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Step One – Commit to Stillness, Don’t React

When we decide to study our life, when we are determined to face the truth no matter how difficult, it is very useful to cultivate a determination to sit still through it all and to not react too quickly to anything we learn. We want to build a strong base for our practice – a strong, stable, established routine of healthy, rational, moral behavior we can rely on when our life gets turned upside down. Ideally it will become second-nature for us to regularly sit zazen, spend time with Sangha, check in with a teacher, follow the precepts, and respond thoughtfully – usually after taking some time to reflect – rather than react.

As long as we are reactive, our agendas will obscure and color the truth that we can see.

For example, let’s imagine that in a moment of apparent clarity I realize that I am unhappy in my marriage and long to get out of it. Along with this realization comes many other thoughts and feelings. I may feel a desperate imperative to make a change because of the pain, but I may also be filled with dread about all of the repercussions that ending my marriage may cause. I may feel depressed and trapped because I don’t feel I have the option of ending the relationship. I may feel immense sadness and grief, or a determination to “fix” my marriage asap. With all of these thoughts and feelings churning around inside me, I am likely to take action to relieve my distress – by announcing to my husband that our marriage is over, by insisting that we go to counseling right now, by calling up my friends for advice, or by trying to drown my sorrows in alcohol or some other distraction.

Some reactions will have more drastic effects than others, and sometimes in trying to limit our reactivity we can at least opt for the least dramatic or irreversible ones. Unfortunately, whatever reactive behaviors we engage in are likely to stir up the waters of our body-mind and compromise the clarity that allowed us to attain the initial insight that set the whole chain reaction off. If I start reacting in the scenario described above I will be too involved in creating a storyline, having arguments, dealing with the reactions of others or avoiding the pain to look more deeply into the issue at hand.

Now imagine that I have built a stable base for my practice that supports my determination to sit still through it all, and in a moment of apparent clarity I realize that I am unhappy in my marriage and long to get out of it. Thoughts and feelings still arise because of this realization, but I sit and watch them all carefully. “Just sit, don’t react!” I tell myself, and because I’ve done this dozens or hundreds of times before I am actually able to do it. Subsequently I prescribe myself the medicine of seeking refuge in Sangha, talking to a teacher, and/or taking time alone to reflect. All of these things help me remain steadfast and clear-minded. Above all I am extra careful to keep the precepts – do not indulge anger, do not speak dishonestly, do not praise self or blame others – in order to minimize the karmic mess I make, which will only confuse things further.

Having sat still through my realization and its related thoughts and feelings, it is very likely that I will gain more understanding around it. The insight will unpack and I will be able to get some perspective on it. In the example we have been using I may remember that I have felt unhappy and restless in previous relationships and it has much to do with my level of satisfaction with my own daily activities or life direction. I may recall that my husband has not been feeling well lately, and that tends to exacerbate my level of dissatisfaction with the relationship. I may realize that my own lack of communication has contributed to the state of my marriage and that it would be unkind and unskillful to suddenly let loose a torrent of complaints about it when I have been silent for years. If it becomes clear that action needs to be taken, my stillness will allow me to choose the wisest course.

Perhaps even more important than the effect of a commitment to stillness on the present, however, is its effect on the future. Each time we are able to sit still for a little while longer, we strengthen our ability to do it. When we can trust ourselves to sit still and not react too quickly no matter what we encounter, we will encounter more. We will be able to open up to insights about ourselves and our lives that at first can be very scary, overwhelming, disappointing, discouraging, confusing and even traumatic. Such insights can eventually help us heal and change. They can help us become more free and present in our lives, so the initial difficulty is worth it. We are unlikely to let ourselves see these things as long as we are sitting on the edge of our seat, nervously asking, “What if…?” Insights are much more likely to come when we firmly sit, holding the answer to the question “what if” in our body-mind: “No matter what, I will just sit here.”

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I am a Zen practitioner, teacher, priest and author. I've been practicing Zen since 1995 and did monastic training from 2001-2010, and am the author of the most recent edition of Idiot's Guides: Zen Living. I am the priest and teacher at Bright Way Zen in Portland, Oregon, and often blog on the center's website, www.brightwayzen.org.

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