Your heart is in your hand

December 11th, 2007

“I need instruction. How, HOW do I realize that I am enough?” -– Lisa

I am honoring Lisa’s plea from yesterday in this post. Here, I’m going to speak as directly as I can about what true practice is. Then tomorrow I will tell you how to find a practice center. Because, for all of us, time is wasting.

There’s a lot of bullshit talk about practice. There’s a lot of talk about spirituality, wholeness, wellness, self-improvement, happiness and all that rot. I say rot because talking and reading about it is crap. It misses the point entirely. The point of everything I write is the same point of everything I do: to bring my practice to life, not just to tell you about it. Zen makes it clear that doing makes all the difference.

I saw a friend and reader over Thanksgiving who had some advice for the next book. She said, “Include more about meditation, because I can’t really do it.” I said: Exactly! Even though I encourage you to meditate at home, even though I encourage myself to meditate at home, I can’t really sustain my effort by myself, and I’ve been practicing for 15 years! My teacher recalls something said by Maezumi Roshi after he’d been practicing most of his life – more than 40 years at least – while recognized as one of the foremost Zen masters in the world. He said, “I think I’m finally starting to do it.”

The “it” I’m referring to is zazen, or Zen meditation. I’m not going to recite how to do it in this post. You can follow the instructions here, and do your best. Or you can read this book, a classic, featuring the instructions of my dharma great-grandfather. Or better yet, you can find a place that will welcome and support you and a teacher who will guide you.

There are many answers to spiritual questions and many traditions that ensue, but I will only tell you what I know from personal experience: Zazen will do what Lisa asks. It will show you that you are enough. It will show you that, in fact, you are the only thing. You are the whole world, the earth, heaven and stars. Even when you aren’t yet able to see the truth completely, zazen will totally transform your life. It worked for Buddha. It’s what the Buddha taught, and how the Buddha lived.

Now here are some responses to the questions that I imagine you might have.

What makes Zen meditation different than other kinds of meditation? It is not visualizing. It is not ruminating. It is not contemplation. It is not wishful thinking. It is not a relaxation technique. Those are all OK; they just won’t transform your life. Zazen is not done with your eyes closed. It is the discipline of stilling your body and watching with precise attentiveness – and your eyes open – to how your habitual worries, fears and anxieties rampage and ruin your life. And when you finally notice that, it helps you to kick those gangsters out of the house.

What is it supposed to be like? Here are two warning signs to watch for with meditation. (1) Beware if you like meditation, because you’re probably not really doing it. Sorry. At least for the first 39 years (joke), meditation is difficult. Your mind and your body will revolt against it. It is a discipline. It is a crisis intervention. You are withdrawing from your lifetime addiction to your self-involved, ego-driven thoughts. Hear this: you are not destroying your ego; you are not going brain dead; you are putting your overblown head on a diet. (2) Beware if you don’t like meditation, because no one does at first, and if you think you’re the only one who doesn’t enjoy it you will stop right there. This practice works when you keep doing it in spite of your preferences. This practice IS going beyond preferences, your picking-and-choosing mind. When you keep it up, practice deepens. It grows. It takes time to recognize and relax into peace of mind instead of darting madly for the exit. Misery, you see, is an addiction too.

How do I prepare myself? There is no way and no need to prepare yourself. You simply begin. Telling yourself you have to prepare before you begin a meditation practice is just setting up false expectations of how it is supposed to be. The best preparation is the state of mind expressed in Lisa’s question: heartfelt insistence, urgency and the raw vulnerability of having nothing left to lose. That’s where I started too.

Tomorrow I will tell you where and when to find people who can help you. And because that’s not soon enough, you have in your hands the means to find it yourself. Start right now. Do it all wrong, because there is no wrong. Do not waste another minute waiting for the right way or the right day or the right place or the right anything.

I wish I could say more, but I cannot say enough. Please see it for yourself.

And if you’re not interested in meditation practice, forget all this, but be sure to visit Lisa anyway and practice kindness. It’s the same thing and in equally short supply.


  1. Karen — I don’t think I’ve ever been so touched. I keep thinking this sadness is something that is going to stay with me forever, no matter how many people suggest that it will pass.

    “the raw vulnerability of having nothing left to lose.” — That just stopped me in my tracks. I had never thought of it that way. I wake up each morning and that blessed few seconds before I remember how low I’ve sunk is such a blessing — I wish I had a way to capture that and make it last longer into the day/week/life. My son is suffering because I am suffering — Moms aren’t supposed to cry in front of their children this much. I need to get through this for him.

    Thank you, for the guidance, for the time, and for your kindness. For a little bit of this day, I will have felt the kindness I am so sorely missing.

