Posts Tagged ‘maturity’

Kwan Yin, Bodhisattva of compassion, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, San Francisco

Every era has its blind spots: subjects that go largely unexamined, though their presence can be felt and their importance intuited at every turn. In our own time, one conspicuous instance is the subject of maturity, which receives scant notice in the media, much less sustained attention. Even AARP The Magazine, which used to be called Modern Maturity, now avoids both the word and the concept it designates, focusing instead on ways of staying hip and feeling younger. Yet, in my experience, few qualities of mind and heart are more conducive to health and well-being than emotional, intellectual, and spiritual maturity. In its absence, individuals, families, and whole societies suffer. In its presence, harmonious relations between classes, races, political parties, and other competing interests become possible. Reason enough, one would have thought, to give the subject serious consideration.

According to conventional wisdom, the attainment of maturity is largely a matter of age and experience. As we grow older, common sense advises, we become more mature—more humble and less self-centered, more responsible and less prone to reckless behavior. Yet, as Roshi Zoketsu Norman Fischer, in his book Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, has astutely observed, and as even a cursory survey of human conduct will confirm, getting older does not automatically equate with becoming more mature. Like empathy and compassion, maturity is a quality to be cultivated over time, through conscious, self-directed effort. Toward that end, the Zen monastic tradition offers numerous practices, including the taking of vows and precepts, the discipline of “work practice” (the silent, mindful performance of everyday chores), and the systematic contemplation of the six paramitas, or “perfections of wisdom” (generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, and wisdom). Each of these practices contributes, directly or obliquely, to the process of “truly growing up.”

For those who have no interest in becoming Zen monastics but might wish to cultivate greater maturity, the practice of zazen, or sitting meditation, is a good place to start. Often newcomers to the practice arrive in states of anxiety, impatience, and distraction, but as they soon discover, the aligned, relaxed, and resilient posture of meditation induces a sense of emotional as well as physical stability, and the simple technique of concentrating on a single object, be it the breath or a meditative phrase, calms the mind and body. One’s breathing deepens of its own accord. Resident tensions ease.

Beyond this temporary relaxation, the longtime practice of zazen also fosters spiritual maturity. In Zen literature, the mind is sometimes likened to a jar of muddy water. Allowed to rest, the water becomes still and clear; the mud settles to the bottom. With this newfound stillness and clarity of mind comes an increased ability to “take the backward step”: to observe thoughts, feelings, and mental states, even as they are arising. Continued over many months and years, this practice of patient observation promotes increased awareness, not only of passing thoughts and transitory feelings but also of those habits of mind that imprison us in the past and bedevil our moral development. Within this evolving self-awareness, the quality of self-acceptance—one of the most elusive aims of meditative practice—is given space to grow and flourish. In all of these ways, as Fischer succinctly puts it, “meditation practice nourishes our maturity.”

To be sure, meditation can have unexpected, negative effects. Practiced unskillfully, it can aggravate an existing hypervigilance or promote a complacent self-absorption. But if conducted in moderation, preferably under the guidance of an experienced teacher, meditative practice increases our awareness not only of the personal self but of our social relationships and our wider, societal obligations. While sitting, we pay close attention to our breath and posture. And when we rise and re-enter the world, we bring that same quality of attention to our speech and actions, noting how much and in what ways our words and actions affect other people. Meditation strengthens our power of choice, which is to say, our ability to choose words and responses appropriate to the situation. And unless our governing instincts are wholly malign, we can respond in ways that help rather than hurt.

In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva (“enlightened being”) is an archetype that embodies the paramitas in general and altruism in particular. And in his book Opening the Hand of Thought, the twentieth-century master Kosho Uchiyama defines a bodhisattva as “one who acts as a true adult.” In Uchiyama’s view, “most people who are called adults are only pseudo-adults. Physically they grow up and become adult but spiritually too many people never mature to adulthood. They don’t behave as adults in their daily lives. A bodhisattva is one who sees the world through adult eyes and whose actions are the actions of a true adult.” The Zen aspirant’s desire, in other words, to fully awaken and the ordinary person’s desire to attain true adulthood are neither dissimilar nor discordant. As a practical matter they are one and the same.


Norman Fischer, Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing UpHarperOne, 2004.

Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought, Expanded Edition (Wisdom, 2004), 138-139.

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