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“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot, but here in Western New York, the month of February seems more deserving of that honor. And for the meditative practitioner, no month presents a sterner challenge. Be here now? You must be joking. I’d rather be in Sarasota. Or better yet, St. Lucia.

In the “Faith-Mind Sutra,” Seng-ts’an, the Third Ancestor of the Zen tradition, offers this advice:

The Great Way is not difficult
for those not attached to preferences.
When neither love nor hate arises,
all is clear and undisguised.
Separate by the smallest amount, however,
and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.*

To follow the Great Way—the path of liberation from conditioned suffering—is to set aside our habitual preferences. Summer over winter, for instance. Or, in winter, St. Lucia over Western New York.

That may sound like being numb or in denial, but in its context Seng-ts’an’s meaning is quite the opposite. What he is urging is an openness to whatever we encounter, be it sun-drenched beaches or sub-zero temperatures, cloudless tropical skies or a Buffalo winter. Putting our preferences in abeyance, we fully experience our environs.

Beyond that, Seng-ts’an is enjoining us to recognize that by preferring one thing over another, we separate ourselves from the world we live in. We identify with our preferences, fashioning an “I” that dislikes cold weather, that prefers sand and sun over ice and snow. If what we prefer is presently available, we like it and want more of it—and want it to last forever. But if it’s not, we stand apart, resisting what is present and complaining of our lot. On a really frigid day, we blame the cold for being cold, the winter for being winter.

Such responses are not to be suppressed. Their roots lie in generations of conditioning and in social forces well beyond our control. At the same time, what has been learned can be unlearned, and what is causing us suffering can be diminished, not by willful self-denial or efforts at self-improvement but by patient meditative inquiry. In her essay “Consciousness, Attention, and Awareness,” the Zen-trained teacher Toni Packer puts it this way:

Sometimes people say, “I ought to drop this habit, but I can’t.” No one is asking us to drop anything. How can we drop things when we are in our customary thinking and suffering mode? We can drop a bowl of cereal, but our habitual reactions need to be seen thoroughly as they are taking place. When there is awareness, a reaction that is seen and understood to be a hindrance diminishes on its own. It may take a lot of repeated suffering, but a moment comes when the energy of seeing takes the place of the habit. That is all. Seeing is empty of self. The root of habit too is empty.*

Rather than struggle to drop our habitual reactions, we cultivate awareness of those reactions and allow them to change in their own time.

If you would like to explore this practice, you might wish to take a meditative walk on a cold winter day. As you set out, bring your awareness to your body—to your feet as they slog through the snow, your arms as they rhythmically swing, your face as it meets the cold. Open your eyes to the landscape, your ears to the sounds of winter. Then bring your awareness to your resistance: to the concepts and judgments that cross your mind. Pay particular attention to your likes and dislikes, your comforts and discomforts. Continue this practice through the month of February, and see what becomes of your aversions.

_______________________

**Seng-ts’an, Faith-Mind Sutra, tr. Richard B. Clarke, http://www.mendosa.com/way.html.

*Toni Packer, The Wonder of Presence (Shambhala, 2002), 134.

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