At every retreat I offer what we Zen nerds call “dokusan.” It’s a private meeting between teacher and student — or between retreat attendee and dumb ol’ me, as the case may be.
During these dokusans I hear all kinds of stories, ranging from tales of the lovelorn to heartbreaking revelations of recent deaths of loved-ones and terminal diseases newly diagnosed.
In every case, there’s only one answer, and that answer is “sit with it.”
I always struggle with how to say this. If I say “sit with it” in the wrong way, it comes off as flippant. It sounds like I’m blowing off someone’s real troubles with a trite non-answer. It’s even worse if the person mishears me and thinks I’m trying to be the Fonz and saying, “Sit on it.”
But decades ago, when I first started doing zazen, Tim McCarthy told me, “Whatever problem you have, the best thing to do is to sit with it.” And by “sit” he meant “do zazen.”
At the time, that sounded like terrible advice. There must be better things to do about problems than sitting with them. But time and time again over the past thirty-some years since I first heard that advice it has proven to be correct.
I mean, sure, if your arm gets broken you’re going to be better off having it reset and a cast put on first, before you sit with it. Obviously you want to do sensible things like that in relation to your problems. But once you’ve done all the reasonable things, there’s not a whole lot more you can do.
Most of us don’t get that, though. We ruminate and try to figure out our problems by mulling them over in our heads, as if there’s a solution inside our skulls that we can find if we think enough thoughts about the problem. Or we drink or do drugs to forget them, as if that ever really worked for anyone.
We’ll do all kinds of stuff just to avoid silently accepting and acknowledging the thing that’s wrong.
This doesn’t mean not doing anything about a problem. It means realizing that there is a limit to how much you can do, and that once that limit has been reached the best thing to do is sit.
Silently sitting with bad stuff has helped me be able to see more clearly what was actually going on, rather than trying to mentally reframe it in endlessly different ways. The real problem is often not the problem I think it is. The real nature of a problem is often staring me in the face while I’m ignoring it in favor of my thoughts about the problem.
The thing is, most of time I’m far too dumb to figure out what’s actually wrong. I just need to stop wasting my energy trying to think my way to a solution or trying to avoid the problem as it really exists.
Anyway, happy Fourth of July! Come see me speak in London today if you’re around (info below).
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IT CAME FROM BEYOND ZEN and SEX SIN AND ZEN are now available as audiobooks from Audible.com! You can also get Don’t Be a Jerk, Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You in audio form — all read by me, Brad Warner!
July 4, 2019 TALK in London, England
October 5-6, 2019 RETREAT in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
October 12, 2019 11:00 am LIVE Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen Podcast Highland Square Library, Akron, Ohio
October 11, 2019 ZERO DEFEX at Jilly’s Music Room, Akron, Ohio with The Tufted Puffins and The Psyclones
November 8-10, 2019 ZEN & YOGA RETREAT Mt. Baldy, California
ALL THESE EVENTS TAKE PLACE WHETHER I’M THERE OR NOT.
Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 2526 Kent Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
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