This morning I dragged myself to our local Zen center for the Sunday dharma talk.
I was going to say something pleasant, like “I found myself at” or I “stopped by,” but the truth is, I was mentally kicking and screaming. I adore the Zen center, and I’ve been attending evening classes off and on there for months, but I’ve never had the courage to go during the daytime to the formal practices. I have some pretty intense anxiety about being in new places, and that’s multiplied times about 1000 if there are also rules I might not know. And Zen, bless it, has a rule for pretty much everything.
So, the thing that seemed like a great idea in a fit of insomnia was, basically, terrifying in practice.
But I did it.
You can listen to the talk here, if you’re inclined. It was lovely.
First, the speaker reminded us that Zen is, in essence, a renunciatory practice, and the thing we are most called to renounce is whatever separates us from the present moment.
I thought about my smart phone with a little pang, but the teacher’s encouragement was, much more broadly, to renounce the “tyranny of the subjunctive.” Let go of “if I could,” and “if I were” and “I should” and “if I had only.”
This is something in Zen teachings that has always seemed so funny to me. We have a dedicated practice, and yet there is also no “should” or “if.” There is no “I should be meditating.” There is only “I am meditating” or “I am not meditating.” (Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen to the effect of “you will meditate when it seems like the only thing to be done.”)
When something is what we “should” be doing, truly, there is no longer a “should.” We just do it. There isn’t a reason to think about doing it; we go do it. In the middle of the night I stopped thinking “I should go to the Sunday dharma talk” and set my alarm clock to really go. When the clock rang, I went, and when I broke out in a cold sweat on the sidewalk, I kept walking in. It was time.
But what about the other side? Would I have ever gone to the talk, if I hadn’t spent all those weeks thinking that I “should” go? (Note that “would I have” is also a subjunctive. This is tricky.)
The thing I can say with certainty is that “should” does us a lot of psychological violence, and some of those consequences are the very opposite of what we want for ourselves. We are a rebellious species, and nagging, even our own internal version, will often stop us in our tracks. How many dieters wind up eating ice cream straight out of the carton, after weeks of “I shouldn’t eat that”? How many would-be-runners tell themselves they “should” be going on a run, until they never want to think about it again?
It also, to return to the talk’s point, forces us to live outside of the present. We eat ourselves alive over the past (if only I had…) or poison our present by imagining it to be different than it is (I should be…)
Try letting go of the burden of the progress you aren’t making, toward goals that are obviously not important to you. Instead of thinking about all of the things you could be doing, think about the thing you are doing.