Monday, April 21, 2008

That was Zen, This is Now

In the Tibetan tradition with which I'm most familiar, spiritual practice revolves around conquering desire and ill will and delusion, which are said to be the hindrances that prevent us from knowing the condition of enlightenment, otherwise known as nirvana. The principle method for reducing these hindrances is to court an attitude of compassion, often referred to as "loving-kindness."

It's a perfectly good philosophy, but the Tibetan tradition can be just a bit too laden with folk-religion trappings. It can also be a bewilderingly complex practice, heavily dominated by numbers. There are times when I just need a break.

So from time to time I find it useful to look to other related traditions, especially the Forest (Theravedan) practice; and Zen tradition, which is essentially a blending of Tao and Buddhist philosophy.

Recently I reread some teachings of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese scholar and Zen master, where there was a refreshing and instructive simplification of the meditation practice, known among Zen practitioners as zazen.

The goal of meditation, says Suzuki Roshi, is to simply be yourself. And the way to be yourself is to systematically and unconditionally drop all expectation during meditation. Greed and anger and fear and attachment can all be described as some form of expectation, and so all that is necessary is for us to relinquish expectation itself. With each exhalation, Roshi says, allow a bit more expectation to evaporate. Zen meditation is largely about emptiness, and this emptiness can be defined as the non-existence of expectation--at least in Suzuki Roshi's formula.

It's a simple approach, and one that is remarkably effective. Your meditation is simply about being on the lookout for expectations of any kind. As you look closely at the nature of expectation during a meditation, you come to realize that it creates a clear physical sensation in the body, and identifying this sensation makes it relatively simple to experiment with surrendering it. Expectation can come in the form of hopes you have for your own mediation; or it can come as intruding thoughts where other life expectations make themselves known.

Release is much harder to do if you see expectation purely as an abstract, mental event; but once you feel the physical nature of expectation, you can release it and define its release by the physical sensation you feel. The feeling isn't like any other, but I do find myself reminded of the phenomenon of static cling being de-energized by a sudden spark. Expectation is like a subtle form of static cling. This isn't to say that it is trivial or unimportant--remember that lightning itself is static electricity.

When expectation is surrendered, what seems to fill the new emptiness is, for me, an experience of intense "nowness" which is intensely pleasant and satisfying. Such a surrender is not all that easy to achieve, though, because it goes against our habit, which is to fill every mental moment with plans and goals and recrimination. The kind of meditative surrender we're talking about takes a leap of faith, because we have to be willing to follow nature rather than insisting on being its observer and ruler. Your sense at these times will be that you are nothing more than a joyful part of nature rather than a personality separate from it. You have to take a chance with being small, in other words, and stop insisting that expectations must rule.

Even a moment or two of surrendering expectation is of supreme value, though. For it's now fairly easy to spot the moment when expectation once again enters a meditation, and sure enough, ill will and desire and frustration and pride and passion and fear do seem to build upon expectation. And strangely, there can also a feeling of relief when these annoyances return, because they are familiar to us; we are actually quite addicted to our various forms of suffering, and it will take practice to learn how to live in happiness.

So at moments when you are perhaps slightly weary of the diligent effort to be kind and loving and devoid of ill will at all times, it's possible to shift gears just a bit and simply watch for the presence of expectation in your life and your practice. Experience the sensation of expectation in your body.

And experience the feeling of surrendering it.


August said...

I've never heard anger and fear described as a form of expectation. What an incredibly powerful statement.

And never have I heard to look for the physical nature of expectation whilst meditating. My problem all along has been that I get caught in the mental activity of it -- thinking about whether or not I'm thinking. It can turn into a slipshod imitation of Sartre & Beckett.

Such discernment you have. Another beautiful post.


Glamourpuss said...

Beautifully expressed. I aspire to such clarity.