Our life in practice: Taking the muddy water as our natural habitat Barry Magid September 14th 2014

I hope that most of you by now have had a chance to take a look at our newly refurbished website, the home page of which features a photograph of taxicabs jostling their way, I believe, through Times Square. I don’t recall exactly where or how we found this photo, but when I saw it it immediately said to me something important about how we in Ordinary Mind think of practice in the midst of everyday life. It would have been simpler and certainly more conventional to have a photograph of the statue of the Buddha in the garden, something bucolic in the midst of the city, something that suggests the idea of a silent retreat or oasis in the midst of the hubbub of the city. That would probably be most people’s idea of what a meditation center is supposed to be for them in their lives, a little oasis or island of quiet in the midst of the noise of their everyday life.

While there’s an aspect of that that is certainly true, it’s really antithetical to what we and what Joko were attempting to do by keeping a Zen center right in the midst of everything. She always avoided the idea, resisted the idea, that the Zen center move into a quiet rural setting. She was in a suburban neighborhood, but one which abutted upon a sometimes, well, almost sleazy commercial street leading down to the beach, that had its share of tattoo parlors and meth labs, but she thought that the point of our practice was not to retreat from such things but to learn how to practice in the midst of them.

We often, in the context of our meal chants, speak of the lotus growing in the mud. And the question becomes, whether we intend to be one pure thing in a muddy, contaminated world or whether in fact we take the muddied water of our daily life as our natural habitat which feeds and is intimately connected with the whole idea of practice. The whole image of the traffic in the middle of the city is, I would say, of course two-sided because on one hand we are attempting to find our right relationship to all that we are immersed in in daily life. We try to devise a skillful means to negotiate our way through all of that. What does it mean to function compassionately, or function at least in a way that does no harm, in the midst of all that striving and competition? How do we act skillfully towards this outer world of turmoil?

But also, of course, it represents what’s going on with us all the time, and what brings us to practice, because the internal noise and traffic is usually at least as disturbing to people as the external noise and traffic. To some extent people all harbor the idea that if they can just get away from it all, find themselves in a calm and peaceful place, their inner world would calm down to mirror the outer world. And in part that’s true. We can be settled down by nature, settled down by being in a retreat center, but for most people, that only takes them so far, and more often what I hear is that when people do get away from it all, in rather short order, the quiet and calm of wherever they’re retreating to is compromised or contaminated by what they brought to that environment themselves, their own preoccupations and thoughts and judgments, and because they have no external demands in order to sort of put a cork in it, all that starts bubbling up even more than usual.

It’s very common that people on retreat feel the pressure and the pain and the conflict of their inner lives much more acutely when they don’t have the distractions of the things they think they want to escape from. I think we don’t usually appreciate the extent to which all our ordinary worries that we complain about all the time in fact serve as a kind of way of avoiding what we actually feel like when we’re alone with ourselves, which is often very judgmental, very empty, depressed, critical, questioning of who we are, what we’re doing here, what our life adds up to. These can be very difficult and painful questions which most of the time we can avoid facing because we’re caught up in the minutia of getting from here to there, paying bills, fulfilling obligations, or just being plugged in to the distractions and screens of everyday life.

So our practice is one in which we are not trying to calm anything down or to control anything beyond a certain very minimal point. If you’re driving a cab in the city, you have to have at least some basic driving skills to navigate things, and if you’re going to sit in a zendo you have to learn some basic rules of ritual, how to sit still, and what it means to go with the flow of a zendo, follow along with everyone else, follow the traffic patterns of kinhin, not going too fast or too slow, just like being in traffic in the streets.

But we can only control so much, both inside and outside, and pretty soon we come up against our own curative fantasies that practice is going to be about self control, and we find that there’s only so much of our body or mind that’s controllable. We can train our bodies up to a point but we can’t keep our knee from hurting or our leg from falling asleep if we sit for a long time, or our back hurting. All these things just happen and we have to deal with them. We can discipline our mind to concentrate, count our breath, focus on a koan, but we cannot control what bubbles up from the unconscious. We can’t control all the fantasy and transference that comes with being in a group, being with a teacher, being either with the support or the rivalry of other students, all these things will involuntarily present themselves in the mirror in the mind, and we have to be able to face that.

To the extent that we harbor an idea of calmness and of quiet, everything that happens inside and outside in our lives becomes either an obstacle or an enemy. If you drive through Manhattan and think it’s all supposed to go smoothly, you’re just going to be mad all the time. If you try to sit in a zendo and think that my mind should be like a clear blue sky, you end up fighting a losing battle with yourself all the time, you end up divided against yourself, one part hating another for never being able to get it right, for never having the kind of calmness and clarity you think you’re supposed to have, you think the person next to you has it and you don’t. You’ll be in an endless losing war with your life.

We have to find a way to accept and go with the flow of our inner life, the same way we have to go with the flow of traffic in our outer life. I think that picture is a very good one of what our life and practice needs to be, whether it’s what we have in mind when we first come to the zendo or not.

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