Posts Tagged ‘no gaining idea’

Imre, a three-year-old friend of mine, delights in kicking things. When my wife and I gave him a set of educational blocks, of the sort that are supposed to develop eye-hand coordination, Imre took a few minutes to build a tower, then merrily kicked it across the room. Perhaps he was learning eye-foot coordination. Perhaps he has a future in the NFL.

One morning, Imre’s mother invited us over for a Sunday brunch. As we and a few other grown-ups were tucking into a delicious custard pie, Imre decided it was time to run around the table, dragging his wooden train and yelling at the top of his lungs. It was difficult to hear ourselves think, let alone carry on a conversation.

Fortunately, I’d come prepared. Earlier that morning, as I was pouring my Cheerios into a bowl, a blue matchbox car dropped out of the box. Foreseeing its possible use, I had stashed it in my pocket.

Armed with that equipment, I stopped Imre in his tracks. “I have a present for you,” I said, “but if you want it you will have to sit still for one minute”.

Regarding me quizzically, Imre agreed to the deal, and for the next forty seconds, he sat more or less still, chuckling all the while. Apparently, sitting still struck him as a silly idea, but he was willing to go along. And having kept his end of the bargain, he received his car, which, he soon discovered, he could happily crash into the walls and furniture.

I tell this story partly to illustrate that sitting still, however rare it may be in our culture, is something even a rambunctious three-year-old can do. If you are reading this column, you must be older than three, and you can do it too.

However, if you are thinking that by doing Zen meditation you will receive an immediate reward, you may well be disappointed. It is true that even twenty minutes of zazen can leave us cleansed and refreshed. And over time, Zen practitioners experience such benefits as heightened clarity and concentration, sharpened intuition, and greater emotional stability. But to sit in zazen with goals and expectations is not only to invite frustration. It is also a sure-fire way to undermine one’s effort.

In practicing Zen meditation, we sit still and return to the ground of being. We step back from our usual mental activities: defining, preferring, judging, or comparing this to that. Those activities may continue, but we merely watch them, and if we can, we drop them altogether. In so doing, we open ourselves to the experience of pure seeing, pure hearing, prior to names, goals, plans, and expectations. In the words of Zen master Kosho Uchiyama, we experience “what is there before [we] cook it up with thought.”* We enter the stream of life just as it is, not as we would have it be.

That is not so easily done. A lifetime of Western conditioning militates against it. But for those who persist, the practice of zazen becomes its own reward. In the language of Zen, by forgetting the self and its endless expectations, we “awaken to the ten thousand things.” And whether those things be toy cars or custard pies, we see, hear, and taste them as never before.


*Kosho Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought (Wisdom, 2004), 30.

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