Practice: You Can’t Do It Wrong

By Barry Magid

Zen master Dogen (1200–1253) said that zazen was not a meditation technique but was instead the dharma gate of enjoyment and ease. Yet how often we stray from that reminder, especially when we are sitting alone.

A technique is something we can do right or wrong, well or badly. True practice is about being grounded in a place free from these dichotomies. So we need to frame our practice in such a way that we do not get lost in dualisms of right or wrong, progress or the lack of it.

I have found that a good way of maintaining this perspective is to liken sitting to looking in a mirror. When you sit down on your cushion, the state of your mind and body automatically appears to you, the way your face instantly appears in a mirror. The mirror does all the work. You can’t do it right or wrong. Approach your sitting in the same way. You can’t do it wrong. It’s not a technique to master or something you can fail at. It’s just being yourself, being your experience of this moment, over and over. It’s simple, but if we’re honest, not always easy.

Why? Because we don’t always like what we see in the mirror. We are tempted to either turn away or try to touch up our image. We want our sitting to make us what we are not; we want to be calm, clear, or enlightened. We’d like to be able to call that rejection of our self just as we are “aspiration,” but all too often it’s just another word for self-hate. Sitting, first and foremost, is sitting with who we are―what we see in the mirror. Our practice is to sit and look and say to ourselves, over and over, “That’s me.”

Cherish your questions, but do not chase after answers. Sit still amid your doubt, restlessness, loneliness, and anxiety. They are not obstacles to your practice―they are your practice.

Practice will expose the roots of our emotional distress. The Buddha taught, and our practice will reaffirm, that our underlying fear of change and our unavoidable physical vulnerability leads us in the futile attempt to hold onto something permanent, to imagine―against all the evidence―that our “self” can somehow be made invulnerable. Though we may start out with the fantasy that practice will be the road to that invulnerability, it turns out to be just the opposite. Practice teaches us to sit with the vulnerability we all try to avoid, and to gradually learn to abide within the ongoing flux of our ever-changing consciousness and ever-shifting physical sensations.

When we first look into a mirror, we naturally focus on our own face and how we think we look to ourselves and others. But if we look longer, and gradually become less preoccupied with how we look, we may start to notice that the rest of the room behind us is also reflected in the mirror. Maybe there is even a window in the room, and the world outside is also glimpsed in our mirror. The room, the window, the outside world―all that is also part of the “me” we see in the mirror. The more we look, the more we see in the mirror, the more we include, and the harder it is to draw a boundary between “me” and everything else in the mirror. It’s all “me.” So although you think you are sitting alone, you may gradually become aware that you are sitting in the midst of the whole world.

If you’re reading this, you’re not practicing alone. You are connected to a community of fellow readers and practitioners who are all trying to find their way on the path. Let us enjoy our practice together.


BARRY MAGID is a Zen teacher and founder of the Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York. He is also a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and the author of Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide.