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On Sitting Every Day

from the Spring 2002, newsletter of the Bellingham Zen Practice Group

By Nomon Tim Burnett | Apr 01, 2002
Location: Red Cedar Dharma Hall
Tim suggests some strategies and attitudes to help us in approaching the task of sitting every day at home.

 

We go to the zendo to sit with everyone and once we're there it's no problem. We just follow the schedule. The bell rings and we remember the instructions – settling into our seat, following our breath. We are more or less distracted by thoughts arising in the mind. But at some deep level there is no problem. Our neighbors are sitting so quietly – the energy of the room floats through us. We don't wonder about progress or obsess too much about doing it right. With the support of sangha we just sit. Very naturally being with Buddha.

And then, the next morning at home it is a different story. Should I sit this morning? Or turn over and sleep a little longer? A million potential problems arise with the idea of sitting. There isn't enough time. We don't have a nice enough sitting spot. It's too cold. I'll sit later if there's time.

And if resistance or circumstances overwhelm our intention to practice we feel guilty. And we are burdened by that guilt. What a failure I am – that's two (or three, or four) days in a row I didn't sit. And the weight of that burden strengthens our resistance. It becomes clear we are fundamentally not wise enough or strong enough to really practice. Maybe later on. Once we're out of school or have a different job or more free time. After the next retreat maybe.

Everyone has some resistance to practice. Even the Buddha on the night of his great enlightenment was strongly beset by resistance. Personified by Mara, the evil one, who marshaled armies of pain, squadrons of doubt, and sensual distractions of every description. How did the Buddha get through the night? I think because he didn't fight his resistance. He recognized resistance. In the Pali suttas, Buddha always confronts Mara head-on, recognizing him and speaking directly and kindly to him. Saying "I see you there Mara. I recognize resistance as resistance. I hear what you are saying but I will keep practicing regardless of what you say.." And then, kind of like a cartoon villain, Mara vanishes in disgust.

For daily sitting to function in our lives, it can't be a daily battle between us and the forces of Mara. That's too exhausting! But when Mara comes, we recognize resistance for what it is. We notice how it feels in the body. We bring forth our intention to practice. We gently return our awareness, over and over, to the breath and the posture.

And when we end up going along with Mara, we make the best of it. We pay attention to how that is. And we forgive ourselves, over and over. We pat ourselves kindly on the back and say "oh well, better luck next time."

Resistance is a pattern of thoughts and desires. When the question of whether or not to sit arises in the mind, resistance has a lot of traction. But when we can just sit down, with the same simple everyday spirit we bring to brushing our teeth, there is less opportunity for resistance to arise. It's helpful to focus on sitting as just sitting. That's your only goal: just to sit down for 20 minutes or half an hour each day. Let go of thoughts about having deep states of concentration or accomplishing anything beyond making a gentle steady effort to pay attention. And when you're done, forget about it until the next day. Trust zazen to take care of itself. Trust zazen to take care of you.

Some strategy is worthwhile. Actually make a plan for sitting. Trying to sit whenever it fits in is not a plan. Assess your daily and weekly schedule. Where is there a little give? Where can a half-hour be opened up? Then make a commitment to yourself. It might help to tell a dharma friend your plan, the power of embarrassment is strong and can be harnessed for good purposes. I told my friend I would be sitting this morning, so I'd better do it!

Include in your plan, though, a time to reassess. To make an endless vow to practice is powerful and good. To make an endless vow to sit at 5:30 am every day forever is unrealistic and doomed to failure. Sitting every day at 5:30 am for a month, though, might be very possible. At the end of the month you can have a little party for yourself. You did it! Now what? Is the plan working? Is it nurturing and supporting your life? There is always some refinement needed. And circumstances are always changing.

Many people find sitting early in the morning, before any of the busy activities of the day have take hold to be helpful. Zen teacher Jack Duffey recommends putting your zafu in the bathroom so you'll see it without fail first thing in the morning. Why is that zafu there? Oh yeah, sit now. But any time of day can be good. Lunch time. Evening. In the monastery they tell you when to sit, lay people don't have it so easy. We have to figure out when.

And be prepared for change. I sat every morning before my wife got up for several years. Then we had a baby and everything changed. I had to reassess. It didn't make sense to sit then anymore. I had to be more flexible. Change my plan. It was very disconcerting. Even the most successful and reliable plan is subject to change and revision.

There seem to be periods of time when it works well to sit alone at home, but then there are times when it's better to sit with others. In Bellingham, there is morning sitting at the Dharma Hall at 6:30 am on weekdays. And other regular times are starting to happen. But having support in daily sitting doesn't necessarily mean an organized group. It could just be getting together with a friend once or twice a week to sit.

Dogen says "have no designs on becoming a Buddha" and he also says we are "already actualized Buddhas who go on actualizing Buddhas." So we do need to practice to express our Buddhahood. But true practice is beyond the realm of desire. It happens daily in our lives whether we like it or dislike that particular day. But it's not something we do to get anywhere or get anything, either. When you sit. Just sit. Really. That's all there is.

by Tim Burnett, proofread by Connie Martin.

© 2002, Tim Burnett