Last night after nearly a month-long hiatus, the Southern NH Zen Group met again here in Keene.
I hadn’t mentioned the Group’s hiatus because I had other things on my mind, and sometimes what’s important gets lost in other concerns, the mundane details of our workaday life. Now that it’s over, the details of the hiatus are not important. What’s important is that last night, for the first time in nearly a month, I sat on a cushion, rested my gaze lightly on the floor in front of me, and followed my breath as it slipped in and out of my body. It’s been a long time since I simply followed my breath, since I last “returned to the breath,” as Buddhists sometimes describe their practice. Moment to moment, we strive to return to the breath, to the present moment, and it’s been nearly a month since I myself returned.
Is it any wonder I’ve lately been a basket-case?
Okay, that’s an exaggeration: I haven’t lately been a basket-case. But lately I have felt scattered, my energy diffused; lately I’ve felt periodically overwhelmed by even the simplest of things. I’m intimidated by the thought of the stack of graded papers that I simply have to record in my gradebook. The thought of cleaning my too-long-neglected bathroom is exhausting. I know I need to start watching what I eat (or at least making sure that I do regularly eat), and I know I need to get back into the habit of going to bed at a reasonable hour, getting up at a reasonable hour, and abandoning this insane habit of getting up to check email, blog, or do Lord knows what else at 4:30 in the morning. And I know I should be writing, in a notebook, by hand, everyday: that is the place where my real writing energy lies, yet I avoid it. All these things I know I should be doing–all these things I know I need to be doing–and yet the thought of starting (or make that returning to) any of them seems all-but-paralyzingly complicated.
This all would be much simpler, of course, if I simply returned to the breath.
Returning to the breath is simple. The breath never derides or chides you; the breath never says, “Where the hell have you been?” The breath never says, “Damn, you look like hell, your face is a mess, your life is even messier…and by the way, what have you done for me lately?” No, the breath simply goes about its business of moving in and out of any random body it finds, making no preference, holding no hindrance, simply coming, simply going. The restfulness of meditation comes not from anything you do while meditating but from everything you don’t. You don’t move, you don’t fret, you don’t judge…you simply observe. One messed up, messy, procrastinative, basket-case-type person comes, you simply observe her. “Oh yeah, you again…you still haven’t gotten your life together?” You simply note these things, return to the breath, and move on. No harm, no foul.
I’ve been meditating long enough–some 15 years now–that for the most part I no longer face the physical hindrances that caused so much torture when I began. When I first started meditating, sitting cross-legged was excruciating. My knees would hurt or my ankles; if I sat so that my knees and ankles were comfortable, I’d feel shooting pains from my hips. When there wasn’t pain, there was numbness: first one leg would fall asleep, then the other, and once while I was sitting both legs and both arms fell asleep, numbed by the sheer will of nervous energy holding my muscles rigid. When I wasn’t in pain or numb, I’d fall asleep: for the first five years or so, every time I’d meditate with a group, I’d fall asleep and snore audibly, my breathing blocked by the allergies that still plague me. In a word, when I first started meditating, I was a mess: I probably had no business meditating, and a saner soul would have given up and tried something healthier, like heroin. Being bull-headed, though, I persevered, stubborn.
I can say from experience, then, that the breath doesn’t care how messed up you are: it will visit you regardless. After about five years of torturing myself, I finally gave into my body and let it tell me how it wanted to sit, how it wanted to breath. I gave up trying to sit full-lotus, I gave up trying to sit half-lotus, I gave up trying ever to sit with my left leg on top of my right. I gave up trying to breathe through my nose: if oxygen somehow finds its way into and out of my lungs, I’m happy, thank you. On long retreats, I’ve learned that I need to sit half of the sessions in quarter-lotus, my right foot nestled into the crook of my left knee, and the other half in seiza, a Japanese kneeling position where I straddle my meditation cushion like a horse. Even after years of meditating–years of learning what my body does and doesn’t like and what it will and won’t tolerate–still sometimes on retreat I can’t make it to the end of a meditation session without bowing and then standing, grateful for the chance to allow blood to rush back into my numb and sore legs. But however I sit and however many times I stand, my breath is always there, sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, always entirely unconditional. Oxygen comes and carbon dioxide goes whether I’m “together” or not.
These days, sitting is physically easier than it was in those early days: these days, returning to a meditation cushion feels like coming home. It’s not so much that I’m more flexible at 35 than I was at 20; it’s more that I’ve learned to work around and within my own limitations. These days, returning to a meditation cushion is like waking up, the realization dawning that yes, life is complicated and, yes, the answers to such complication are very, very simple. At any given moment, there’s only one thing I can or should be doing, so I should do that thing and ignore the rest. Grab the ball, take your shot, then let everything else fall where it may. Zen Master Dae Kwang once described the process of sitting a long retreat as being one of renunciation rather than accretion. The first day, you try meticulously to sit the retreat; the second, you try a little less; the third, a little less than that. After several days, you give up trying to sit the retreat or do anything: you simply show up and wait to see what happens. In a word, you return to the breath and recognize that the rest of your practice–the rest of your life–is just details. “At that point,’ Zen Master Dae Kwang smiled, “you’ve really begun practicing.” At that point, smiling, you’ve finally returned.