Thursday, October 14, 2010

Calm is Not Boring

To some extent, in our culture, we associate calm with a certain relaxed dullness, like lying in a hammock on a summer afternoon after a hard day's work. On the other hand, we are often alert but tense, as when we face danger or financial problems ... We associate alertness with a crisis mode. But this polarization is not intrinsic to human consciousness. What we are gradually learning in this practice is utter calm that is highly alert, like the frog that Suzuki Roshi used to talk about, sitting on a lily pad.

Larry Rosenberg, Breath By Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation

I experienced this utter calm during our weekly class at the zen center last night. As people talked about their experiences, or ideas about the teacher's talk, I found myself listening simultaneously to what was being said and what was coming up within. I took in the visuals - the lights outside our zendo, the piles of dirt from the road construction, my dharma brothers and sisters, the jagged crack along the floor. And I sat with the rising and falling of my chest, the entering and fading away of every breath. Until a few lines from Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life arose, I experienced the familiar anxiety that comes before wanting to share, and then I spoke them:

There's nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.

I've been working with these lines for about two and a half years now. In order to keep them with me daily, I chant them silently to myself as I brush my teeth every night before bed.

Sitting here now, I can see where this teaching is a gateway into that utter calm I experienced, and Rosenberg and Suzuki were speaking about. Because all of those "little cares" that arrive in our lives have the ability to muck things up greatly, if we can't meet them as they are in the moment. The pain in your back, for example, easily can lead to tension, and then irritation, and then angry acting out of some kind. So it often goes.

Many people come to Buddhism seeking calm and peace, but don't really understand what calm and peace actually are. And since it's easy enough to get to that "relaxed dullness" through things like television, drinking, eating, and other such commonplace activities, some of us fail to notice the presence of actual calm and peace.

I know I used to meditate like mad, associating calm with boredom, and thinking zazen was kind of an endurance contest I had to win somehow. In this, there was no room for the world to fully enter, to be "confirmed by the ten thousand things" as Dogen once said.

Can you be like the frog, taking it all in, ready in a moment's notice to eat the meal that comes?


Unknown said...

i just love your insights as you travel. Thankyou for sharing! Your blog makes me happy. :)

Was Once said...

Not rushing through life on caffeine is like having an extended vacation. But it also takes a hard look at yourself and how you deal with others. Thanks for your posts.

Tom said...

Coincidentally, I've been writing about exactly the same quote from Rosenberg's book this week in a post that I've just finished ... I'm not copying, honest!

kevin said...

You're right that calm is not the same as boring. There are times when I'm sitting (being really bored) and my mind is buzzing with white noise even if my thoughts are somewhat in control.

In Aikido the metaphor we're taught to maintain calmness is be like the eye at the center of a hurricane.

Working in food service is a crazy way of life, so maintaining this eye of the hurricane calmness at work is very helpful.

Unless you run off to the woods and live as a hermit or enter a monastery, there's going to be craziness around you. So even if you aren't being attacked in a fury of fists, or don't care about being a bodhisattva, the teachings you mention can benefit everyone.

Thanks for the post

Kamala said...

My Fall Break was very calming to me, I realised since I've been back at school (and on a very busy campus) a lot of my friends and peers may have viewed the Mountains as boring.

Nathan said...

It's interesting what people decide is boring, isn't it?

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...


Really nice blog. I've just read a couple of your articles and can see you're a man of my own heart. I really like the constant inquiry you take to life, I affiliate to this a lot. Very nice! I'm certainly going to be a frequent returner to your site of your site, not just a once returner or a non-returner (a little enlightenment humour!)

Interestingly, I just today wrote a three part series of this very same topic called Quietening the Inner Chatter where I talk about this process of finding peace of mind. I know in my early days I approached meditation the same as you describe here. Over the years this has transformed and now I sit just to sit, because it is what I am. I can't escape it or deny this truth. To not sit would be lying to myself.

It seems we are on a similar wavelength because over the 2 or 3 days I've been blogging about how we try to drown out our internal noise with external noise like TV or music etc. Unfortunately blogging itself can be like this. It's a difficult balance, dedicating oneself to writing about the dharma to help all people and not being so busy with it that it becomes a distraction for myself. I'm sure you relate.

Anyway, keep up the great work!


PS. I wanted to write you directly but couldn't find an email address on your site to send to you offline. I'd appreciate you having a look at my blog and if you enjoy the writings adding me to your blog list. Likewise I've added you to mine. I love you long blog list, I'll have to work my way through it. :-)

A Green Spell said...

I have such trouble with being calm - and defaulting to the "calm" of TV and eating, LOL! There is a part of me that still associates calm with boring, or tired, or "nothing happening." Hmmmm...something to think on.