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It’s 4:30 am when the sound of a bell outside awakens me. I rise, douse my face with cool water, and throw on my clothes. I have half an hour to down my coffee and head to the zendo. I’m in the midst of my first week-long sesshin, six grueling days of strict formal practice. Days are filled with zazen, kinhin, and liturgy including seemingly endless chanting and bowing. We also engage in work practice; daily assignments range from chopping vegetables to scrubbing toilets. Apart from chanting and dokusan, silence is maintained inside and out of the meditation hall. From 4:30 am to lights out at 9:30 pm, every moment is dictated. There’s no question about what to do next, where my energy is to be directed, where my thoughts are meant to go. This is all laid out for me as clear as day. As can be expected, I experience a fair amount of resistance. After all, I am an American, born and bred to value independence over all else. I do what I want, when I want, how I want. Yet here I am following orders from above. Even willingly accepting blows of the kyosaku, which they refer to lovingly as the “compassion stick.” The fatigue and pain in my knees makes me resist even more. How quickly I forget that I chose to be here. But I’m reminded there’s a reason for all of this.
A day or two into sesshin, the Sensei makes remarks about what this form of practice is. He talks about finding freedom within the form. The extreme structure is set up in a way that removes all decision making for the individual. This leaves only one thing, the unavoidable task of looking directly at one’s own mind. It is within the confines of the form that we’re jolted into seeing beyond it. Underneath all of the structure lies the heart of Zen practice . . . FREEDOM!
This dichotomy can be seen all around us. We live in society, where clear rules dictate a fair amount of our behavior. For example, when driving a car in traffic, we all stay between the lines and generally stop at red lights. Yet there is an incredible amount of freedom to be found here. We could drive quickly or slowly, screech violently to a halt or slow to an imperceptible stop. We could impatiently tailgate the car in front of us, or mindlessly mosey along, 10 mph below the limit. How we choose to drive within the laws is a demonstration of our freedom. Most would agree that road laws are necessary, but are we able to truly see and experience the freedom here?
In addition to my Zen practice, I’m an Ashtanga yogi. Of all the yoga styles, Ashtanga is known to be one of the most formal, maintained in its original format since the 1950s. If one calls her practice Ashtanga, she’s meant to practice exactly like its founder, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. No variation from the series of postures is generally accepted. The sequences are laid out, down to the number of breaths per pose. When done properly, the practice takes precisely 90 minutes to complete. The prescribed amount is 6 days per week, one day of rest. A full commitment to this practice yields incredible results. When you practice the same exact pose day after day, month after month, year after year, the transformation of that one pose is remarkable. The more you practice, the more you experience on a deep level the very subtle aspects of the pose. You begin to notice that your left knee never feels exactly the same from one day to the next. You might experience movement of energy through fingertips one day, vibration in your toes the next. Even within the same exact sequence, the changes from day to day are boundless. On the surface it might appear like a static practice. But when you’re fully present, you’re able to experience these profound subtleties every time you practice.
Interestingly, all facets of my life seem to follow this pattern. By trade, I’m a classically trained musician. I’ve been fortunate to make a living in this way. This would not have been possible without strict formal training. This began with piano lessons when I was 8. I was expected to practice every day, whether I felt like it or not. Decades later, as a percussionist in an orchestra, the same discipline is required. Only now, my mother doesn’t remind me when it’s time to practice. (But a looming performance does!) Many might see classical music as a quite restrictive form. Unlike improvisational jazz, every note is given to the musician by the composer. Most every nuance is dictated, from the volume of sound to the pitch to the technique required. Some might see this as the musician becoming merely the voice of the composer, with very little individual personality coming through. But upon deeper investigation, it becomes clear that this musician’s freedom is endless. He might give special weight to a certain note. He might change the timbre to blend with the orchestra in one passage, or to cut through the texture like a knife in another. He might produce depth of sound from his instrument, or look for brightness and clarity. The same exact musical passage performed by 5 different musicians will be interpreted in 5 different ways.
How do we experience and express this freedom in Zen? A more accurate question might be how can we not? We are always free to hate zazen, be miserable even as we continue to sit motionless for 30 minutes. I’ve never heard a teacher say it’s necessary to love it all of the time. If that were the case, I’m quite certain no one would ever sit long enough to achieve realization. We’re free to oscillate between loving and hating, focusing and fading, squirming and settling. Even within one period of meditation, we might oscillate hundreds of times! But the important thing to notice is how free this is. In the midst of anger or sadness in zazen, we often fail to see the freedom. In sesshin, I sat completely still in a room of 50 people. Hours upon hours for 6 days, I placed my body in precisely the same manner as everyone else. Yet I was free! Free to experience fully what was happening in my own body-mind. Free to be present or not. Free to fall asleep or not. Free to use a full afternoon to master the ability to fall asleep sitting up with eyes open! A proud moment, I must say. Free to master the ability to laugh wholeheartedly without making a sound or moving a muscle. All of these things make us fully alive human beings. Without choice, we would be robots. We are confined in these bodies, on this planet, yet without these bodies and this planet we could never experience freedom.
Look at the amount of energy spent each day trying to control things that can’t be controlled. Through our actions, speech, and even thought, we try to control other people, objects, and situations clearly beyond our control. Imagine taking all of that wasted energy and directing it to things we CAN control: our own bodies and minds. We can’t control what our boss says to us, but we have absolute freedom to react in a conscious way however we please. We have no control over the downpour of rain as we unload groceries. But we have absolute undeniable freedom to laugh and run with our bags into the house or to cuss, slip and break the eggs.
There is choice in every moment. This is the live dynamic Zen that our ancestors spoke of. As much alive now as it was 2500 years ago. It’s 4:30 in the morning and the bell is ringing outside. Can you wake up today and be totally free?
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