One of the Zen concepts I'm playing around with a lot right now is the idea of "practicing nonpreference." It comes back to what I was talking about yesterday, acceptance and serenity, in a way. Feeling sad is only bad when I think to myself, "I hate feeling sad! I want to feel happy!" Simply letting go and experiencing the sadness (or anxiety or fear or...fill in your least favorite emotion here) is far less traumatic, because I'm not trying to change anything, or escape from my present into an imagined future where all will be just as I want it to be.
But that's hard to do. I've spent years of my life honing escape skills. Acting differently, newly, is a real challenge.
One night at a dharma talk, Darlene spoke about her experience of practicing nonpreference at an ice cream parlor. She went in, ready to order chocolate. Then she thought, "Wait! I think I'll practice nonpreference." It was an urge that simply rose up, and she decided to act on it. She closed her eyes and pointed randomly - and got orange sherbet. She was bitterly disappointed. Not orange sherbet! But then, when she actually got the ice cream and began to eat, she said it was absolutely fabulous. Her years of preference for chocolate had made her completely forget (or not know) that orange sherbet could be good.
The story made all of us laugh. It was such a light-hearted approach to a practice that could, if carried out to its fullest extent, transform your life.
Not too long after that, I was at a hospital for an evening workshop on health issues. I had come directly from work, and was hungry, so I went to the cafeteria to grab a quick bite to eat. As a vegetarian, I often find cafeterias to be a bit challenging; there are very limited options. I went with my safe bet that night - a grilled cheese sandwich.
The cafeteria worker served up an ordinary grilled cheese sandwich on a paper plate, with the requisite big dill pickle as a garnish. I have never liked dill pickles. I used to eat sweet pickles when I was a child, but as I grew older, they never seemed to be an option in most places where I ate out, and I never thought to buy them, so I gradually gave up eating pickles all together. Every time a dill pickle appeared on my plate at a restaurant, it stayed right where it was, untouched.
For whatever reason, though, that night I remembered Darlene's story, and I thought,"What the heck. I'm going to try to practice nonpreference and eat this pickle." I gingerly put it to my lips - it was tangily sour. I took a bite, and was surprised by the crisp, clean taste in my mouth. I sat in that cafeteria by myself and ate the whole darn pickle - and I loved it.
So, big deal, right? Now I know I like dill pickles. But don't you see? The magic, the zinger, the kick to it all, was that I surprised myself. I thought I knew myself inside and out - what I like to eat, what I believe, how I work. And just one bite of a dill pickle undid all of that burdensome predictability. Who knows what's going to happen next?