Sitting Without Striving

During a period of intense spiritual searching during my early 20s, I did a lot of reading about Zen Buddhism. I was intrigued by Zen koans and poetry, words meant to spark awakenings beyond reason. Looking back now, I was desperate for relief from the pressures of my daily thinking, what Buddhists call the “monkey brain” or that “unbridled horse” ridden by those who have no idea of their frantic destination. I wanted a semblance of satori, but I was unwilling to put in the work required by Zen initiates—sitting in zazen. I found it nearly impossible to quiet myself long enough. Even if I had, my motivation would have been suspect, a Western form of endeavoring. This past year, while compiling The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters (downloadable here for free), I reached out to the San Antonio Zen Center to see if someone would be willing to share their story. What follows are the words of Enrique Valdivia, an attorney at a legal aid center in San Antonio. All these years later, he confirms what I suspected about Zen practices, especially how they are essentially antithetical to striving. Enrique was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time he wrote these words.

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. My mother was Roman Catholic, but my father professed atheism. My mother had me baptized and I went to catechism and confirmation. After that, my father insisted that my siblings and I have no further exposure to the Church. I still went to Mass occasionally as an adult, and I kept a small statue of the Virgin Mary gifted to me by the nuns upon my confirmation.

After leaving home, I attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, a liberal arts school where I majored in philosophy. In the winter of 1978, my sophomore year, I took a class with professor Bardwell Smith, a well-regarded Asian religion scholar focused on Japan.

As part of his course, we did a field trip to the Minnesota Zen Center in Minneapolis. The founder, Dainin Katagiri, had first come to the U.S. from Japan to assist Rōshi Shunryu Suzuki at the San Francisco Zen Center. He then moved to Minnesota to establish his own sangha.

We arrived at the Center the night before and slept in the Zendo. Getting up well before dawn, Katagiri Roshi led us through several intervals of zazen, alternated with a walking meditation called kinhin. We then ate breakfast ōryōki style. The meal’s every detail was done with great care. I was particularly struck by the completeness of it, unwrapping and setting out the bowls and utensils, accepting and eating the food, washing everything afterwards with hot water, then drinking the wash water and wrapping everything back together just as it had been when we started.

That first zazen experience was also memorable, but the practice was far too austere to appeal to 19-year-old me. The Buddha’s way is meant to point the way out of suffering. Perhaps I had not yet suffered enough. That time came much later, in late midlife, when I was living in San Antonio, Texas.

After turning 50, I became seriously depressed. I decided I needed to try everything I could to recover my sense of wellbeing. By that time, various mindfulness practices had entered American mainstream culture, even reaching San Antonio. About two miles from my house was a sangha in the same tradition as the one I had encountered in Minnesota during college. I still had my copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki from Bardwell Smith’s course. I took all this as a sign that it was time to practice in earnest at the San Antonio Zen Center, which I have done now for nearly twelve years.

This is how I would describe zazen to those who have not experienced it. We are not trying to reach an end goal with our meditation. It is object-less. We simply sit and start by counting our breath from one to ten, then settle into our sitting without striving.

This practice connects me to the Buddha’s teaching of impermanence. It helps me stay calm during the vicissitudes of my life, to allow changes to happen, knowing I will arrive at something else. I find solace in not letting myself get worked up over things, for better or worse. I go through emotions like anyone else, and some of them are quite challenging, but I can sit, follow my breath, and things will work out.

Not necessarily solved. There’s a difference. It’s the notion that what I’m experiencing now is temporary, and I find comfort in that.

You can connect with Enrique on Facebook here

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