On a spring Saturday sixty of us rise at 5am and hustle to the basement for the monthly one-day sit. We hunker down for another big day in the zendoâ€”sitting, slow-walking, sweeping, eating brown rice from little bowls. At break time I dash across the road to Koshland Park, to greedily watch hummingbirds and dog-walkers in the San Francisco sunshine. Then the bell calls and it’s back to the zendo. Back to staring down the wall.
Some people have this idea about meditation that when we do this we float off on a little lotus blossom of bliss, leaving the cares and pains of daily existence behind. In fact it’s exactly the opposite.Â More often than not is a masochistic endeavor. The cares and pains aggregate like mosquitos, buzzing and whining and sometimes landing to draw blood. The stings fester and itch. Memories. Ad jingles. Aches and pains. Shopping lists. Conversations with my lover, endlessly revolving, never resolved. Sleepiness, the head nodding then whiplashing back. Worries. What to do with my life. What to do with my hair.
Meditating sucks. It’s not fun andÂ most of the time it doesn’t feel especially good. But then, sometimes after awhile, my mind just tires itself out and I give up. When I give up, stuff happens.
I learned this in my last sesshin at Loon Lake in November, in yaza â€” night sitting. I tried to sit through the night, trying, trying, to do this THING called meditation. Waiting with forced patience for the big breakthrough, while at the same time, sneaking peeks at my inner clock to gauge whether i’d done enough to pass and whether it would be ok to go to bed now. Finally, after some time that seemed far too long and yet not long enough, my mind moved from self-fascination through boredom and finally into resignation, and I said, fuck it. The hell with this meditation business. I give up. I’m not meditating any more. Check this out: I am sitting under a basketball hoop in a camp gymnasium, with several other weirdos in pajamas. There are painted stripes on the door. There’s an interesting hum in the electrical wires. Here I am. I am safe. It’s OK.
It isn’t easy to get to the place of giving up, but when I get there, stuff happens. Nothing stops or goes away. The memories and arguments and ad jingles are still there, but they float by like airplanes pulling banners through the sky. My breath is still here, and the birdsong, and the sirens and those irritating smudges on the white zendo wallsâ€”all flying by on banners behind airplanes. These too arise and fade away, along with the “I” that identifies them. For momentsâ€”sometimes whole strings of them laid end-to-endâ€”there is nothing but animated space. And that, my friends, is as good as it gets.
At the end of a full day of sitting I am tender, peeled, a little bit shy. So what is the outcome, where’s the benefit? asks my nagging inner mother. Where is all this sitting going to get you? What, exactly, have you accomplished by all this staring at a wall? Nothing, I say. Nada. I don’t know. I give up.