Smooth Sailing

The sea is either calm or stormy. If you want a calm sea, you cannot get it by suppressing the stormy sea. You must wait for the same sea to become calm. –Thich Nhat Hanh

Yesterday I wrote about the fundamental stability of the world beneath our feet. It’s the human ego that makes life feel difficult and unnatural, when in fact our true state is one of profound balance and meaning. This true state consists of experiential knowledge and inner-wisdom rather than external projections or conceptual thoughts. It’s what we’re born out of and die into, and it is what we exist through while we’re here. So I’d like to explore a few simple avenues for finding peace within the self.

The wording here is crucial— when we seek peace, we often do so outwardly. We search for activities, people and achievements to content us. We run around like headless chickens chasing the wind because what requires attention is not ‘out there’. A vital spiritual practice consists of looking within calmly and openly. We write, we meditate, we spend time outside. I like to bike around in circles in New Orleans’ Audubon Park. Whatever floats your boat.

Conceptualize what this sort of calm means for you— and then stop. Don’t go beyond the first stage of thinking. Let yourself be content with simply envisioning your intuitive response to this question, and then go do it. Maybe it’s sitting on the couch and closing your eyes. Maybe it’s petting your dog. Again, two steps: imagine it, and do it.

I insist on this because there’s a fundamental two-sided paradox of errors we make when we practice. On the one side, we want to be fully aware, and we think this means overdoing everything. This is why I think, semantically at least, the concept of “mindfulness meditation” is misleading. On the other side, the only way to see the response we’re looking for from ourselves is to let go completely and simply be. There’s a name for this in a broader psychological context: ironic-process theory.

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
— Fyodor DostoevskyWinter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863

I’m of the leaning that this tendency towards ironic-process is what nullifies the beauties of true religion for most people. When you think too hard about sinning, all you’re gonna want to do is sin. When you sit down to meditate with the goal of calming the waters, you’re inevitably going to stir them up. This is troubling; it’s arguably the greatest obstacle in any one individual’s day-to-day practice, let alone life outside the spiritual realm. It applies to everything. And it compounds under stress, so the more you think about it the harder it gets. Damn!

Enter stage-left: Zen. There’s a reason Zen often seems so careless and nihilistic. At times it’s even masochistic, exposing oneself to pain and discomfort not to redeem oneself but to focus the mind sharply, like a knife. With this intense focus, a visceral physical focus, comes a straight-forward response from the mind. Over time we reach the practice of Shikantaza, or ‘just-sitting’.

This is all we’re doing. Just sitting. Just working. Just listening. Phil Knight might not have known he was embarking on a highly-spiritualized play on words when he decided on the “just do it” slogan for Nike, but deconstruct it a bit. Just be. Just do. If you think about the marathon, each step is agonizing. If you think about meditation, you cease meditating. Let everything go, and just sit.

“Do not try to become anything. Do not make yourself into anything. Do not be a meditator. Do not become enlightened. When you sit, let it be. What you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing.” —Ajahn Chah

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