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Aesop's fable of The Sun and the North Wind. To practice harder or practice softer? Barry Magid July 14th 2012

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Aesop tells the fable of the battle between the north wind and the sun, seeing which was stronger. The north wind, pointing to a man walking through the countryside wearing a coat, said to the sun, I bet I’m so strong I can blow that coat right off him. The north wind blew and blew, and the stronger it blew, the more tightly the man clung to his coat. The sun said, Now you’ve had your chance, now it’s my turn. The sun shone down on the man, quietly, gently, and warmed him up. Pretty soon the man began to feel a little too warm and he took his coat off without a struggle.

If we take that fable as a parable for our practice, we have to admit that traditionally Zen has been a north wind kind of practice. The traditional style of practice has been to push hard, push people to extremes. Metaphors of battle, killing the ego, predominate throughout hundreds and hundreds of years of Zen history. The picture is of a battle to overcome, to overwhelm, to destroy the ego, our self-centeredness. Too often we’ve practiced as if the only way to accomplish that is to push ourselves to such extremes that we could no longer hold on.

There is a certain truth in that approach. Extremes of practice, like extreme hardships in life, can lead to genuine surrender where we simply stop trying to control, stop trying to understand, stop trying in any way to hold onto our usual way of thinking and being. We just let go. That can happen in a rigorous practice and that can happen in the face of life’s hardships. But like the man in the Aesop fable, it can also have the opposite result. Sometimes it just makes us cling all the more tightly to our solutions and our defenses. We become stronger, more masterful in our defenses, tougher in them.

Sometimes we have a different kind of outcome in which we’re just broken, in which we don’t surrender but we give up and submit, and this is a state that leaves us hopeless and depressed rather than free and joyful. Unfortunately submission and surrender are also too often confused in this practice. I think it’s one of the ways Zen is being transformed in America. We’re trying to think about what it would mean to practice more like the sun than the north wind. What would it mean to try to practice in a spirit of warmth rather than coldness? What would it mean to think that our old habits and self-centeredness that we cling to so tightly would go away if we relax them rather than if we fight them?

If we take psychotherapy as a model, we know that we need a condition of safety and trust and empathy in order to let our guard down, in order to let ourselves feel vulnerable instead of defensive. Can we do that in our Zen practice as well? See, the metaphor applies not only to how life or a traditional practice treats you, but also how you treat yourself, how you approach your practice, whether you feel like you’re fighting with yourself on the cushion or whether you sit in a state of acceptance, a state in which you show some warmth and kindness to the parts of yourself that you may have come here to try to take off, to get rid of. Are they going to go away because you fight with them or because you gently accept them because you no longer need to hold on so tightly?

We can be our own north wind, our own sun. We have to be careful about our own approach to ourselves, our own approach to our practice and to each other. In the old days we were always exhorted to practice harder. Perhaps it’s time to learn to practice softer.

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