Happiness, boredom and suffering all breathe the same air Barry Magid October 25th 2008

"...what the Victorian writers who had most deeply absorbed Wordsworth found and (sometimes) cherished in him was the sense that happiness and boredom and suffering breathe the same air. All is distinct and yet all is part of the same whole."

From a review of Stephen Gill's "Wordsworth and the Victorians." by Susan Eilenberg, TLS 3 Sept 1998

Happiness, boredom and suffering all breathe the same air. All is distinct and yet all is part of the same whole. We could find words not very different from these in the sayings of our T'ang dynasty Chinese ancestors, or in a teisho by Dogen Zenji . Across hundreds and thousands of years, across cultures, something basic to our true nature comes through sounding very familiar, despite the vast historical changes. Perhaps what most distinguishes Wordsworth 's insight from that of our Zen ancestors is the kind of practice context out of which it emerged and how it was transmitted to others. Wordsworth transmitted his insight, of course, through his poetry, but that poetry dramatically effected how his contemporaries viewed and interacted with the natural world around them. No longer something just to be tamed or gardened, Nature was sublime and awe-inspiring to the extent that it exceeded our capacity to domesticate it. Wordsworth opened himself to an unstructured experience of nature, mostly through a practice of long, long walks through the English countryside. Twenty or more miles a day was routine for him, and a contemporary once estimated that he walked a total of 175,000 miles over a life time. [Dequincy, cited in A.S.Byatt, "Unruly Times," Hogarth 1970] On those walks he had an experience of the unity and equality of experience, each thing, each person he encountered, all distinct, and yet part of the same whole. And this is an experience which also emerges from the zendo.

However, as all too often it happens, that experience of wholeness itself becomes labeled an experience, distinct from our "ordinary" way of seeing things. And we think it special, and seek to have it over and over again. And by making it special, we negate the very insight it conveys. Something of the sort seems to have befallen Wordsworth in the latter half of his life. He became trapped by an image of himself and what he had created, and his real insight and poetic creativity dried up.

What we need to take away from this ,from a practice perspective, is a vigilant awareness of whatever it is we think we're trying to experience in the zendo. In part, the function of the difficulty of Zen practice is to disrupt our tendency to settle into any one kind of comfortable experience. But even difficulty becomes something for some people to master, and "mastery" then becomes an addictive drive. The day in, day out ordinariness and boredom of practice, becomes the real challenge for those who crave mastery and specialness. On the other hand, we must watch out for a tendency to make our sitting a peaceful refuge from the turmoil and anxieties of daily life. It may be fine to want to find a few moments of peace, but it's not practice. Unless we let the difficulties of our life be engaged by our sitting, our practice will stagnate.

True practice (or true poetry, for that matter) is not about having any particular experience. It is experiencing itself.

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