I’m going to pick up a thread from my last post and my friend Jaylene’s comment on it: How do we know if our practice is “working”? Which is oddly enough the same question I have about the antibiotic I’ve been taking for the last two weeks.
In the case of spiritual practice, the question feels a bit problematic, especially within a zen lineage that emphasizes practice for its own sake, with “no gaining idea” — no goal. Eihei Dogen, founder of Soto Zen, famously wrote that practice is enlightenment; there’s no distinction between the two.
Much as there’s no border between samsara and nirvana — they’re both right here, right now. Which one we experience in a given moment largely depends on our attitude toward our lives and the degree to which we’re able to accept reality.
“No gaining idea” is based on the zen ideal of purity in action, meaning our actions aren’t corrupted by motives or agendas beyond themselves. Kodo Sawaki Roshi observed that we believe we go to high school to get into a good college, then to college to land a good job so we can have a good life, etc. He finds this way of living, with everything serving as a stairway to something else, ridiculous. Possibly because the future is so unpredictable, contingent on myriad causes and conditions. And because neverending dissatisfaction (dukkha) is built into this way of life. And yet this is how we usually proceed.
So what do we mean by a spiritual practice “working”? In my case, nearly a decade staring at a wall trying not to think — has it worked? Hard to know, partly because I entertain no expectations of it. Strange to say, since I harbor abundant expectations, often concealed until they’re disappointed, in relation to most facets of life. Amidst a generally goal-oriented existence, I’ve felt it important to do one thing for no reason: no good reason, no bad ones. No expectations or justifications. Even I think meditation is a bizarre thing to do, especially with the intensity I do — five days a month is a lot of nothing.
Certainly I’ve changed over the past ten years, but how can I attribute the shifts to practice? Life is an experiment without a control. I think when we talk about practice working, we mean making us bigger and better — wiser, more compassionate and peaceful, more free. Maybe this last is the key. The fact is, having no expectations is a kind of freedom; there’s no way to win or lose, succeed or fail. And to do something year after year without expectation is an exercise not only of freedom but of unconditional love, something many of us could use practice in.