Aspire to who and what you already are Barry Magid March 20th 2009

Download Talk

Sometimes someone will say to me, I haven’t been getting to the zendo as much as I should. I know I really should sit more. And all I can say to that is, no -- not no you shouldn’t -- but no. Zazen isn’t something you should or shouldn’t do. A zendo is a place that’s not about should or shouldn’t. It’s not about doing anything with a kind of goal or end in mind at all. There’s no way to do it right and no way to do it wrong. It’s off that grid. It’s very hard to practice off that grid of should or shouldn’t. We inevitably come with those kinds of gaining ideas. Part of what happens here is that we try to make them explicit and then see what it would be like to keep sitting without them.

I had dinner the other night with a friend who was telling me all about his exercise program -- how much he runs every week and what kind of exercises he does, and how his pulse rate has gone down and his weight has gone down and so forth. He’s very proud of it. He should be. He’s put in a lot of time and effort and he’s gotten a very clear result. But it’s very important to realize that zazen is nothing like that. Zazen is more like that guy doing that whole routine and getting sicker from it, gaining weight or getting bad knees, and having no effect on his blood pressure and doing it anyway. Doing it not even if it wasn’t doing any good but even if he had to pay a price to do it.

Traditionally it was hard to do this practice. People would have to travel a long way, go live and practice under very tough conditions. This practice was like that. Not -- if I put up with all that crap I’ll get a really good report in the end. No, that’s what practice was and that’s what you did. Part of what we mean by saying this is a religious practice is to say that it has no goal outside of itself. It’s not instrumental, it’s not a means to any end at all.

See, there is something in practice that we can refer to as aspiration, but it’s really very difficult to be clear about what that means. Almost always when we start practice, for a very long time we confuse aspiration with some gaining idea of what we’re going to become through our practice. Aspiration is not so much about having some goal on the horizon that we’re always pursuing. Aspiration, I think, means much more about really recognizing where we already are and having the experience of its rightness, that we’re already home, that we’re already who and what we aspire to. And in feeling that, or recognizing it, we’re just oriented in a different way towards our own life, in a way that we say that practice becomes effortless, because it’s not outside of ourselves, it’s not something we’re trying to do, it’s something we’re being.

I think that practice more and more is a matter of being something rather than becoming something. We have to start with realizing that what we are is a big mass of becoming ideas about feeling who and what we are is somehow wrong. We have to just stay first and occupy that experience -- what we imagine is wrong with ourselves or our lives -- not change it, not fix it, but just look at it clearly, feel it fully.

Part of the experience of sitting still in the zendo, even when that’s uncomfortable, is just staying with the whole range of experience. It’s just like this. It’s not designed to be comfortable, it’s not designed to make you calm. It’s simply what it is. Sometimes difficult. Sometimes tedious. Sometimes delightful. Really, we have no reason at all to practice. So why do we do it?

If you found this talk helpful, consider donating to Ordinary Mind

This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.