ZEN TIME

I bought my car last Friday, and as I parted from my very helpful salesman we wished each other a good weekend.

“We’ll have beautiful weather,” my new friend said. “My brother has a boat, we’re going to take it out in Barton’s Cove, and then—it’s Zen time.”

He had no idea I was a Zen practitioner, and as I drove off in my 2015 purple Honda Fit (“I’m glad someone aside from me is fit,” grumbled Aussie, who doesn’t like the car), I again, for the hundredth? thousandth? time, thought of how my beloved Zen practice is popularly associated with total chillin’, hanging loose, even sunbathing or taking a snooze under the summer sun.

How do I look at this practice? My awareness is broader and more outward focused (I used to vegetate in my head for lifetimes); an eye for small things, ability to focus, pause, stand still, a return to the breath, looking straight into someone’s eyes in the most casual of circumstances rather than from the margins (a little ironic given that zendo decorum has you often looking down, not up)—I could make a big, big list.

That’s not what my friend meant. Zen time was down time. Zen time was letting the mind go dead. You might say: And that’s bad for someone with a full-time job and five kids at home? But for me, the practice means tranquility, not self-tranquilizing. It means being at home in all terrain, not blocking things out.

We may need to do those things to relax, to take care of self. But I don’t call it Zen time.

Our culture is so tough on us. The drive to grow up and be independent, not need anybody, make money, live far from family, make it on our own terms—it’s merciless, grinding, wearying, and ultra-American. This species that survived in family and tribal units, often emphasizing the good of the group over the individual, has broken down in this country into multitudes of successful, isolated persons suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, often feeling that asking for help and company is a sign of weakness.

Challenging new philosophies came from the East: body awareness and yoga, silence, mindfulness, meditation, the centrality of breath, the unity of body and mind. These are very active practices, not shut-off mechanisms. For me, they result in more attunement to the world, deeper listening and looking, greater balance and clarity and way less fear, with clearer engagement in the world.

They’re not techniques one adds to an inventory of techniques, not one of many apps to make you even more independent and self-reliant than before (as long as you have your smartphone with you), so that after a weekend of shutting things off you can get up on Monday morning and take on the world once again.

Zen is not off-time, it’s always on time because it questions the very notion of time. It captures the interplay of life. It pushes us to question our use of nouns and names, as if we’re surrounded by things that, like us, are solid, independent, and separate. Each inhale and exhale remind me that every noun, every name, every idea is actually a verb, changing, transitioning, and merging with other nouns, names, and things, the change undermining and redefining their very thingness.

I intuited very early on that Zen was about relationship. We’re in relationship whether we’re conscious or not, but we’ll do a damn better job of it if we could be conscious and see the effects and ripples of the simplest actions. “The original way of being human,” as Tiokasin Ghosthorse has put it.

Zen has taught me all this, even taking its long, meandering time because, after all, it came from Japan, which has its own fascinating, unforgiving culture. It went by way of an all-press drive to awaken, sit through tough retreats, ignore the pain in our knees, ignore everything in the way of enlightenment, disappear! I understand this trajectory more and more, and how that has changed and adapted over the years.

I’m eternally grateful to my teacher, who constantly reminded us to question the assumptions we make about Zen Buddhism and practice, about how conditioned everything is by other things. In the conference I attended in May, someone told me that he once asked Bernie about tradition, and Bernie replied that tradition is what happened 5 minutes ago.

Zen is not just about sitting on that cushion, alone, all one, however you call it. It’s all relationship, full engagement with everything—including with a sailboat, water and sun—because you are everything.

There will always be practitioners who’re at the opposite end of my car salesman friend, for whom Zen time will mean just sitting, doing retreats, and working on koans. Nothing wrong with that, only I think

it’s somewhat elitist because not everyone can afford the time and support to do that. For me, Zen time is for everyone, workdays and weekends, in sun and under clouds, on sailboats or refugee boats, and everything in between.

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