This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave on Tuesday, July 9, 2013, at the Greater Boston Zen Center.
I was semi-obsessed with the following question for a while after I began to get serious about sitting 20+ years ago:
Will there come a point when I don’t need to sit anymore?
I would ask this question of any teacher or senior practitioner who would listen.
Mostly I didn’t get the answer I wanted, and so I kept seeking it.
Finally, someone to whom I had posed my question once or twice, and who had previously just shrugged it off, said, “Sure. Of course, there will come a time when you don’t need to sit anymore.”
Silly as it seems now, this somehow satisfied me, and I let go of the question.
Now I imagine her walking away, muttering inaudibly, “Yeah, like, when you die.”
My question was about the point of sitting, of course, and it assumed some ultimate goal. Some end state, or some big “crossing the chasm” moment, at which one’s work is done, and further practice is unnecessary.
One can be forgiven for asking a question like this, and for holding these assumptions.
We are conditioned to think in functional, goal-oriented terms, at least in US culture.
Some Buddhist teachings even seem to invite this.
The Zen literature is full of stories of big awakenings, real through-the-looking glass moments when one suddenly becomes enlightened and the mysteries of the universe, and of the human heart, are seemingly resolved once and for all.
And the traditional literature seems to represent these big, ah-ha moments as the gold standard in Zen practice.
There’s also the parable in which the Buddha is said to ask whether, having crossed a river on a raft, one should then carry the raft on his back indefinitely.
The raft is a metaphor for spiritual practice, like sitting, of course.
Putting these teachings together, one could be forgiven for thinking:
I sit. I get enlightened. I stop sitting.
Results guaranteed. Timing may vary.
I was thinking about this chapter in my own journey the other day, and I found myself asking that old question anew.
In what sense do we need to sit?
Three responses that ring true to me sprung to mind.
The first response: We don’t need to sit.
There ultimately is no salvation in sitting. There is no ultimate salvation in sitting.
Because we’re already saved. Or, better yet, no saving required.
There’s never been any point in which we have been separate from all this – from the universe, seen and unseen.
Never any point at which we’ve been lost in any cosmic or existential sense, and therefore in need of saving.
No cosmic well we’ve fallen down, unnoticed. No corner of the cosmos that has broken off and drifted away with us on it.
Sitting and other spiritual disciplines can’t do a thing to help us recover what was never lost in the first place.
And so, from this perspective, there’s absolutely no need to sit.
And, yet, nagging doubt and insecurity about whether this is so brings many of us to this practice.
As Melissa Blacker recently said to me, “The great insight of the Mahayana tradition is that each of us is a Buddha, and the great irony is that many of us don’t experience life this way. Each of us must discover this for him- or herself.”
Sitting and other time-tested practices, like koan work, can help initiate us into a mode of perpetual practice, transforming this doubt, and help us discover and come to terms with who we are in the process.
Sitting can help dissolve the illusion of separateness that is the source of so much personal and collective suffering, helping us see that we are distinct, but not separate.
The second response: We can never stop sitting, so long as we are physically and mentally capable.
As we increasingly realize the fact of our not-separateness, we develop the capacity to respond to life out of this not-separate perspective.
Sitting, and the noticing we do while sitting, progressively helps to open up a space between stimulus and response when we are off the cushion. A space in which the better angels of our nature may be summoned forth, and have a fighting chance among our demons.
So, there are ethical implications to sitting.
Kant’s notion of the categorical imperative, one formulation of which is that we should treat others as ends in themselves, not means to our own fulfillment, is pretty hard to observe as long as we’re overly-identified with the small “i” that’s a slave to its impulses which manifest greed, anger and ignorance. As long as the compulsive, reactive, craving “i” dominates our subject position, all else necessarily is object, and life feels like an existential struggle.
In my experience, sitting and other Zen practices do help put this little “i” perspective in perspective. Not yanking it out like a weed – as if that were possible, or even desirable – but helping one come to see it as a feature of who we are, rather than being captive to it the subject element of our consciousness.
I recently heard a piece on NPR about some academic psychologists who studied the capacity of inner city kids to experience this space between stimulus and response.
In the lab, they put two kids together, gave one a ball, and told the other that the goal of the exercise was to obtain the ball.
They did this with hundreds of kids, and all of them tried to grab the ball out of the other kid’s hand. This provoked a hostile reaction, and few who tried got the ball.
The researchers did the same thing with another large group of kids, but this time they told the kid whose job it was to get the ball that one way to get it was to ask for it. Most asked, and most of the other kids happily offered up the ball.
Based upon this research, the scholars started a program in several inner city neighborhoods to teach kids basic cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. CBT is about learning to insert a mental break between a trigger event and one’s response.
The communities in which this program was introduced experienced a 40% reduction in violent crime, including the murder rate, compared to control communities where there was no such program.
Pretty cool. Big moral progress.
But here’s the thing: A year after the program ended, crime was back up to where it had been before the program was introduced.
We are conditioned by eons of evolution in a “tooth and claw” environment.
We likely have limbic system set points for fight or flight behavior.
Our higher brain capacities have some margin to dampen or override this conditioning, but it takes effort and vigilance.
Not unlike CBT, meditation can help, I think.
If one were to stop meditating, would one’s “response space” diminish?
I don’t know. I suspect it depends somewhat on the individual.
For my part, I do think I’m as or more subject than most to what I experience as a law of mental entropy – a tendency to revert to “lower order” mental functions and behaviors – when my commitment to practice wanes. I’ve noticed this during the couple of extended periods when I’ve sat much less regularly than I ordinarily do.
The third response (which feels like my primary reason for sitting and embracing other Zen forms these days): Sitting is simply a loving, reverent response to life.
It’s an organically arising, expressive of sort of thing. I suppose it’s a poetic thing.
Sitting just feels to me like a lovely response to the call of life.
And my call to life.
No, really, just sitting.
(The other day my daughter, who is nearly five, walked into the room when I was meditating. “What is meditation, Daddy?” she asked. “Just sitting,” I said. “Oh, I thought so,” she replied, and then left.)
So, when can I stop sitting?
Well, for me, there are three answers from this vantage point:
I can stop right now, because there was never any need to sit in the first place.
I should sit until I can’t sit anymore, if I want to continue to summons forth the better angels of my own and others’ nature, and to give them a fighting chance.
And, finally, why would I stop sitting?
Or, to borrow from that lovely Christian hymn:
My life flows on in endless song . . .
How can I keep from singing?
I can’t carry a tune in a paper bag, so for me it’s:
My life flows on in endless song . . .
How can I keep from sitting?
Our Dharma talks at the Greater Boston Zen Center are increasingly becoming duets. After I concluded this talk, Josh Bartok offered a lovely “coda,” as he called it.
One point Josh made is that we ought not to confuse sitting with practice. They can (and hopefully do) merge into one another as we sit, yet we sit (and do koan work, etc.) to cultivate that practice spirit and capacity that we then express in all else we do. And we cultivate that practice spirit and capacity in all else we do, and then bring it to our sitting (and koan work, etc.).