I’m a bad Buddhist.
And I can prove it, because if I were a good Buddhist, I wouldn’t say I was bad, because one of the more confusing parts of Buddhism is the idea that you are fine just as you are, wherever that is on your journey of personal development. HA! Paradox!
No, really, the idea is not too hard to embrace – many sects of Christianity include a similar idea with the unconditional love that God and Jesus have for humanity. Having a deity to accept you is much easier than accepting yourself, and even that often requires going to a beautiful church at least once a week just to remind yourself of that fact: “God be with you.”
For me, it takes sitting for fifteen minutes every morning to remind myself that life is a process, not a product, and it’s ok not to quite have the hang of it yet. I began sitting when I was a Marine Corps recruit, trying to reconcile my creative artsy side with the lean green fighting machine that the government was turning me into. At the time, it was the writings of Charlotte Joko Beck that gave me something to hang onto. A few years later it was Cheri Huber who helped keep me going, and most recently I’ve been very encouraged by the writings, both in book form and online, of Brad Warner, author of “Sex, Sin, and Zen” (affiliate link) among others.
All of these teachers come from the Soto Zen tradition, of which I know very litte. What I do know, though, is how they sit. Some would call it meditation, but that polysyllabic word has a lot of connotations attached to it from other spiritual practices, with things like chanting and getting all floaty and at one with the universe.
That’s not what sitting is. Sitting is when you sit. You get into a specific position – legs crossed, spine straight, left hand palm up in your lap and right hand palm up in your right.Â You focus your eyes on an invisible spot in the air somewhere in front of you and down towards the floor.
And you. Just. Sit. There.
No breathing exercises (though Cheri Huber has said you might count breaths, five at a time, if you need to cheat a bit). No closing eyes, no relaxing into ethereal bliss. You just sit and deal with the world as it is, right then, right there.
Sometimes I cheat and put one hand on each knee, palm down. The tripod formed by my spine and my two arms somehow feels right.Â Often I have to remind myself to straighten my spine, discovering I’ve slumped. But most of my time is spent trying to get my brain to stop spinning. To bring my attention away from what I did yesterday, what I need to do tomorrow, this afternoon, in the next fifteen minutes. To bring it back, over and over and goddamn it over again, to the moment as it is.
The mind is an amazing traveler. It is usually anywhere but where you are. I’ll snap back to the moment after spending who knows how long thinking about computer equipment, having entire conversations in my head with my clients, speculating about friends and lovers and techniques for brewing coffee. It’s sometimes absurd to see where my mind goes. It may be depressed about the state of my bank account, it may be ecstatic about the email I got from my lover, it may be planning on the toppings for oatmeal that morning. I come back to the moment, often wondering what the hell made me go off on that particular tangent.
And that’s sort of the point: to remind myself of how easy it is to not pay attention to the world as it is, and to pay attention instead to the world as I think it should, could, might be. You’d think, since the former is concrete and real and the latter is completely nonexistent, it would be easier to pay attention to the world as it is.
You’d be wrong, though, which neatly proves the point.
Sitting is hard. I can only handle about fifteen minutes a day right now, though I’m thinking of adding another fifteen minutes in the evening just to see if I can do it. As it is, I count it a victory if I am able to be “in the moment” when the alarm goes off at the end of fifteen minutes. I count it a failure (Bad Buddhist warning, again!) if I succumb to the temptation to look at my phone to see how much longer I have to sit there, because damn it, I’ve got things to do! I read about “sesshin” – where an entire day, or several days, are spent with hours of just sitting – in much the way a person who has taken up walking reads about marathon runners: with envy and admiration and a distinct feeling of “Wow, I don’t think I could ever handle that.”
I’d invite you to try it out. Not just for one day, though that’s a start. But commit to, say, a week, with five minutes of sitting in the morning right when you get up. It’s simple: you hear the alarm, you get out of bed, you sit on the floor, and set the timer.
That’s it. If you have to move to some pretty view, or put on some chimey soft sounds, or have to close your eyes, well, that’s fine, but you’re cheating yourself out of Life As It Is. It’s not something we get to see all that often, and sitting only gives most of us a glimpse, here and there. I’m not talking about any kind of satori or enlightenment. I’m talking about just being ok, for just a bit, with the way things are, as opposed to the way you think they should be.
Then the doubts will crash in, the baby will start crying, the cat will start puking up a hairball and your boss will text you reminding you that today is when that report you forgot about is due. All part of the busy beauty that is life. Sitting just gives you a chance to stay in touch with reality, and takes away your excuses to avoid it – i.e., your “to-do” and “wish” list.Â As another zen writer put it:
âBefore studying Zen, mountains are mountains.
While studying Zen, things become confused.
After studying Zen, mountains are mountains.â
– D.T. Suzuki
Don’t just do something. Sit there.