At age 18, I was on a Greyhound bus on my way to Naropa University (at the time it was called the Naropa Institute) in Colorado. I was sitting silently, looking out at the unfamiliar landscape (I was definitely not in New York anymore, Toto), when my fellow passenger, an elderly, sun-tanned woman with lots of turquoise jewelry and a welcoming smile, asked, “Where are you going?”
“Naropa Institute,” I said.
“Are you a Buddhist?”
I told her that while there were a few teachers that I followed, I wasn’t tied to any particular community. At that time I considered John Daido Loori, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg to be my teachers, but I had no fixed address––I didn’t belong to any sangha.
“Oh,” she said. “So you’re a lone wolf.”
I nodded smugly, delighted she had cottoned on so fast to something I felt was intrinsic to my identity. I had considered myself emotionally independent since I was a toddler, and proud of it. A lone wolf—yes, I nodded. I liked her description.
She continued, “You know what’s interesting about lone wolves? They’re sick. Wolves are pack animals, so if you see a wolf by itself, there’s actually something wrong with it.”
My smile vanished.
It wasn’t until that moment I realized that being on my own might not be a good thing. I’m not the only one—the “lone wolf phenomenon” seems to be endemic to our society today. In a recent study, incoming college freshmen were asked what their greatest fear was about entering college, and for many, the answer was interacting with others. For these students, isolation is the preferred state of being in (or out) of the world around them.
We cannot practice in isolation. When asked, “How do we engage others in our meditation practice?” the Buddha responded, “The whole of spiritual life is having good spiritual friends.” Since the time of the historical Buddha, monastics and followers of the way have gathered each year for a three-month intensive practice together. In the Zen tradition this is called ango. As I write this, we are in ango along with our sangha here in New York, joined online by folks from across the country as well as from Europe, Australia, South America, and Asia. Each morning via email we receive a teaching and a reflection for the day, and also use an online forum to explore our reflections and livestream dharma talks. This is how we practice together.
Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen School, studied with many different teachers in Japan, but he still had not found anyone to answer his question: “If we are already perfect and complete, and lacking nothing, why practice?” In search of a new teacher, he made the arduous sea journey from Japan to China. There he met [Chinese Zen master] Rujing, with whom he studied and also received dharma transmission.
On his return to Japan, Dogen began to offer the Buddhist teachings written in Japanese, which was quite radical for the time. Buddhist teachings were more commonly transmitted in Chinese, readable only by the educated elite—but Dogen wanted the teachings to be made available to any literate person who wanted to study them. Eventually, Soto Zen became known as “farmer Zen,” or Zen for the ordinary people.
How often do we say to ourselves “I’m not going to do that,” “I don’t know how,” or “It’s too difficult”? We can find a million reasons not to practice and not connect to the world and to not to seek out our community. Dogen said, “Once you grasp your own heart of zazen, you’re like a dragon gaining the water. Like a tiger taking to the mountains.”
That’s what we’re doing in meditation practice: like the thunder of dragons taking to the water or a streak of tigers taking to the mountains, we’re choosing to dive head first into our lives. What does that kind of radical participation look like in ordinary life?
There is an expression in Zen: itchi-go itchi-e. One Moment, one chance. I’m reminded of itchi-go itchi-e throughout my day, when meeting friends, saying good morning to a stranger, or reading the news. It reminds me to take note of my life, to notice where I am, what I’m doing, and who I am with. Dogen also wrote, “For you must know that just there in this moment of zazen, exactly the right dharma is manifesting itself.” Whatever is happening right now is exactly what we need to be receptive to. What’s arising for you moment-by-moment, in this moment, is exactly our practice.
This is the way to move from the lone wolf to a thunder of dragons taking to the water—by embracing one’s life totally and completely, and not holding back.
Instructions for Zen Meditation
How can you find peace in the midst of your busy life? One way is through Zen meditation, or zazen. Zen meditation is often referred to as “practice” because we never get good at it. The work is basically to stop, look, and listen. When you get scared, uncomfortable, or restless going about your day, just soften and return to the practice. Zen practice is about how to be free.
One of the best parts about meditation is that you don’t need anything but yourself to do it. You can meditate on the subway, in your office, or on an airplane—anywhere! But if you have time to meditate daily at home or at a temple or church, try to find an uncluttered spot where you can sit without disturbances, and where it’s not too hot and not too cold.
Zen people traditionally sit on what’s called a zabuton (a square mat) and a zafu (a round cushion placed on top of the mat), but you can also create a makeshift Zen meditation area with a home cushion placed on top of a bed, yoga mat, or large pillow. You’ll want to wear loose clothing so that you can cross your legs, resting your knees on the zabuton. (This is also so your legs don’t fall asleep!) If this position is painful for you, you can sit in a chair instead.
Sit upright so that your back lengthens along your spine, trying not to lean in any one direction. Place your right hand palm up in the middle of your legs and your left hand palm up on your right palm, so that the backs of your wrists are resting on the tops of your thighs.
The tips of your thumbs should be lightly touching each other.
Keep your mouth closed, placing your tongue against the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth. (This helps with all the swallowing that’s about to happen!)
Keep your eyes slightly open, gazing down at a forty-five- degree angle, without focusing on anything in particular. (If you close your eyes, chances are you’ll be half asleep in a few minutes or less.)
If you’re a beginner, you can try meditating for just five minutes at first. You might find that even five minutes is a challenge! Set a timer on your cell phone or a clock so you don’t need to check the time. Then settle into your cushion and breathe quietly through your nose, without concentrating on any one thing. Keep returning to the softness of the breath two inches below your belly button.
Thoughts will inevitably arise—lots of thoughts. That’s OK. Don’t chase after them or try to run away from them. Just let them pass by like clouds in the sky or bubbles in a stream. If you’re new to meditation, you can also try counting your breaths—one count as you inhale and one as you exhale. Count to ten and start over at one. If you lose count before getting to ten, no problem. Start over at one.
Try this practice daily for thirty years and then evaluate!