Ego Relaxation Training

I was probably bound to confuse Buddhism with another form of self-improvement.

When I was young I tried to improve myself by simpler means. I lifted weights, bought name-brand clothes, augmented the stock features of my Nissan Maxima so that I might achieve a higher social status. It worked to some degree. Then I wanted more.

And more, and more.

Now I’m preparing to leave the Zen Center. I’ve been meaning to write about the reasons why for the better part of two weeks. Beyond worrying what my readers must be thinking, I haven’t made much progress. Not outside my private notebooks anyway.

Instead of blogging I began spending my morning free time on the roof, sans computer. The view of the city up there is spectacular. Most mornings the downtown buildings are eclipsed by fog, which lends itself to feeling lost and found at the same time. As I have at earlier times of tumult, I turned to poetry, my own bad poetry, in the hopes of loosening the knot I felt stuck in. Then I’d rush downstairs and join the daily work circle, feigning humility.

I thought I was ready to be part of a community. I thought I could finally make myself into the sort of person who can join a group and be quiet about it, maybe even effortlessly. But then I found myself scribbling lines like

Aghast, awake.
 This morning’s long wantings
 penetrate the ease once found
 in meditation.
 
 They extend into heart-palpitating 
 yearnings to abandon, to be 
 somewhere else, to tell everyone

here to go to hell

so I can be on my own again.

* * *

Something began to break during my first weekend at the Zen Center. The focus I’d put into blogging and getting people to read my writing about my experience made me question my integrity. Friday morning, almost three weeks ago, I started drafting a post on slowing down and then realized I was in a hurry to finish it. “What is the point of sitting?” I found myself thinking during zazen. I sat there composing sentences in my mind and feeling impressed with myself. Like I knew the answer.

“You might say the purpose of sitting and doing nothing is to slow down the mind,” I typed hastily after breakfast. “But what does this mean? What does slowing down look and feel like?

What we aim to slow down is the self and its attachments. In the face of impermanence, necessary suffering, and the reality of delusion, we have a choice about how to face the self.”

That’s where I lost my steam. Feeling the slippage between my desire to instruct and my instruction that desire is bullshit, I began to feel like a fraud. In Zen terms, I began to see who I was taking myself to be, and it was dispiriting.

Navigating my intentions with the blog became difficult. I saw that one clear motive was self-aggrandizement. I wanted to feel puffed up by others’ interest and approval. I also wanted to document and share, but my ego kept getting in the way.

“What a wonderful opportunity to have a life stripped of all outer wanting and trappings,” my mom commented on my last post. She’d chimed in to offer her take on the role of desirelessness in Zen and Yoga, and I liked what she wrote. “Ya,” I thought. ‘“Right action without ego attachment.’ That is what I’m pursuing.”

I noticed the same problem affecting my work around the temple. Whether I was sweeping, mopping, or cleaning windows, I wanted to feel recognized, in control, to finish tasks quickly. I naturally took on the role of overseer of my non-English-speaking co-workers. I instructed them in how to work and how to use basic English. I was being the ugly American, but I was also trying to make things more efficient. This seemed defensible and in my interest.

Saturday evening I tried to reground myself at a nearby cafe. “This process of watching the self gets interesting quickly,” I wrote in my journal.

Already I notice myself looking for some escape. Going to see a movie maybe. Or doing the writing I planned to do. So many doing thoughts. I don’t feel up to writing in depth, detailing the scenes, yet I’ve put so much stock in being a writer. I’m afraid of living up to that idea of myself now. I got very attached this week, as if this role — being the analyst, the documentarian, the bright young man up to interesting things — could last. I see now that it can’t in the way I was clinging to it. In the wake of clinging there is now fear and loathing.

This idea of clinging had begun to get to me. I started reading a book by Gil Fronsdal called The Issue at Hand, and the first chapter laid out the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.

