Striving and Not: Some (Non)-Thoughts on Kensho and Sitting

With the appropriately zennie joke of a title out of the way, I would just like to share a recurring ďthemeĒ of my recent zazening. And I share this with the typical grain of salt that always comes for a student. This is purely my own limited and small experience of things, but maybe itís recognizable and of interest to others.

Practice, I suspect for everyone, goes up and down; it certainly does for me. There are moments of peace, moments of boredom, moments of just shut-the-hell-up-mind, moments of just sitting, moments of making a to-do list, of worry, of whatever. But even though things go up and down, I think that over time, as one sits and sitting sits itself, these hills and valleys, they donít flatten out, but, well, itís this: itís not that the valleys arenít so terrible, they still suck, but itís like youíre okay with them sucking; and itís not the hills are no longer great, theyíre still pretty interesting and enjoyable, but you also know they wonít last. No need to hold onto either. No need to place too much energy in fighting oneís way out the valleys and equally no need to try to stay on the hilltops.

This isnít Kensho, some seeing into and feeling like, I got it for a minute! (Though, personally, nothing wrong with that either, as long as one doesnít constantly seek it or want it back or let one define oneself by it, etc). The problem with Kensho, to my mind, isn't the experience, it's all the stuff surrounding it that creates this great ego game of striving: I need to get Kensho or I need to transcend or Iíve had Kensho and let me explain it to you, etc. The hill and valley thing described above, to my mind, is practice-enlightenment; it is the settling of our practice into ourselves.

What is the settling of our practice into ourselves?

To me, itís non-attachment. Which of course means itís one of those basics, those fundamental little truths, the four noble ones, sitting us. So what does this have to do with the striving up in the title? It seems to this little mind that, given our current cultural condition, we have to strive in some ways. Likewise, biologically, weíre kind of made to strive. But Zen is always saying ďStop strivingĒ and ďnothing to getĒ and ďnowhere to goĒ; the hill and valley stuff is all well and good, but Iíve still got to feed my kinds, myself, my animals, etc; how does one do this without striving? And itís occurred to me that itís not striving that is so bad (it is, in fact, necessary Ė think about it: if poets, artists, even athletes, even zen folk, didnít strive to some degree, we wouldnít have accomplished some of the interesting and worthwhile things we have (okay, granted, a lot of ďnegativeĒ stuff has come from striving, too, but you get my point)). So, itís not striving that is the problem. Itís being attached to a striving attitude. Itís okay to want to sit well, but itís problematic to try to force yourself to sit well. Whatís the difference? Itís okay to want to sit well, but non-attachment is when you donít sit well, accepting that. On the other hand, itís problematic when we perceive weíre not sitting well and then trying to force ourselves to sit better - thatís attachment, to our selves, our ideas, a concept or ideal we have in mind of what sitting should be.

Or consider a more practical and less zennie example: Say you want to become a doctor to help, I donít know, elderly people with parkinsonís. You strive and strive, work hard, and all the while, through years of school and residencies, your aim is to become a doctor, and you want to be the perfect doctor, so you strive to do everything right as much as possible, and you begin to feel that only when you become a doctor, as perfect a doctor as you can be, will you be at peace and ease in your life, or more significantly, only when youíre a great doctor can you really begin helping people, so you really need to get this done, you need to be a doctor, and then your life will be fulfilled. This is attachment because it has set up some ideal to gain, some constant seeking without ever resting in what we are, and also because it becomes all about you. If, however, you do your school, do your residencies, as much as possible with let-go mind, accepting of mistakes and successes, realizing that fulfillment is right now, well, that is still striving to become a doctor, but itís doing so without attachment to the idea that being a doctor equals fulfillment and peace.

Same goes for shikantaza or enlightenment or kensho or whatever.

In any case, I thought this was worth saying: striving, itís just like anything, which means itís okay Ė being attached to striving, thatís the trap, because then itís all about us; when we can approach our own striving through the practice of zazen, which is the practice of non-attachment, then we can strive and not at the same time, get somewhere and arrive where we already were all along; play the game of going without ever leaving home.

Gassho