This week I noticed an article in the NY TIMES on the price of lettuce as an index of inflation - how the price of iceberg lettuce has remained virtually unchanged for over a decade. The catch is that no self respecting New York yuppie will eat iceberg lettuce anymore. Every year, it seems, there is a new exotic green: arugula, radicchio, mesclun, frisee and on and on, including (I'm happy to say) a few I never heard of. So now, even though iceberg lettuce still costs only about a dollar a pound, it is possible to spend 10 dollars a pound for your salad.
Here in New York it's easy to get caught up in that kind of inflation and feel that we must keep up with what's the latest, the most fashionable thing. For a lot of us that's the attraction of being in the city. Of course, there's nothing wrong with novelty per se; all play, all creativity involves making it new, as Pound used to say. But psychologically, we can easily become addicted to novelty to the point that everything else loses its flavor. Zen, on the other hand, has a long tradition of savoring what's ordinary, like the taste of clear cold plain water. And so I suppose I could fashion a dharma talk extolling the virtues of simple neglected iceberg lettuce and exhort everybody to turn away from those sinful yuppie greens! But it's not really that simple. Too often when we try to make ourselves "accept" something simple, we end up, not with true acceptance, but with resignation, and a sullen, depressed sense of "settling." And my childhood memories of iceberg lettuce -along with what seemed to be a mandatory bottle of ice cold pink glop called "Russian dressing" - are tied up with memories of a bland conformist society back in the fifties and sixties. And when Zen first came on the scene back then, popularized by the Beats, part of what it offered was a vitalizing jolt of the new, both in its talk of liberation and by bringing with it a whole new aesthetic derived from Japanese culture. But in the last few years, the novelty of Zen seems to be wearing off, the remaining Beats are old men, the popular culture and movie stars have moved down the supermarket aisle to the Tibetan Buddhism section. Which is just fine with me! Every practice and every practitioner has to come to terms at some point with what it means to be doing something popular or something obscure, noticed or unnoticed.
When we sit here during the long hours of a sesshin we immerse ourselves in the ordinary, the simple act of sitting in silence in a practically bare room, attuned to the sounds around us and the physical sensations that arise in our bodies. But we're also exerting a great effort, pushing ourselves to sit with emotional and physical pain, attending to each moment with an intensity and honesty that we don't ordinarily muster in our daily lives. We break the boundaries of what we think we are capable of, and the bounds of the self that we usually think we are.
I don't have any recipe for the correct Zen salad mix - in the end we all have to work out for ourselves the balance between the ordinary and the new in our own lives. Practice both re-vitalizes the ordinary and everyday - so we may even appreciate the crunch of iceberg lettuce - and opens us up to whole new ways of looking at the world and what we think is possible in our lives. Here as in everything else, we must find the middle way.