    Comment by Lisa — December 11, 2007 @ 4:04 pm

  2. Nothing to say except thank you!

    Comment by Shannon — December 11, 2007 @ 4:32 pm

  3. thanks maezen. i stink at meditation, i really do. and this is very helpful.

    now i’m off to visit this lisa…


    Comment by Wendy — December 11, 2007 @ 7:53 pm

  4. Thank you for your response to Lisa’s plea. I have been talking about meditating for years it seems, chasing my tail like the cat, chasing books and wisdom like yours – even sharing it! Then I chastise myself, so counter to this way, for not taking my own advice, for not “practicing.” I try to allow that maybe my way of simply beginning, of practicing, of noticing, doesn’t have to take the form of sitting. Then I think, well that’s a crock. Then I realize this is all monkey mind, and I notice that. Then I simply begin again. Your words feel so generous and loving. Thank you.

    Comment by Jena Strong — December 11, 2007 @ 8:24 pm

  5. I’m running out of excuses. Thanks for the instruction, and for the inscription.

    Comment by RocketMom — December 11, 2007 @ 10:24 pm

  6. Yes, thank you. Maybe finding a center is an answer, sometimes belonging to something or going somewhere helps, rather than trying to be disciplined at home? Looking forward to tomorrow…

    Comment by Mika — December 12, 2007 @ 12:39 am

  7. Blogger is doing some odd thing.

    Yes. Therein lies the crux of the matter. I know it doesn’t matter what I say to it–excuses, reasoning–it is just jaws flapping in the breeze. But with two little people I haven’t been able to find a center to sit.

    When I was single and living in Chicago I could pick and choose, find the right place, the positive “vibe” of place and people since it was just me … Nowadays I get a few per year to go out to get a haircut. That is about it. Otherwise the kids are with me. But I know it won’t always be that way! So for now I guess I take what I can meditating at home after everyone goes to bed or before they wake. Reading books. Reading blogs. 🙂

    Blah blah blah. Perhaps I’m just wasting all my minutes.

    Comment by denise — December 12, 2007 @ 1:46 am

  8. Blogger ate part of my post again. Oh well.

    Comment by denise — December 12, 2007 @ 1:47 am

  9. Your passion came alive in these words.
    I’m not sure how to say it except that they were living words.

    Comment by bella — December 12, 2007 @ 6:16 am

  10. Misery is an addiction. So true. Got the lifepath to prove it. I hope there are centers in Saint Louis.

    But looking at it as an addiction, which frequently has a medical aspect to it, makes me also add the thought that seeing a doctor to rule out and treat depression might also be helpful. Not instead of but along with practice. I mention that because a lot of your readers are young mothers and post-partum depression is an illness. Or am I thinking in a rut?

    Will visit Lisa soon.

    Comment by Moanna — December 12, 2007 @ 1:54 pm

  11. p.s. I also mention that because I’ve been thinking about getting counseling to help me figure out my next steps. Not sure if practice eliminates that need. See, I can’t figure out if practice is a religion, an alternative medical practice, or in a category by itself. Ok, does it matter? 🙂

    Comment by Moanna — December 12, 2007 @ 2:01 pm

  12. Moanna,
    The thought of depression does not escape me because it does not escape any of us. Buddha said it: “Life is suffering.” Some of us suffer longer than others and for all kinds of reasons. Our culture has medicalized it. I can only offer that after I started my practice, I went in to my therapist and said good bye. He was happy to see me go; he was happy that I had found myself.

    That being said, many of my fellow priests and practitioners are in the healing arts themselves: therapists, doctors, nurses. When you take ultimate responsibility for your life, use everything available to you. Just don’t deceive yourself.

    And as for what Zen is: it matches your aspiration. It can be a wellness practice, a mental training, or the path to enlightenment. Your effort determines your outcome, but every little bit helps.

    Comment by Karen — December 12, 2007 @ 2:33 pm

  13. I hear what you’re saying. Thanks for answering so completely.

    Comment by Moanna — December 13, 2007 @ 2:14 am

  14. I read Lisa’s blog, and am so glad you were willing to reach out to her, which in turn helped so many others.

    I never understood when it was time to settle down for “relaxation” after Yoga why I was the most resistant to that … now I get it. It’s THAT hard for me to relax.

    Wise words here.

    Comment by Shawn — December 13, 2007 @ 6:09 pm

  15. I’d like to respond to Moanna’s question too. I’m someone who received psychotherapy (starting in with high school psychologist & not telling my parents) for a total of probably 12 years (not all consecutively). I became a therapist in part because I want to help others heal emotionally and mentally. I also, in 1998, began taking medication for depression and found that it changed my life more radically and quickly than anything else I’d previously done. It supplemented the therapy I’d done.

    I have attempted to stop medication (carefully and with supervision) twice with poor results. So I do think there can be a physical root to depression. I do not currently go to therapy. I did go with my husband in 2006 for a few sessions to work out some communication issues regarding starting a family.

    In my experience, therapy, medication, exercise (especially yoga), and meditation (zazen, Vipassana) are all valid and complementary practices.

    As Karen says, use everything available to you.

    Comment by Kathryn — December 15, 2007 @ 2:19 pm

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