The Physical Zendo is closed Monday, July 15th and Tuesday July 16th

Right Effort: Simply being ourselves Barry Magid January 5th 2008

I would like to start this New Year by making a commitment to you to offer more opportunities for practice at the Zendo, increasing the number of sittings each week and the number of intensives each year. But the success of this new schedule naturally will depend on everyone's willingness to make a greater commitment to practice. So I want to talk about the nature of the effort that we're making here.

One of the basic maxims of Zen practice is "Don't try to put somebody else's head on top of your own." Don't think practice is going to turn you into somebody else. But the fact is, nobody would come to a place like this, or to therapy, is they were satisfied with the head they already had. We all start from a place of discontent with the way things are. And the hard work, the real effort of practice, is always a matter of learning to stay with our experience, not trying to change it or disavow it. If we're angry or anxious or depressed, that's what we have to practice with and explore. I may wish that the head I've got was filled with different thoughts or feelings, but there can be no real practice until I'm willing to acknowledge for better or worse, that this is my head. Our own experience in sitting is the only thing we have to work with, and our only standard. Another saying reminds us that if we already have our own yardstick, it's useless to go looking for another yardstick to measure it against. A yardstick is its own measure and nothing can make it more or less than the yard it started out being. We run around doubting that our yardstick is real, trying to compare it to everybody else's, but in the end, nothing can be more real, more of a standard, that our own life.

So this first way of looking things is one that says be yourself; the real change is to stop the headlong pursuit of change or self improvement. Just sit and right now see who and what you are.

But we have to balance this with another perspective, one we might call developmental or Aristotelian, and which is nicely exemplified by the US Army commercial that says, "Be all that you can be." Aristotle defined becoming fully human as our basic goal in life, and that the full flourishing of our humanity, (which was called eudaemonia) was a result of developing our character around the classically defined virtues (of courage, justice, moderation and the like), for only a life devoted to the exercise of those virtues or capacities made us all that we could be. One way we differ from Aristotle's account is that we no longer hold that there is a single, unified set of virtues. There are many ways to lead a good life and there is no external yardstick to determine whether the life of a musician or a theoretical physicist is the more "fully" developed. The Army certainly does its job of developing one set of virtues, but if your talents lie, say, in the ballet, you probably would do better trying to develop them elsewhere.

So this second way of looking at things says we're all a long way from realizing our potential and that only through long hours of disciplined practice can we even begin to know what "fully" human or "expertise" looks like. The trick is merging these two perspectives. How? In a wholehearted effort that isnt based on becoming someone else or any "shoulds" or "should nots," but wholeheartedly being/becoming ourselves. And "being" here isnt a passive or static state, but encompasses all the modes functioning as a human being takes in our lives. A bird being a bird flies, a fish being a fish swims, a person being a person does what? Well, a lot of things. Dogen would say that our quintessentially human activity is sitting itself. In a way, we might say we learn to do everything in our life with the attention and presence we find in sitting, and gradually all of our life is "sitting." And that can then take a thousand different shapes.

The main point today is that we need to learn to distinguish a neurotic kind of effort that is basically about wanting to be somebody else and about disavowing painful aspects of oneself and of life, from the effort we need to make to simply be ourselves. Not an easy distinction to make sometimes, and the two can be blurred together for a long time. A big part of my job is to help you tease these two kinds of effort apart, so you can clearly see how they operate differently in your life. Then we can support one another in making the right kind of effort together in the Zendo.

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.