Commentary: The False Promise

In the early phases of our spiritual practice we may find ourselves repeatedly turning away from the reality of the present moment. We take one detour after another in an effort to avoid what we don’t want to face within ourselves. Some of the detours are obvious, such as our addiction to control, our obsession with trying to figure everything out, and our attachment to the spinning mind as a way to avoid the discomfort of the unfamiliar. Just think about what we’re doing when we choose to get hooked into planning during meditation—aren’t we primarily trying to avoid the discomfort of disorder and chaos?

As we observe ourselves, we begin to find such detours everywhere, even in the midst of what we think is most “spiritual.” For example, take the forms and rituals of our own particular tradition. There is no doubt they can help raise our aspiration, but, in themselves, they have little to do with seeing the truth. They are not inherently magical, yet we often maintain magical thinking around them. What our sitting posture is, how we bow, how we recite verses: do we use these as a way to connect with what is, or do we use them as a detour, as a way to hide? We can also detour off the practice path by finding comfort and security in feeling that we’re part of something bigger. All of these are detours away from our genuine aspiration, and they keep us from having to face ourselves or our fears.

Some of our detours are more subtle, such as our tendencies to blame others, or even ourselves. How often have you detoured off the path through a self-judgment like “I’ll never be good at this,” or, “I’m basically hopeless”? These are detours only until we clearly see what we’re doing. Once we observe a self-judgment for what it is, and return to experiencing the present moment, then we’re right back on the path.

In a way, the first several years of spiritual practice can be one large detour. We may start with the genuine aspiration to awaken, but then we get sidetracked by the false promise of our fantasies about what practice will give us. How many of us, for example, make the assumption that meditation is supposed to make us feel good? If this is our picture, what will happen when we don’t feel good? Aren’t we bound to take the detour of frustration or self-judgment?

We assume that if we practice long enough and hard enough, our suffering will go away, and that life should be, or can be, free from discomfort and pain. If this is our assumption, which is a sense of entitlement, we will continue to believe that we can’t be happy if we’re experiencing discomfort.

But our discomfort will certainly remain—and this is where we get stuck, because the false promise tells us the bad stuff should go away. This false promise—that practice will take away our suffering—can take the form of longing for comfort, calmness, freedom from fear, or some vague notion of enlightenment. These false promises may motivate us for years. After all, don’t we all want to be free of the anxious quiver of being? But sooner or later, if we’re fortunate, we may begin to see through the illusion of this promise. In fact, it’s only by seeing what practice is not that we begin to see what practice actually is.

What is the source of this false promise? It comes from the ego, the small mind that is trying to control its world, trying to have life on its own terms. Again, the essence of the false promise is that we can make ourselves and our life whatever we want. But this will only bring disappointment, because no matter what we do, there’s no way we can guarantee a life free of problems. Yet, we still hold on to our “if only” mantra: I’d be happy if only I had the right job, or the right relationship, or the right body…

Part of our practice is to observe ourselves with precision, watching our many attempts to detour away from the present moment, and uncovering the illusions that blind us. Eventually we may realize one of the great secrets of spiritual practice: that to connect with what’s real we don’t have to be some particular way, such as clear or spacious. Nor do we have to feel some particular way, such as calm or together. One of the hardest things to understand in practice is that we don’t have to fulfill our idealized pictures of how we’re supposed to be or what life is supposed to be. All we have to do is experience and work with what our life is right now. It doesn’t matter what arises. Nor does it matter how we feel about it. This may be hard to accept, but all that matters is whether we can honestly acknowledge what is going on and then stay with the present-moment reality of the experience.

When we truly understand that we don’t need to feel or be any particular way, we come to realize that everything in life, including the detours, the false promises, and all the disappointments, are in fact the path itself. To truly understand that everything is the path is the beginning of the genuine life we seek.

EZRA BAYDA began practicing meditation in 1970 and received dharma transmission in 1998. He lives and teaches at Zen Center San Diego. His latest book is Zen Heart.