The Thing We Do Every Day. Not the Other Kind
Though I think of zazen as the foundation of my life, and often think and read about it, I sometimes don’t want to do it when I wake up first thing in the morning. I feel slightly afraid. In that waking moment it’s as if I’ve been in some far-off place, and am slowly coming back to this one, reluctant to be here. My wife calls the place we go when we sleep the Mother Ship; she often says, when we go to bed, “Enjoy your trip back to the Mother Ship.” I usually do. But the return trip is a little rocky. I feel tender and vulnerable and afraid.
I’m reminded of the first morning sitting on longer retreats; I picture the Insight Meditation Society in the summer, when the sun is already up and there’s dew on the grass, and people stumble in—a hundred people, more or less—to take their places in the meditation hall. We haven’t eaten; we’re barely awake. Yet we sit there for 45 minutes, bleary-eyed, slowly settling in, hearing the morning noises. Often there I feel weak and vulnerable, but I like that. It’s a feeling of being open. The world pours in.
So it is here in Asheville. I don’t want to sit, I feel a little afraid, but after shaving and splashing some water on my face and doing some stretches I always do. It’s the foundation of my life no matter how I feel about it at the moment. Here when I begin it’s dark, and dead still (around 5:30); I open the French doors to the outside and hear the stillness. I assume what I hope is a decent posture. Then I do nothing.
The first bird sound is quite noticeable. Sometimes it’s way into the woods that go up the mountain; I hear it only faintly. Or it might be a bird right here in our meadow; there’s one tiny bird with a huge set of pipes. I’m feeling my body sit, and there is that sound from outside me, then more sounds: the other birds feel the sun come up and begin to sing. I sometimes hear things stirring in the woods: deer have appeared while I’m sitting, and bears. This summer there’s an adolescent bear that comes out in the morning, and sometimes a mother with two cubs. I’m supposed to be facing a wall, but the world in general is a wall when I don’t have my glasses on, and with such a beautiful scene, such a spectacle of the world awakening, I’d be a madman to face a wall. I also don’t have a free wall in this tiny cabin. I face the meadow.
There is the feeling of sitting, the fact of sitting here, and there are the noises all around, slowly, over the hour I sit, those things begin to merge. I focus on the physical fact of my body and the feeling of having one diminishes. (Once on a retreat at IMS where I sat with my eyes closed, I had to open them and look down at my belly. I was convinced it had somehow disappeared.) I assume this is what Dogen means when he says, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self; To study the self is to forget the self.” He isn’t talking about some mystical esoteric thing. He’s talking about an experience. You put your attention on your physical self, and slowly it disappears.
The birds are outside, the sounds in the woods, animals crashing around, but they’re also inside, they’re in my head, wherever it is in my head that I hear things; over time that feeling of outside and inside becomes confused, or goes away: the birds are outside, maybe way up in the woods on the mountain, but they’re also inside, or the mountain is inside; in any case, it all becomes one: the world is waking up, I’m waking up, I’m coming back from my trip to the mother ship, I’m returning to the world. Dogen speaks also of that further experience: “To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.”
This isn’t an experience of enlightenment; it’s the experience of waking up to the world, coming back into the world. It’s an example of the way that practice is enlightenment: in simple practice, the practice of every day, we see what some people claim to see in some ultimate way: that something is here, but not any one thing; we’re not here, but everything is here, all at once. By the time I finish, the sun has come up over the mountain, birds are singing at full force, squirrels and rabbits have appeared in the yard, some wild turkeys wander in. The world is born again. It’s morning.
And I’m here. I don’t feel scared anymore.
 Same as the photo at the top of this page, but lush with summer greenery.
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