Working with what’s impossible

Zen practice has an important relationship with what’s impossible. As I noted in previous comments, one aspect of meeting what’s impossible is recognizing when a challenge arises in life that seems to be or actually is impossible and staying close to it without being or feeling defeated. Major events and transitions in life sometimes qualify as impossible – like the death of a loved one. We find ways to cope and adjust, but there’s often an element that truly is impossible for us to fathom at the end of the dy. Acknowledging this dimension is important. It fosters humility and compassion in the face of the awesome mystery of life and death.

In Zen practice, we work with another type of impossible. I’m using the word “impossible” to refer to the ungraspable thread that runs through so many Zen stories and scriptures, impenetrable, at least on first meeting. It’s what’s expressed by Zen Master Ummon’s “Kan!” which means “Barrier,” but also has the meaning of a gate or passageway, like a border crossing. These impenetrables welcome us into the realm of the impossible where our usual tools, tricks, and techniques of understanding and resolution don’t work. Like Zen Master Tokusan’s “Thirty blows if you do and thirty blows if you don’t!” No matter what you say or do, thirty blows! This puts you in an impossible position with no escape. What will you do? If the ways of thinking and behaving you usually rely on enabled you to realize what to do, you wouldn’t need to bother with such a thing as Zen practice. But they don’t.

So practice deliberately includes challenges that push us beyond our habitual ways, beyond our self-centered, egotistical orientation. Stories and vignettes impossible to understand fully without arousing a deeper view are only one such challenge. The physical forms and rituals of practice can serve a similar function. They invite us to harmonize with each other by dropping selfish individual impulses and wishes. Follow the form. Follow the schedule. How does it feel? Where does it bind? How do you react? Sometimes people come to practice and immediately have suggestions about how to make it better. Better as in more comfortable, more inviting, or better as in stricter, more traditional, more authentic. There are all kinds of better. It’s not that practice and the forms of practice shouldn’t or can’t change. But an essential gift of practice is the requirement that we see what it’s like to give up our suggestions and demands. This is why practice is described as like a snake having to fit in a straight, narrow tube. No wiggle room. A bit like the expression “It’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” In this case, the riches are a student’s great knowing and strong opinions.

Aspects of zazen work this way. We assume a prescribed posture. We don’t move. We meet whatever arises without averting. This is a departure from how we usually behave and think. And sesshin – an extended meditation retreat – is another powerful technology along these lines.

In addition, one function of a Zen teacher is to help us get beyond our residence in the realm of the possible (by which I mean what’s familiar, what’s comfortable, what serves the selfish ego, what we prefer, what we’re sure about). Teachers do this in different ways. For example, a teacher I know who’s psychologically astute works with students on understanding and transforming their ego defenses as a path to liberation.

But whatever a teacher’s bent and skill set may be, if a student signs up to deepen her/his practice (not every student does or must) there’s an effort to ensure that the student works at and eventually beyond his/her current limits of understanding, stretching further, digging deeper. Traditionally, much of this stretching and digging was accomplished through the hardships of monastic training, but since most of us in the West are not monastics, we have to find other ways.

It’s helpful to remember that whatever each of us may consider to be the worst part of practice, the hardest part, the impossible part, could very well be the best part. In my own case, one example was the long struggle I had with the idea of priest ordination. This isn’t a prescription for masochism or abandoning judgment and conscience to accept blindly everything practice offers. But it is an invitation to consider that our judgment – our certainties – may narrow or block our path and that suspending judgment may sometimes be a wise choice. Of course this requires faith in practice. Not blind faith, but faith based on some experience that practice is contributing to a freer, more awake, deeper life.