Saturday, December 26, 2009
Sunlight On Dead Reeds, Helsinki, 2009
I've now been practicing zazen regularly for about half a year. Eight months if you count from when I first started; five months if you count from when I started to sit daily (more or less) instead of two, three times a week; four months if you count from when I started to sit with a sangha. Christmas break is here, so it's a good time to do a little stock-taking. What have I put into the practice, and what have I gotten out of it?
The first part of the question is pretty easy, on the face of it anyway. I've put in between a half-hour and an hour and a half a day on average, including some stretching I need to do to get my legs in a condition where I'm able to sit on them more or less without moving for 20-40 minutes. I mostly sit at home, but go to the zendo every Thursday unless something else comes up.
Additionally, I've put in a day of zazenkai last month.
When I'm doing zazen, I resolve to do my best to keep my attention on the practice, even if it mostly feels like I'm diving for a coin in a murky, bubbly pool and placing it on the surface only to see it sink again -- except for the few times that the coin floats, for a few breaths or sometimes longer. It's not an incredibly pleasurable practice, but it's not incredibly hard or punishing either; sometimes it's rewarding in its own right, sometimes less so, and at the end of a day of sitting, it hurts like fuck, but not more than after, say, an unusually brisk session at the gym.
The second part is a bit more complex, even on the surface of it.
I'm feeling a great deal better right now than I usually do around this time of year. November and December don't usually treat me very well -- it's a stressful and hectic time at work and the darkness at these latitudes gets to me. Plus I've never been much of a Christmas person to start with. I even had a minor breakdown about this time of year a couple of years ago, and even last year I was in pretty ragged shape despite resolving to do what I can not to let it happen again.
Right now, however, I feel pretty good.
I'm physically in excellent shape; in some ways in better shape than I've ever been. I'm sleeping well. The minor stomach problems I've often had are gone. I'm able to eat certain foods again that had started to disagree with me, with no ill effects. I sit up, stand, and walk in better posture. I've lost the extra weight I had gained over the past decade or so. I'm more supple than I've ever been, and in better muscular shape than I've been at least since my aikido days twenty or so years ago, perhaps longer.
I have also changed -- if only a little -- in the way I interact with other people. I listen just a little bit more and talk just a little bit less. Sometimes I pause to consider what I'm saying and how I'm saying it, instead of twittering merrily away in my usual idiom. I still have problems dealing with anger -- I have a very quick temperament -- but I've only exploded at anyone twice this year, which is considerably less than usual.
I'm eating less, and eating better; I eat less meat, and smaller portions. Not because I'm forcing myself to eat less, or avoiding things I'd really want to eat, but simply because I'm more aware of what's going on, and sort of naturally stop when I'm full. I've also stopped drinking more than three glasses of wine (or the equivalent) at a go, not that I did that all that often to start with. I also derive more enjoyment from what I eat.
I've also been going to the gym regularly, about 2-3 times a week. I've been maintaining this routine with much less effort than before. I've had a gym membership for three or four years now, but always was a bit sporadic about it, like most people I suppose.
I've been doing without computer games for about three months so far. It was a bit hard at first; I didn't miss gaming as much as the thought of permitting myself to game. Right now, I'm not even that interested; I look in on RPGWatch every once in a while, but I feel almost no desire to play the games being discussed there. (When the next Dwarf Fortress is released, I just might cave, though.)
According to my wife, all this has made me more relaxed, cheerful, and generally nicer to be around. Not that she ever complained, mind.
So, I feel good because I've been doing things that are good for me. What's this to do with Zen?
First off, I'm pretty sure that some of the beneficial changes are direct consequences of zazen, in particular, my dramatically lower stress level and the disappearance of various (relatively minor) psychosomatic problems associated with stress. This year has had its share of stress factors, perhaps more so than most, but I'm coping with them much, much better than before. I'm also pretty sure that the changes in the way I interact with people are due to it.
However, the rest are what you might call secondary effects. Thing is, zazen has made it easier for me to do all of those things that do me good. I'm less indecisive; for example, I just go to the gym without waffling about it much. I'm more conscious of what I do, or don't do, and why. Hakuin's Zazen wasan describes zazen as the key that opens the way to other good things, and that description works pretty well for me. Zazen just makes it easy, or at least easier, to do the good stuff, and not do the bad stuff. It doesn't work overnight, and it hasn't suddenly resolved every last one of my problems -- but it has made it easier to deal with them.
Enlightened I ain't, but this shit is clearly doing me good, and I intend to keep doing it. Tomorrow's another zazenkai, and I'm quite looking forward to it.