Monday, February 12, 2007


I was on retreat with my zen group on Saturday, and I found myself once again face to face with “shoulds.”

I should know more about zen liturgy and teachings by the old masters. I should sit more frequently, with stronger intention. I should, I should, I should.

You may recall this theme came up for me at our Winter Sesshin, over New Year’s. Part of what sparks these feelings is my participation in our services - I’m always a little doubtful about when to hit the bell or when to stand and bow. I SHOULD know all that stuff by now.

Despite the fact that I keep confronting this feeling, I’m getting much better at just letting things happen. I got assigned a new task for Saturday’s service - one I’d never been trained for - involving ringing the bell for the service entrance. It’s not just a matter of ringing “dingalingaling” - there are several bells in a specific pattern and sequence. A year or two ago it would have tied me in knots. But this time, I just rolled with it. It wasn’t perfect, but it was what it was.

As I was later reminded, the “right” way to do something, the “perfect” way, doesn’t really exist. It’s a fabrication of our minds. In reality, there are all sorts of forces and influences that affect the performance of any task, and the trick is to be open to the flow of all those forces coming together.

That doesn’t mean you don’t try. But you don’t get upset when things take an unexpected turn. You don’t get attached to the “perfect” result.

One of the teachers gave a talk about intention. The most intent zen practitioners, he said, are not necessarily the ones who know all the history and masters and are the quickest or cleverest. They’re the “donkeys,” who butt their heads against the wall day after day, too unknowing to stop but eventually caving in the bricks with stubborn persistence.

I am a chronically idealistic person. I have very clear ideas about the way things “should” be - my job, my relationships, my practice, even my blog. So it’s healthy to be reminded that all these ideas are just that - ideas. They are not reality.

Reality is that occasionally I’ll get angry at friends or family members, or I’ll get behind on a project at work, or I’ll ring the bell at the wrong time, or I’ll write something on my blog that later prompts me to say, “What was I thinking?”

Reality is what happens. The trick is to be open to it, and let it carry you. You can try to steer your canoe - but the real power is with the river.

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