I want to talk about the sense in which Zen is a results-oriented practice. For a moment I want to put aside all the talk about letting go of goals, accepting things as they are, and recognizing how you have everything you need right at this moment. All of these things also apply to Zen, but they do not obstruct the fact that we practice in order to effect change in ourselves, and when it comes to effecting change Zen is very practical, down-to earth and systematic.
Zen, and Buddhism in general, has many tools for effecting change in ourselves. It is useful to become familiar with them – meditation techniques, chanting practices, moral guidelines, ceremonies, study, interactions with teachers and other practitioners, work practice, mindfulness techniques, the list goes on. Read about them, ask for clarifications or recommendations from other practitioners or teachers, and try them out.
Now here’s the part I like: try out these recommended tools for effecting change and, based on the results, 1) keep using the tool; 2) put the tool away, perhaps to be picked up again later, perhaps not; and/or 3) innovate and improvise! The point is the result, not the tool itself. The tools, techniques and methods you can use to further your spiritual development and understanding are limited only by your imagination.
Here’s an example: someone wants greater freedom of mind. She wants to have some space and choice around the thoughts and feelings that arise in her, so she doesn’t feel so pushed and pulled around by her own reactions and habits. She learns that meditation is supposed to help one achieve this result, and it is recommended that you sit 30 minutes a day and follow your breath. When she tries this, however, she finds it very difficult because following her breath provokes a mild anxiety attack (or strange physical sensations, or extreme agitation, or something else equally challenging). The experience is so aversive it makes her not want to sit at all. What should she do?
When we are faced with situations like this, it helps to talk to a teacher or senior who might have encountered similar issues in the past and have some suggestions. What many of these teachers and seniors are going to recommend is that you “change it up” a bit and see what results you get. Perhaps the person above will be better able to sit if she attends to sounds or repeats a certain phrase in her mind, instead of following her breath. Perhaps it will help if she doesn’t set up an expectation of sitting for a set amount of time, but allows herself to get up when she needs to, with the aim of gradually increasing the amount of time she can sit. Perhaps she should sit in the living room in an arm chair instead of on a meditation cushion. Perhaps she should sit in the evening instead of the morning, or do walking meditation, or hold a mala while sitting.
The freedom to innovate or improvise – at least while practicing on one’s own1 – may not seem obvious to newcomers to Zen. Our texts and teachings, and the practices we do when we are together, can instead suggest that there is a “correct” way to do things, and if you stray from that correct way you either don’t belong or are in danger of… who knows what. There is indeed a time to devote yourself diligently to a practice or teaching that does not immediately open up for you, or is extremely difficult. Sometime you just have to keep beating your head against the wall until something gives. But that isn’t all the time. Sometimes you can engage your creativity, and knowledge of your own energies and tendencies, and go ahead and employ the kitchen sink or anything else that works.
The important thing is to keep checking, honestly, on the results. If our example-person tries sitting in the living room in an armchair and avoids the anxiety but then just falls asleep, this is probably not the result she was looking for. If I want my internal experience of meditation to feel like less of a struggle so I decide not to strive to let go of thoughts but instead gently encourage myself to relax, what is the result? Do I just start planning my next grocery list, or is there a moment of spaciousness and real presence?
Over time, we figure out how to be our own teachers. We get to know ourselves intimately, and subsequently also know good ways to challenge, encourage and take care of ourselves. Again, at least in the context of this particular discussion, the point is the result, not the tool itself.
1. Practicing on one's own, that is, outside of a group setting. When we come together to practice we have to follow some kind of common form in order to encourage and support - as opposed to distract – one another. For example, we all sit silently for a certain amount of time, and then do walking meditation for a certain amount of time. Fortunately, most people find it fairly easy to engage in these common practices when they are with others, even if they find them difficult when practicing alone. Of course, you can do whatever you want in your own mind, even in a group setting.