It’s been kind of a busy day off work for me, in that unspectacular way some of your days off may go. In between mowing the lawn, disinfecting the cat litter box, taking an embarrassingly large pile of old running and hiking shoes to Goodwill and several other minor chores, I managed to work in a 25-minute sit. It was an afternoon sit, and I was a bit scattered from all of my random activity. I always notice that after settling into an afternoon sit for a few minutes, I can actually feel the busyness of the world outside as a physical presence, a sort of low-grade hum that I could almost reach out and touch — the hurry-scurry of people and animals trying to get things done, even in triple-digit heat.
“Working in a sit” might sound a bit too utilitarian for what is often construed as a spiritual activity. And yet, that’s what sitting usually is for me: something on the To Do List I need to get done every day, whether I have two hours or 10 minutes. I don’t expect the heavens to open and choirs to raise their voices in song while I sit (although if that happened just once it would be pretty cool). My Zen practice is just that: a practice, like taking a multivitamin, moving through the morning yoga routine, or heading out the door for your (and my) morning run. Nothing special. I’ve sort of given up looking for heavenly choirs at this point. Although I leave a welcome mat out, just in case.
And yet, I think we want these things to be special. It’s Zen! It’s an exotic Eastern spiritual practice! We want that enlightenment experience where the world and all this assorted stuff we’re struggling with suddenly become perfectly clear. And when others ask about our religion, we might privately enjoy saying “Zen Buddhist” — we think it’s not the usual thing, that it labels us as serious seekers on a less travelled path, special people (or maybe for some as weirdos, which some of us also enjoy being tagged as). Labeling ourselves as Zen practitioners might make us feel smarter, more interesting, a sort of intellectual fashion statement.
We want our running to be special, too. When we tell people we’re marathoners or ultra-marathoners, we might privately enjoy the respectful comments we get back, the “That’s amazing, I could never do that” responses. It’s another interesting way to tag ourselves, to differentiate our personal brand. And if you can combine running and Zen, well, how cool is that?
Often running and meditation are just work, sweat, and routine, but we don’t want to see them that way. And when we feel unsettled in our meditation, when a run doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, we can feel like frauds, like we’ve failed somehow. We haven’t, no more so than if we accidentally dump the fresh cat litter on the floor or miss a strip of grass while mowing. It’s just life, and we’re just a little tired or making mistakes like we always do. “Mistakes are part of the ritual,” a Zen master replied when someone said they were worried about screwing up during a tea ceremony. So what if you spill the tea, if you don’t hit your goal time on your last interval, if you sneeze during a sit? You’re just what the ancient Zen dudes in Japan called a “skin bag,” and a sweating, fumbling, sneezing skin bag is going to do things less than perfectly.
Or, as the biggest ancient Zen dude of them all, Eihei Dogen, said in the Training Break posted just below: “To practice wholeheartedly is the true endeavor of the way. Practice-realization is not defiled with specialness; it is a matter for every day.” I love that phrase “not defiled with specialness.” Just putting your full self into everything you do is consecration enough. Or, to make one of those irritating little Zen paradoxes: when we don’t treat running or meditation as special, they become more special.