I am still learning, each time I sit, about the incomprehensibly varied ways that zazen instructs me. This simple act, just sitting and breathing, somehow encompasses everything: my perceptions of myself, my relationship to my body, my connection to the other beings in the room, my weaknesses which can become strengths, my strengths which can become weaknesses.
A period of extended sitting, like last weekend's sesshin, is somewhat like the intensive summer courses of Japanese that I took in graduate school, where I would learn two semester's worth of material in just a couple of months. There is a rush, an excitement to it all. But there is an accompanying panic, an anxiety. I was so immersed in the language, that I grasped new concepts quickly and easily, absorbing a great deal. But I was so over stimulated that I collapsed into my bed at night with exhaustion, physically spent. In the same way that the unrelenting pace pushed me to rapid language breakthroughs, a sesshin can destroy the barriers that I manage to skirt in a normal daily zazen period. But it can also feel, at times, impossible to survive another minute.
Reading through some of my earlier blog entries the other day, I was amused to find that my most frequently recurring theme was "imperfection." Being flawed, it appears, is the thing I struggle with most. I constantly strive towards some ideal of behavior, performance, and even thought, as if these paragons of my imagination were actually attainable. Even though I intellectually understand that I am human, and so by very definition fallible, I continue to act each day as if this is something I can correct, if I only try hard enough.
In The Places That Scare You, Pema Chodron discusses the concept of maitri, which she defines as unconditional love for oneself. In her introduction to this topic, she says:
...meditation is not just about feeling good. To think that is why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure. We'll assume we are doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is called maitri, a simple direct relationship with the way we are.
She then goes on to examine the first quality of maitri that is cultivated by meditation: steadfastness. She says that no matter what comes up, although "plenty of meditators consider it, we don't go screaming out of the room."
And this was the passage that reminded me so much of my sesshin experience:
So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to 'stay' and settle down. Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay! Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay! Aching knees and throbbing back? Stay! What's for lunch? Stay! What am I doing here? Stay! I can't stand this another minute! Stay! That is how to cultivate steadfastness.
So, somehow, sitting in the zendo for those long periods of zazen, aching knees and all, wandering thoughts and all, self doubt and all - that was precisely what I was supposed to be doing. It's all part of the plan. I can rest easy now. Every little imperfection is just a pebble along the path to the development of steadfastness, and that, ultimately, will lead to maitri, an unconditional love for myself. Let's see how long I can hold onto that thought.
(Note to self: Stay!)