A practice you can count on

It’s important to find a ground floor in Zen practice. By ground floor, I mean a place where you can dependably settle. For me, the ground floor is zazen. Not a big surprise, since in the Zen tradition zazen is pointed to over and over as the one essential practice. Dogen in particular says it often and in a number of different ways. But they all boil down to the same basic idea: you can skip all the rest, but you can’t skip zazen, because zazen itself is enlightenment.

Regardless of what Dogen says, what’s important is that each person to find her or his own ground floor in practice. Or you could call it home base. Or just home. I know people who’ve been devoted to Zen for a long time who say they don’t like zazen. Why you’d continue in Zen if you don’t like zazen is a bit of a puzzle, but then there are aspects of practice – chanting in Japanese for example – that I don’t especially relate to, despite their importance and appeal to many practitioners.

I think it’s okay, because in the end, what’s important is for each one to find a connection with practice that is intimate and deep, that feels like the right fit. For one person, maybe it’s a sangha or a place. Such that just being in the presence of the sangha or just being in the place is a reliably settling experience. Or it might be some aspect of liturgy, like chanting or bowing. You connect. You breathe a sigh of relief. Or better said, a sigh of refuge. Aaaaah. You can count on this. You settle. You open.

Pascal said all mankind’s problems would be solved if people could just sit still in a room in silence. I don’t think he knew about zazen, but he was onto something. Still, the power and value of zazen can be hard to convey, partly because it seems so inconsistent with common advice on how to live. Zazen is not about setting goals, it’s not about productivity, it’s not about self-improvement, it’s not about results.

I talked to someone at a long retreat who had come to California from Ohio to attend. She said she couldn’t get through to her friends exactly what she was traveling so far to do. They kept saying things like “Oh, so you’re going to a spa, is that it?” When she explained she would spend hours and hours every day sitting perfectly still, looking at a wall, they just kept saying, “So it’s a kind of spa, right?”

Zazen is its own mysterious activity that you can only really understand and appreciate by doing it. The more consistently you engage in zazen, the more subtly and pervasively it wakes you up and transforms your life. And I think the same can be true of any aspect of practice that provides that deep connecting point, that ground floor or home base, on which a person can depend and to which she or he can return over and over to be nourished and refreshed.