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Zazen Works

After 30 years, I was finally sitting every day. Already, in just a few months, Zen practice was making a difference. My life was changing. My concentration was improving, although even from childhood I always had “good” concentration. In those days, I was working in the South Beach Family Court Clinic doing mental health reports to the court on families whose custody or neglect cases were before the court. Report writing was a big part of my job. I would write a section and then give myself a break. I’d walk around our offices, dropping in to schmooze with a colleague. The typical report probably involved three or four breaks. I enjoyed that way of working. It made the job much more pleasant, much more social for me.

But as my zazen practice continued, I noticed that I was finishing reports without breaks. The improvement in my concentration was so obvious.

Other changes were appearing. Sometimes, I needed someone else to point them out to me. I took my mother food shopping every week. One week, on an unusually slow check-out line, Mom commented, “Kenneth, you are a very patient person.” No one had ever before accused me of being a patient person.

Zen practice was so simple. Just sitting down every day whether I felt like it or not. Or especially when I didn’t feel like it. Staying on the cushion when I felt like jumping up. Noticing the impulse to jump and just sitting still. Noticing the wandering thought — “the monkey mind,” Zen calls it — and just coming back to my breath. Losing count, starting again.

My internal dialogue was endless. “Why do I have to start again when I lose count? Why can’t I pick up from where I was, just resume counting? Why do I have to follow an instruction?” Just notice thinking. Begin again. The big learning was occurring not in the occasional moments of blissful concentration but in the moments of antsy frustration. Noticing the impulse to jump, like the impulse to scratch, and refraining from action.

Just sitting. Did I forget to turn the tea kettle off?

Just sitting. If I don’t wiggle my toes right now, I may never walk again.

Just sitting. If I don’t scratch my nose, I will go insane.

It feels like a miracle. As my practice developed, as my concentration improved, I found that I could “sit” in the strangest, noisiest, most distracting places. What a joy to discover that I could pass the time in zazen while waiting in a crowded airport for a delayed flight, or in a cramped seat on a long flight, or with all the clanging during an MRI. But it turns out that airport zazen is, at the end of the day, a relatively low-hanging fruit, not all that important. After all, how often am I waiting in an airport? I am not a frequent flier. How often do I meditate through an MRI? Not that often either. A much bigger reward for me has been the ability to sit still. I could see how reactive I was, how ruled by impulses, my momentary thoughts. Just sitting, not jumping to the call of impulse is enormously freeing. The storms of greed, anger, and fear sometimes still rage. Zazen has taught me, has shown me the freedom of sitting still, of just noticing the storm. Freed from the compulsion to react to every feeling arising, my life has taken on unanticipated spaciousness.

I sat down in order to find inner peace and to a large degree I have found it. Not perfect bliss. I am very far from the stillness of Kyudo Roshi, but I am a lot more peaceful than I used to be.

There is an irony here. The great Japanese Zen master, the founder of the Japanese Soto Sect, Dogen Zenji warned against sitting in order to get somewhere, but we all come to this practice because we are looking to get somewhere. That’s ok. On our cushions, we sit with our wantings, noticing them, allowing them bubble off, noticing their return.

The signs of settling in my life were emerging. I was becoming convinced that this sitting practice was at the root of the change. But could I sustain it? Could I keep sitting day after day even when things went south?

In July 2000, I was introduced to a turning point practice at a Zen Peacemaker Gathering in Santa Barbara by Roshi Egyoku Nakao. She called it Zen 100. The challenge was to sit an hour a day for 100 days. I began immediately. When I completed my 100 days three and a half months later, I had a new confidence in my ability to sustain my zazen practice. Three and a half months is long enough for all kinds of life disruptions to occur. I sat through those: the flu, travel days. Since then, I have been recommending Zen 100 to everyone who sits.

During the Pandemic, realizing that I had more time on my hands, I sat an hour a day for an entire year. And then, again able to get out of the house, I resumed my half-hour daily sitting. Just sitting, although once in a while I notice that I have just weathered a storm — if not calmly, at least peacefully — a storm which I had not expected to be able to manage without freaking out. On a recent quick family trip to Maine for a memorial service for a friend, all our travel arrangements seemed to crumble.

First, we arrived at our hotel to find that a front-desk trainee had given away our reserved rooms by mistake. Eric, the very sweet, evening manager promised to make things right. And with only very minor inconvenience, he did.

Two days later, our rental car died and had to be towed. The tow truck took six hours to get to our hotel, arriving at 12:30 AM. I dragged myself out of bed to bring the key to the tow-truck guy. Why wasn’t I more upset? National had arranged to Uber me to an Enterprise outlet where a replacement car was actually waiting, but I was beginning to lose confidence in our travel arrangements. What was going to happen on our flight home? Would we make it without crashing?

But I was still smiling.

When we were a half-hour from the Portland Airport, I got a text that our flight had been cancelled. I called to reschedule. Nothing available for at least 24 hours.

I was still smiling.

We drove home instead. We had a good time.

It continues to amaze me, but apparently zazen works.

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