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Attention, Honesty and Perseverance

An old teacher once warned us not to try to put another head on top of the one we already have. Over and over, we emphasize that this practice is not about turning into somebody else, or even improving yourself, but rather just seeing clearly who we really are. But accepting the head that we have is not a simple matter of "self-acceptance" as we usually understand it. Generations of students have wondered, if Buddha tells us everything is enlightened just as it is, how come we have to practice so hard? And one way or another we all have to come to see that our understanding and acceptance of our "self" in the ordinary sense is very incomplete and constricted. So the first and most important  aspect of practice must always be Attention - moment by moment awareness of our experience. We begin by noticing the endlessly repetitive patterns of thought that occupy us most of the time, and we practice putting simple labels on the patterns, "worrying," planning," "judging" and so on. As we get better and better at recognizing these recurrent patterns as they arise, we are gradually able to label them more quickly and spend less of our time wandering down their endless byways. At that point, we can begin to settle more deeply into a body-centered awareness of the experience of sitting itself. We settle into the physical sensations of sitting, of breathing, of perceiving. And here we will almost always begin to encounter layers of emotional pain expressing itself in bodily tension. Fear, anger, sadness, feelings of inadequacy will all make themselves known to us as we sit. Much of what we are used to calling our "self" is this collection of old emotional pain, bodily tension, and our habits devised over an entire lifetime to control or evade these feelings. As we settle into this stage of bodily awareness, we let ourselves experience as fully and directly as possible all these old reactions and tensions that we usually spend so much time avoiding.

Here our great need is for our practice to be Honest. Unless there is some crisis in our lives, most of us can continue to find ways to deny or avoid this level of feeling if we want to. Part of the reason sittings are made long and sometimes painful is to push our ordinary patterns of avoidance to their limit, to make us face what we usually avoid. But the way we're practicing here, we try to substitute rigorously honest, psychological self scrutiny for some of the physical pressures of more traditional Zen practice. This will work only to the extent that each of you is willing to honestly face your own emotional reality, and not simply find ways of passing the time in the zendo, escaping into your usual thoughts and distractions.

Finally, we must have Perseverance, the willingness to stay and practice with our experience week after week, year after year. As we penetrate these layers of emotional blockage we will find that beyond the narrow boundaries of the self that they define, vast reservoirs of joy and compassion are open to us, resources that we ordinarily never suspect we have, never learn to put to use. We may get glimpses of these potentials from time to time, but our need to work through the layers of thought and emotional constriction never ends. Our practice is always one of Attention, Honesty, and Perseverance.