If there’s a wrong way to do things, that’s the way I’m going every single time. Without fail.
When I get off the subway, nine times out of ten, I turn in the wrong direction. I seldom know the answers to nearly anything I’m asked even if it’s “how are you?” That one always throws me. I never ask the right questions at job interviews, you know the insightful ones that the recruiters want to hear? I have zero retirement savings and I only brush my teeth at bedtime. I don’t floss.
And my meditation practice? Hooooo.
I started strong in Zen meditation late in the 20th century because, wait for it, of a guy. He was into it. I was into it. And, oh baby baby baby, was I into it!
Every day for well over five years I got up and chanted the Heart Sutra, lit incense and sat on my bench for 25 minutes. I attended sesshin at my zendo and took a crack at a koan (MU!). I even managed to get myself up to the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York for a zen introduction weekend.
Then I moved to New York City
In my first two months in the city, I moved three times. When I finally got settled into my share up in Inwood (northern tip of Manhattan, looks and acts just like the Bronx), I brought out my bench, found my copy of the Heart Sutra, which I had once memorized and had now forgotten, and sat.
And squirmed. And scratched my nose. And dozed off.
And gave up.
I gave up that day but tried it again the next day. It was my practice, dammit, and I was committed to my practice. And, let me tell you, I do commitment. I am a total pit bull when it comes to sticking to something. It took me over a year of trying and trying and trying to keep drawing my weird pen and ink things before I realized I’d come to hate drawing.
Giving up drawing was like giving up part of my identity. I was that weird artist. And then I wasn’t.
Now, after weeks of excruciating time on my bench, I was giving up my sitting practice. And there went another part of my identity. I was no longer the fiercely determined little Zen-head. I had failed. I rationalized that even the Bodhidharma only sat for nine years. I mean, come on. So what if I don’t sit anymore?
Remember, I’m the one who does everything wrong. Just add this to the list.
Friday night meditation
From time to time I’ve started sitting again.
My partner and I attended a zendo on the upper east side one cold evening about three years ago. It was hell. Because of the damage done to my knee joints when I was sick with Still’s Disease in 2003, kneeling and rising are painful and I do both clumsily. The zendo was freezing cold and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
I still have my lovely little padded sitting bench, but with my old lady knees, I opt for sitting on the edge of the bed with my back as straight as possible looking out at the tops of the trees out back. And still, it’s hit or miss. Some days I manage to sit. Most days I don’t. I have enough trouble getting to my PT stretches every morning although the price to pay for missing those keeps me on the beam with that anyway.
About a year ago I began attending a non-Zen, non-anything meditation meeting on Friday nights.
There is an undeniable power in sitting in a group that doesn’t happen in individual practice. But over time I’ve realized that my black/white, right/wrong, this/that thinking is not only false but it gets in the way of my practice. Often when I sit I think. Yep, I make grocery lists and plan my writing schedule for later in the evening and wonder why a certain friend said something in that tone of voice and listen to the subdued rumble of the subway going by, pondering the unseen lives on those cars. I even doze off from time to time.
And I’m still meditating.
My mind is never empty. With years of practice, I can much more easily allow those streams of thoughts to keep streaming. I even have the odd moment here and there where I’m in the pause between thoughts. That passes pretty quickly, too. I find myself thinking again without even realizing it.
What I understand now, and this is just for me, it doesn’t matter how often I sit or how long I sit when I do manage to get my butt onto the side of the bed. It doesn’t even matter if I don’t get my butt onto the side of the bed. I often find myself counting my breaths and watching all those amusing, itchy-scratchy, defiant, unreliable and irrelevant thoughts jostle along when I’m sitting in the steam room or on the subway or the bus. Or walking about the Meer in Central Park.
I no longer need to segregate my practice with chants and incense and a quiet room and a bench. And if I did do those things still, that would be groovy, too.
Today there is one thing I never worry about doing wrong. Meditation. If I sit for five minutes, cool. If I manage to stay still for twenty minutes three days in a row? Nice work, Cupcake. If I go all week without sitting at all, them’s the breaks. Friday evenings I’m usually sitting with friends. Some weeks I don’t even get to that.
It’s all cool.
And, curiously enough, by accepting that there’s no wrong way to meditate I find that I look forward to sitting. I no longer see meditation in terms of a return on my investment just as I would never see breathing in that light. I breathe. I sit. I think. I let thoughts whisper along.
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