I used to think the best part of sitting was the bell indicating it was over.
Only a few minutes into my first zazen in a zen center, my body was screaming: Move! Get up! Walk out! When I ventured to take a peek at the others, I was amazed that the motionless mountains showed no indication that they heard my cacophony.
And even through my pain and numbness and longing for the bell, I realized the mountains were there for me and my inflexibly stiff middle-aged body trying to do something it likely was never meant to do. My sitting mates were holding still for me so that I might continue with my silent screams.
I have tried:
—sitting on a zafu or two, with extra support under each knee. Right hip cries in pain. Foot goes numb. Where’s the bell?
—kneeling with a seiza bench. I have two and they are beautiful in their wooden splendor. They are too short, even the taller ones. Can’t get the right angle for my knees.
—kneeling with three stacked zafus. This was it, I thought. Sitting through zazen after zazen during sesshin and no pain. Then one day I heard a muted crack as I sat on my tri-stack, later learning I had fractured my tibia bone near the knee.
—The humility of the chair. Wait…there is no humility in zen. Even though you are the oddball in the room. But the chair presents a new problem: ankles that swell into tree trunks after multiple zazen periods of a sesshin. One roshi ordered me to raise my feet on a stack of cushions. (Is that kosher in a zen center—ottomans supplied? Oh how I wish.)
There will be no nirvanic ending here. My struggle continues and I long for the day when I’ll be able to enter the zendo, take the nearest zafu and sit. Simply sit.
If that day never comes, is sitting worth the effort?
Well, people say that I’ve changed. A new friend who didn’t know me before zen actually thinks I’m centered. Shunryu Suzuki said the purpose of practice is to be yourself. That, I think, I am more and more. Don’t know where it’s coming from.
To be sure, I’m still short of samadhi. But there are times—whole groups of minutes now—when I become one with an emptiness I cannot describe. And when the bell rings now I’m often startled.
I still peek out at least once during every sit to feel the presence of the motionless mountains. To draw from their stillness as they help me keep mine. Do I, in my awkward silence, help them keep theirs?
About Lynne Flocke