That Doesn’t Sound Like Much Fun

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Hindus performing morning ablutions on the ghats of the Ganges, Varanasi, India

A guy named Swami Magalananda once invited me to attend a day-long retreat he was leading. He’s a practitioner of Bhakti yoga, or the Hindu path of devotion. The colorful, love-filled gatherings of devotees tend to have very high energy, with lots of music, ecstatic chanting, and dancing in the spirit. Unfortunately, my spiritual dance card was full that weekend, as I’d already registered for a retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center. I told Swami Magalananda a little about our practice; completely silent save for the monotone chanting that’s markedly different from what goes on in the kirtans that he’s used to, a zen retreat consists of numerous sitting sessions punctuated by walking meditation, ritual-style meals, and a work period.

“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” Swami Magalananda remarked.

“No, it kind of isn’t,” I replied after brief reflection. But then again, it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a spiritual practice that isn’t about me having a good time. It actually has nothing to do with me and my personal preferences, unless I choose to make it about me and my personal preferences. That’s when it gets difficult, because that’s when my ego is threatened.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said that when my thinking stops and your thinking stops, our minds are the same. Zen practice has the power to cut through the delusion of “self” and “other” by uniting the sangha in the “together action” of chanting, walking and sitting. When I choose to let my ego get involved, however, I have the power to do exactly the opposite. It’s a strict practice, and although most Temple Rules are outlined our manual of practice guidelines, it’s pretty much a big game of follow the leader. Just show up, watch what senior sangha members are doing, and try to follow suit. This affords tremendous opportunity for mistakes.

I don’t like to be corrected. I’m pretty sure that most people don’t, so there’s nothing special or unique there. The important question is: how do I respond when my practice form is corrected? Do I resent the person who is trying to help me? Do I feel ashamed at having made a mistake? I could spend post after post psychoanalyzing myself, researching my past to locate the root of those feelings, but that’s not entirely useful. As Pema Chodron says, while it can be helpful to look at our lives to see how mental and emotional patterns may have developed, if we consider the possibility of reincarnation, these are likely “ancient wounds.” Lacking the backstory of all those past lives, all we’re left with is moment to moment awareness of those feelings as they arise, and a recognition that we have a choice of how to respond. It’s nothing more or less than an opportunity to change our karma. As they say in 12 Step Recovery, “if you want what you’ve always gotten, do what you’ve always done.” If you want something else, do something different.

The upshot of all this is that after several years of practicing both Korean Zen and 12 Step Recovery, I’ve come to notice that the work I need to do is always somewhere in between me and the work I think I need to do. My problem is always as immediate as my own mind in this moment. In other words, the problem isn’t that I sounded the wrong number of beats on the moktak at the beginning of a chant; the problem arises as I feed into resentment or shame when someone brings it to my attention. I’m essentially creating division at a point of choice where I could create unity by simply saying “Thank you.” Every human interaction is like that.

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