Monday, April 25, 2011

In each moment, each of us experiences a gap between whatever is going on, whatever the actual situation is, and what we would prefer to have happening. This can range from mundane things like wanting the lettuce in our salad to be less soggy, or the feeling of time pressure at the end of a busy day when we want to get a few more things done, to really difficult things like chronic pain or deep grief. This gap is pretty much there all the time, for all of us, and our dissatisfaction in any given moment seems to be more or less proportional to the size of this gap.

For most of us, we are very clear from a young age that the best way to reduce our dissatisfaction is to reduce or eliminate this gap.  If we could just make that gap go away completely, we think we could finally be happy.  And we do this by making the effort to bring about whatever situation we prefer, or — if the gap isn’t too big — maybe we ignore it for the time being.  But even when we do that, we are still really sure that if we could just eliminate that gap, our dissatisfaction would be eliminated. This approach is so basic that we hardly even notice it, and most of us spend our whole lives trying to reduce the size of this gap between what is and what we would prefer.

Sometimes we may find ourselves in really difficult situations in which there is no possibility for closing the gap. Chronic pain can go on for years, and we want that pain to go away more than anything, but none of the medical treatments or special diets or exercises help very much. Or someone very dear to us dies, and there’s nothing we can do to remove the grief.

If we’re not in such dire circumstances and if we are reasonably lucky, we can get pretty good with this gap-reduction strategy: maybe we are successful in our careers, we are savvy consumers, we have learned from our previous relationships. We can get pretty good at being in the world and getting what we want most of the time. But even if we are one of these fortunate souls, we find that as soon as we close the gap between what is and what we would prefer, it immediately re-opens as the situation changes and our attention is drawn to something else that we would prefer over what’s actually going on.

So this whole business of trying to get what we want seems to be a losing strategy, because no matter how good we get at bringing about our preferences, the gap never seems to close for very long. In fact, we may find that the very effort of continually trying to get what we want just makes us sick, because we see that we are trapped in this endless round of unfulfilled desire that never ends. This is samsara.

Then, maybe we read a magazine article about meditation or a friend tells us about it, and for some reason we decide to give it a try. We sit still and just bring simple mindful attention to what is actually going on in each moment. We feel our breathing, we notice our thoughts coming and going, and we don’t get too caught up in them. We find that meditation brings us some relief from the endless round of desire that we have been trapped in, and that it sort of gets us out of the whole business of continually, compulsively working to get what we want.

After practicing in this way for a while, we may feel really enthusiastic and decide to do a one-day meditation retreat, or even a week-long meditation retreat. This is often a rude awakening, because we find that when we try to meditate for a whole day, our minds and bodies start to rebel. Our legs fall asleep. Our backs and knees hurt. We are so sleepy! We want our meditation to be clear and peaceful, and it’s not, so we fall back on our gap-reduction strategies: If we can find the right zafu or maybe a bench, or the right height in a zabutan, then our knees or back won’t hurt. If we drink the right amount of coffee at the right time, we can stay awake during zazen. If we can just shift our posture slightly, then our legs won’t fall asleep. But eventually we see that this is just another way of playing into this business of trying to get our preferences met, and eventually we can let go of this and just be present with whatever the difficulty of the moment is, without trying to change it or make it go away.

Over time, we continue the practice.  And maybe we’re not sure if it’s helping, but we do feel a little more ease in our life; we seem to be tossed around by our emotions a bit less than we were before we started practicing. We find that we’re still able to make important life decisions – should we change jobs, what kind of car should we get – but we find that we can hold all of these decisions more lightly than we did before.  And we see that things will more or less work out fine and that getting all worked up about things doesn’t really seem to help much.

This seems to be what happens when ordinary people continue the practice of meditation day after day, year after year. I don’t know if it’s the unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment of the Buddhas; but I have no doubt at all that it can bring some peace into our lives, and that when we are peaceful, it can really help those around us – our family, friends, and co-workers.


by Sengtsan
Third Zen Ancestor of China (d. 606 AD)

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind. When the deep meaning of things are not understood, the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.