The Old Turtle
What were trying to do here, in one way, is really very simple. Just sit still and be silent. And yet we all run into difficulty trying to follow this simple practice. Its a measure of how complicated and entangled our lives and our minds are that we find this simple practice so difficult.
By sitting still, I mean finding a steady, stable, straight sitting posture, and allowing ourselves to feel the physicality of our bodies as we sit. It doesnt mean holding yourself rigid, or making a fetish out of immobility. If I wanted a collection of stone or wooden Buddhas, I could find them in an antique store. Our bodies are alive will move gently with each breathe and each heartbeat. Sitting still means not responding to each¬moment of restlessness or discomfort. We feel these sensations, but dont move or fidget in an endless attempt to fix them or adjust how it feels when we sit.
Being silent means, first of all. maintaining the silence of the zendo. No talking, no exaggerated sighs or little groans when we get up for kinhin and so on. We also speak of settling into a mental silence, the silence behind our thoughts. Our thoughts flit about the surface of our consciousness like water bugs on the surface of a pond. They may be very busy, frantically moving this way and that, but they always stay on the surface. When we begin to observe the activity of our minds, and observe and label our thoughts as thoughts, it is as if we settle down into a dark quiet layer below them, like a wise old turtle sitting at the bottom of the pond, silently gazing up at all the frantic activity of the water bugs on the surface. We can settle down this way, silently, stilly observing our thoughts, we begin to experience some real depth and peace in our lives. As long as we are up there on the surface, we are going to be constantly blindsided by whatever erupts from underneath, every wave every little fish or frog that breaks the surface of the pond will be an intrusion into our lives. But from underneath, from the vantage point of the old turtle, its all part of the normal activity of pond, which is our life.
What does it mean to experience depth in our lives or our practice. I was just reading Isaiah Berlin (in The Roots of Romanticism) discuss what we mean when we say¬ one writer is deeper than another. Why do we say Emily Dickinson or Whitman, or Melville is deep as opposed to say, Trollope (who is nonetheless a very fine writer). Berlin suggests that a deep writer is inexhaustible. That is, no matter how often we re-read him/her we never get to the end of what they have to say to us, they resist being summarized, or encompassed by any single description of what theyre up to. And this is a quality we what our lives to have as well, isnt it? When were bored, or stuck in some rut in our lives, we feel who we are is all too easily summarized. Some core belief we have about ourselves or about life has reduced our lives to a bad soap opera, with a trite predictable plot that we seem doomed to repeat through endless sessions of re-runs.
Thas what were trying to break out of with this practice of ours. And thats what stillness and silence eventually bring into our lives. An experience of the depth of life, a life that no longer confined to a surface of frantic, driven, repetitive thought.