I started working as Tricycle’s web editor a little more than one month ago. Up until then, Buddhist practice was a solitary pursuit for me, and it remained separate from the rest of my life. Now, I’m suddenly swimming in Buddhist philosophy, and I still don’t know how deep the waters go.
Someone told me that when starting a new job, it’s common to feel like you are in over your head; all the things you don’t know can be disorienting. But a week into working at Tricycle, I came down with a literal case of vertigo. (One friend insisted to me that this was not merely ironic, but direct causation. I disagree.) The first couple days I hardly got out of bed. And for about another week, trying to gaze down at a spot on the floor while the rest of the room was spinning was unbearable. That week was enough to derail my daily meditation practice.
I was never good at meditating to begin with. I’ve been practicing for a couple years, but more often than not, I daydream my way through the whole session of zazen. I often leave the cushion wondering if what I did is technically meditation at all. But at least I kept doing it.
After the vertigo, I was barely sitting at all. I felt ashamed to be working at a Buddhist publication when I knew that I was going days at a time without doing anything particularly Buddhist in my life. Many writers have a fraud complex, but editing articles about mindfulness without so much as looking at my zafu felt like an outright lie.
Then came Meditation Month; it was a chance to restart. Not only did I commit to sit for the month, but I agreed to write this personal reflection piece, adding an extra level of commitment. It was an opportunity to get back into the habit, but it also began to be more of a chore than a choice. I have been waking up early to meditate before going to work and finding myself barely focusing, with a drowsy mind.
I was dwelling on my self-criticism during the first few days of March when I started scrolling through the comments on the Meditation Month discussion group on Facebook, where participants from all over the world are sharing their experiences. I came upon a post about someone struggling to meditate while undergoing chemotherapy. Then I saw another about someone who found it hard to confront their own mind while grieving the death of their spouse. Then another from someone who found it painful to sit, but did so anyway. People were so generous with the stories they shared. Maybe it didn’t feel that way to them. Maybe they felt like they were getting something off their chest. But to me it felt like a rare gift. These were real challenges they were facing. Meanwhile, on Wednesday morning, I skipped my meditation because I wanted to sleep an extra 20 minutes.
I think I know what a teacher would say. “That’s OK. Start again.” Shoshaku Jushaku was Dogen Zenji’s refrain, meaning life is one continuous mistake. It’s a teaching I keep running into.
Last month, I took part in my first dokusan, a formal interview with a Zen teacher. I didn’t know what I was going to say or why I was even doing it, but I wanted see what it was all about. The sensei stared at me with blank expression; I knew that all the judgement I felt was a projection, but I wanted to impress him anyway. Instead, I found myself breathlessly pleading with him to explain why I felt like everyone else was meditating correctly but that I was doing it wrong. He explained, as plainly as he could, “The practice isn’t to not think. It’s to return to the breath. If you could not think, you wouldn’t have to return. And sometimes it’s great. And sometimes it’s shitty. And then the timer goes off.”
Of course, it’s one thing to know this intellectually and something else entirely to believe it.
When I returned to work after my spell of vertigo, I was embarrassed to have taken two days off of work in my first week. (It’s silly to be feel shame for falling ill, but somehow or another I’ve been conditioned to react that way.) Then the editor-in-chief came over to my desk and told me about a far more harrowing experience he had with vertigo years earlier. Standing up had made me feel nauseated, but he hadn’t been able stand at all. Vertigo had seemed like such a strange, rare condition that I’d only heard about on TV. It was scary to be so physically limited for the first time in my life; it reminded me of my mortality and made me feel powerless. Then here was my boss saying he’d been there, too, and suddenly it all felt manageable—petty even.
So tomorrow, I’ll grumpily wake up a half an hour early to meditate. I’ll be too tired, and I won’t be able to focus. At some point, if I’m very lucky, I’ll find a moment of peace, only to ruin it by thinking about it too much. And then the timer will go off.
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