m glad that I set up the altar and the room, I’m glad that someone showed up, and I’m glad to have practiced. By the time I lock up that rented space for another week and walk back home through downtown Keene with its quaintly lit shopwindows, I’m happy to be alive, happy to have shown up. In the end, those things which I do for you are pretty damn good for me, too.
Last night was particularly interesting. It had been exactly a month since I defended my dissertation on April 5th: exactly a month since I earned the title “Doctor.” And during that entire month, I’ve felt exhausted and drained: I’ve been sleep-deprived and overwhelmed with teaching and household catch-up. I’ve enjoyed the fact that I’m done with the diss, but I haven’t really had a chance to rest in that realization. It’s like I reached the top of one impressive summit only to realize that there is an infinite number of other crests spanning in every direction before me: keep on hiking!
Last night for the first time in months, though, I actually relaxed during meditation. Now, this might sound like a strange thing to say: I mean, isn’t meditation supposed to be all about relaxing? Well, yes…no…maybe…it depends. I tend to be very tense when I meditate: I tend to be very tense in general, carrying all my worries, obligations, and distractions laden across my neck and shoulders like a yoke. I tend to sit like a rock–hard and tense–rather than a supple, fluid creature, and I tend to struggle a lot (mentally) during meditation. I struggle to stay awake. I struggle against the pain that all that psychosomatic tension causes. I struggle against my notions of who I should be as a Zen teacher and what I should be doing. In a word, I sit there on the mat and fight everything: I fight my body, my mind, my karma, you name it. It’s not relaxing because I’m eternally bristling myself against some notion of what meditation should or shouldn’t be.
Last night, I did something utterly simple that completely changed the tone of my practice. I sat on a comfortable cushion. Our Zen group has two kinds of cushions: some are stuffed with kapok, and some are stuffed with buckwheat. The kapok cushions are overstuffed and rock-hard: some people like the additional support they provide, but most folks find them uncomfortable. The buckwheat cushions, on the other hand, mold themselves to your shape like a beanbag chair. Sitting on a buckwheat cushion is very comfortable, like sitting on a sandy beach. Sitting on a kapok cushion is excruciating, like sitting on a rock.
So last night I allowed myself the luxury of taking a comfortable cushion rather than thinking I should leave them for other folks. Halfway through the first sitting I had this strange sensation. I was entirely awake, not a hint of sleepiness, and my spine was naturally, comfortably upright. I could feel my arms and shoulders hanging loosely, naturally, from my spine, my whole body resting, gently, into the earth’s gravitational pull. I wasn’t fighting to stay awake nor was I fighting to sit upright: I was just resting gently, naturally, like a rag doll that’s been carefully propped upright but still droopy against a wall. My hips didn’t hurt nor did my knees nor my ankles nor my back…
What is this strange sensation, I wondered. I don’t hurt, and there’s something else I’m feeling…what is it? The realization came slowly, gradually, and I had to stifle a chuckle when I realized the undeniable new sensation that was overwhelming me with its strangeness. “Good Lord, I’m relaxed! I’m completely awake, and I’m completely relaxed.” At this point, I was grinning from ear to ear, still gazing lightly at the floor in front of me as I followed my breaths, in and out. “So this is what it’s like to be relaxed! So this is what it’s like to sit without a Dissertation weighing down on your shoulders! So this is what it’s like to roll with it rather than fighting it!”
And so in the end, I was very glad that yet another Don’t Wanna Wednesday turned into How Wonderful to Have Done It Wednesday. Sometimes you need a kick in the pants to drag your sorry ass out of bed, but sometimes you also need to give that sorry ass a break by giving it a comfy cushion to sit on. Sometimes you just need to give up your ideas and your notions and your struggles; sometimes you just need to stop fighting. Sometimes just showing up and relaxing are all that is necessary: actually, that’s probably all that’s necessary most of the time. Showing up and relaxing: is that for you or for me? In the end, I think showing up and relaxing is something we do for us both, together. You show up, you do your best, you relax, confident that the universe and the present moment will take care of the rest. Who wouldn’t want to spent their Wednesdays or their life practicing such a routine?