Thursday, May 28, 2009


I have been told before that I am a pretty confident person. I stand before classes of learners everyday and usually can talk or direct things so that learning occurs. I often speak my mind, even about issues that clearly place me outside the bounds of "normality." I have walked into the offices of State Senators and Representatives, asked pointed questions, and clearly stated what I wanted to see the government do or not do. So, sure, there's a level of confidence present.

When it gets down to it, though, I can feel an instability in that confidence. There have been plenty of times I have stumbled about in fear, anxiety, even spinning anger that sends any sense of confidence out the door. But beyond that, there's a certain lack of trust that runs through me at a deeper level - a kind of whispering that can turn into a roar saying "You're not good enough" or "You'll pay if you fail." Now, clearly, this internal talk doesn't hold me back all the time; in fact, I have gotten to the point now where there are times when none of this kind of talk even arises. However, I can feel a tug to dig deeper, to unearth the roots that still hang on with in me.

Today, I lifted a chuck of soil matted with roots and dead grass and named it for my class: a clod. They peered in on it, and I looked at it too, a little closer. The soil near the dead grass was loose and falling between my fingers as I spelled the word for the class. A warm breeze blew behind us, the sun hitting our backs as we kneeled. I turned the clod over. The soil near the roots was packed tightly, barely moving at all. I could thumb my way through it, loosening it some, but otherwise it stood pat. We talked a little more about gardening; digging trenches, preparing a bed for flowers. Thry knew how to do it all, but didn't know any of the words for it. I said "usually, when we prepare a bed for flowers, we throw the clods out." And then I threw it.

Unpacking the soil around the roots of no confidence, or non-trusting, requires a little more than simply tossing away the manifestations when they arise. After some practice, it's easy enough to cut off negative thoughts, and to eject false story lines into the trashbin. But I think the kind of confidence that stays with us even in our toughest moments is born of sticking with this life as it occurs, moment by moment - in other words, to bring our zazen and mindfulness into everything, not just that which appears while we're meditating, or in a good mood, or in a bad mood, or in a spiritual mood. And I think it also means being ok if you fail to do that, and even if things get a bit messy as a result of that failure.

I'm not always so hot with things being messy. I often like clarity, simplicity, lack of clutter. At the same time, that's not always true. I have no trouble getting really dirty while gardening. I pedal a bicycle all over town and return home sweaty, sloppy, and happily spent. Ah, those internal contradictions.

Here's Suzuki Roshi's words on it all, with an aid from our good buddy Dogen: "In China and Japan there are many stories of teachers who attained enlightenment suddenly like this: 'Umph!' [laughs and snaps his fingers] You may think it was sudden, but it was actually the result of many years of practice and of failing many times. Dogen Zenji's famous words concerning this are "Hitting the mark is the result of ninety-nine failures." The last arrow hit the mark, but only after ninety-nine failures. So failure is actually ok."

Some of my learners have been trying to teach me phrases in Karen and Burmese. I fail often, just as they fail often with English. But all of us have kept trying, and as a result, some learning has occured. Much more on their end than mine, but that's not the most important thing. The effort put forth is necessary, but also being ok with failing, missing the mark.

It's always interesting to me how the ability is always there in some places of your life. And yet, in other part of your life, you just can't seem to transport it in, as if there's a wall holding it back from sprouting forth. Maybe I just need to keep examining the clods a little more, before I reach back to throw them away for good.

1 comment:

dragonfly said...


I really like this post. I'm someone whose level of confidence is very context driven - but I find that the more I practice yoga and meditation, the more I learn to be aware of the confidence crumbling right at the start and dissolve those fictional story lines with the breath before the discomfort turns into downright panic. Still, it's a process... I guess life is messy, whether you like it or not. :)