Readers’ Exchange: Is Your Practice Working?

When You Are You, Zen Is Zen

In the late sixties when the back-to-the-land, “turn-on, tune-in, drop-out” counter-culture was in full swing—when the People’s Baker baked bread and gave it away for free—Suzuki Roshi told us in a lecture, “Your culture is based on ideas of self-improvement… Improvement means that instead of going to Japan by ship, now you can go by jumbo jet. So improvement is based on comparative value, which is also the basis of our society and our economy. I understand that you are rejecting that idea of [material] civilization, but you are not rejecting the idea of improvement. You still try to improve something. Isn’t that rather materialistic? …Buddhists do not hold so strongly to the idea of improvement.”

Some months later when I tried to use that as an excuse not to practice hard, he said, “Ed, if your practice is not advancing, it’s going downhill backwards—fast.”

So what is this advancing that is not getting caught up in improvement? (And wouldn’t that be the real way to improve?) Everyday mind is the way.

Later, at a sesshin, Roshi talked about what is ordinary and what is special. “What is ordinary,” he said, “is to strive after something [you think is] special. What is truly special is to abide in the ordinary. You are here. Always here.

“Even though you say your practice is not good enough, there is no other practice for you right now. Good or bad, it is your practice. To approach perfect practice, there is no way other than to accept yourself. To say your practice is bad does not help your practice. To say your practice is excellent does not help. Your practice is your practice.”

To assess if my practice is working means looking at my idea of what I thought practice would or would not do (and who is saying so). I ask Darlene, my dharma friend of more than thirty years, if her practice is working. Her “I don’t think so” is cheerful, bright and buoyant. “Because,” she explains without further prompting, “I have the idea that if my practice were working things would go along much more smoothly than they do. But maybe that’s the wrong idea. If my practice working means that I am having lots of intimate encounters with other people where I might get slapped down, knocked down or put down, well then, my practice is spectacular.”

What, after all, would liberation look like? How would you know if this was enlightenment? Do you have eyes to see? Your practice is your practice.

To assess whether or not my practice is working, some standards or scale of measurement is required. Where do we get these standards? Usually one’s own are the most compelling, the ones which we hold to with greatest devotion. And then we call in spiritual reinforcement to back us up: what to express, what not to express, what to feel, what not to feel, what to think, what not to think. I’m aloof and distant from others and have trouble expressing myself, especially since I want to protect others from my painful feelings. So isn’t it spiritual to practice silence and clear up everything internally before expressing anything? Maybe practicing Buddhism is a better way of enforcing standards, a better way to gain compliance from one’s own body and mind and the bodies and minds of others. Let’s be spiritual here.

Having a conceivable aim, a picture to compare myself to, an image of what attainment would look like, isn’t that the way to go forward? See if I can make my body and mind behave the way it should so that it looks right—because I was, after all, never good enough. Gaining approval is the answer, and now I want it from the spiritual authorities. Well, go for it, go for looking good. Go for being exemplary.

As one friend put it, “I had a lot of problems with drugs and alcohol, and then I met these people who were practicing who didn’t seem to have these problems, and so I began practicing. Looking back now, after twelve or fifteen years, it was as though I put all those difficulties and painful feelings in the closet, built a brick wall in front of the door, and hung up a thangka. It was beautiful—I was a spiritual person. Years went by. But in spite of, or because of, all that practice the closet door wouldn’t stay closed. What I thought of as inappropriate things kept spilling out. I couldn’t keep the door closed. Now in addition to meditating I go to AA meetings where we talk about what’s actually going on in our lives.”

Most of us have done quite well at internalizing the cultural norms: don’t be sad, don’t be angry, don’t stand out, fit it, don’t be outrageous (or don’t be a Buddhist), don’t be judgmental, don’t compare, be mindful (or you wouldn’t have left those cups unwashed).

And we’ve also agreed to strive to become the person Mom and Dad always wanted us to be (and still they don’t appreciate it). They don’t seem to realize that what we are aiming to do is exactly what they were asking us to do (or what we “thought” they were asking us to do): make me happy, please me, don’t upset me, humor me, don’t disappoint me. Often you make progress. You do become calmer, more peaceful. You’re not disturbing others. Your practice is working.

But then your practice begins to get complicated. You start realizing things! The standards I have been using are arbitrary. There is no definitive way to discriminate self and other. So there is no way to keep and accumulate the acceptable stuff inside me, and the unacceptable stuff outside at a distance. Or, even more directly, the price of doing that is way too high; actually the cost of maintaining my “self” is imprisoning me—all the rigidity and posturing, all the strategies and behaviors to be calm and not be angry are precisely self-defeating, because I am using anger to ward off anger, I am holding still fearful of losing all I have attained, I am alert and guarded and structured to defend myself. I’m depressed. That’s disillusioning—all my sincere effort seemingly has been in the wrong direction. Or do I now see that my numerous failures to produce an acceptable self are precisely the path to liberation (from arbitrary standards). I might need to practice accepting more, rather than making myself more acceptable. I could probably stand to lighten up.

Practice has given me the stability, strength and resources to be with what is deeply painful both inside and out. To be with and learn how to relate wholesomely with sadness, sorrow, anger, grief, terror, dread, the whole range of what is human. Not creating more pain by endeavoring to eliminate pain.

Practice has given me a chance to acknowledge and express my true heart, a chance to manifest what is empty of own-being, to realize what is beyond thinking. Going forward in everydayness, you are Buddha and you are an ordinary person.

Almost forty years of practice, and I am finally experiencing the grief I’ve spent my whole life avoiding, the grief I’ve longed for all my life. Is this progress? I extend my hand to you. We can touch and be touched. In sacred space. In the space where everything connects, the space where mind itself is Buddha. Worthy of honor, worthy of respect, loved and loving. Oh heart of hearts, abiding exactly here, not leaving here, sweet, tender, precious.

When you are you, Zen is Zen.


Edward Espe Brown, a Zen priest living in Marin County, California, is also a chef, teacher, photographer, and practitioner of Mindfulness Touch and Cranial-Sacral healing. He is the author of The Tassajara Bread Book and Tassajara Cooking, and editor of Not Always So.