1. Suffering occurs.
 2. The cause of suffering is craving.
 3. The possibility for ending suffering exists.
 4. The cessation of suffering can be attained through the Eightfold Path.

The key point, Fronsdal says, is that we increase our suffering through our attachments. The process of clinging or trying to push things away ultimately enslaves us. This is particularly true when we cling to a sense of self. “Maintaining and defending a self-image can be a lot of work,” he writes. “It can fuel a lot of self-conscious preoccupation with how we speak, dress, and behave. We evaluate everything according to how it relates to ourselves, causing ourselves endless suffering.”

It’s hard not to cling to a sense of self. But according to Buddhism, this is what causes most of our trouble in life. I find this idea hard to resist but equally hard to live out.

* * *

By the end of my first weekend I had fastened myself to Fronsdal’s first chapter as a lifeline. I read over it whenever I felt my conviction slipping, and as a form of cognitive behavioral therapy this seemed to work.

“I finally start to get it a little bit,” I wrote in my journal.

I am living the need for ego relaxation training. All this Zen practice forces a confrontation with my deepest-lodged habits. I keep hearing references to the WPA program and I think, “what about me?” I see one of my co-workers cleaning something and I think, “I know a better way.” My obsession with control — filling each cup of moments of each day — turns on my clinging to all I imagine will deliver comfort, applause, lasting satisfaction, and relief. Yet life here keeps frustrating my attempts to maintain the upper hand. It’s not all about me, and I see more clearly now that this is nearly always my starting assumption. They say that everyone thinks this way. We can’t help it; it’s human. But by seeing our clinging to the ego’s demands as part of the cycle of suffering and delusion, a kind of freedom becomes possible. Not merely therapeutic or self-serving, this freedom constitutes a new condition of seeing, acting, and relating. Feeling whole and needing to prove less.

I wrote that on the roof one afternoon and felt pretty good about myself. But a few days later the fear had resurfaced.

A lot of this turned on the fact that I needed to make a decision about whether to apply to stay longer than a month as a guest student. The next level of commitment was to become a “Work Practice Apprentice” and stay for three solid months.

Already — this was my second week — I’d started to chafe at the routine. I felt embarrassed that this happened so quickly, that my status consciousness, lack of free time, scattered writing ambitions, and social anxiety had led me to call into question what I thought was a lasting commitment to residential Zen practice.

But there I was, fantasizing about what I should do next, how to free myself further, how to put myself in a situation where I’d feel better, be respected again, and not have to deal with so many things I don’t like.

When you start to live your daily life according to a system of bells and head-splitting wood cracks, it’s easy to begin looking for alternatives. Especially if you‘re in the middle of a city and it seems like there are plenty of other options. But I still thought I should stay put.

“These are the parts of my self I came here to study,” I wrote as the WPA application deadline loomed. “My challenge is to stay here and watch what cries loudest for me to leave. This structure and container is in this sense the perfect fit. It just hurts right now to ‘sit in the flames of the self.”’

The metaphor of the container is one that has a lot of currency at the Zen Center. As I understand it, the idea is that some set of constraints — whether it’s the task of sweeping, mopping, or working in the kitchen — forms a context where certain limits keep things simple. Within these limits, one can only do so much. The challenge is therefore to work with them, watch what comes up, and accept the container as it is.

At the height of my conviction that Zen is the answer to all my problems, I accepted this metaphor and its premise that I fit within it. “Learning to live with this mind is my only real choice,” I wrote.

There are many ways I might go about this, but I’ve landed on a particularly fruitful path. On my longer journey this Zen training can play an essential role if I stick with it. Not with any particular outcome or agenda in mind, but with simple willingness to agree to these constraints. I’m already learning a lot, and the feelings of regression are part of that. So I can keep asking these questions: “what do I strive to escape from? What do I hate, and what do I covet for myself?” Breathing and watching is the consistent practice. I’m finding out — I haven’t yet — where this leads.

* * *

So I filled out the WPA application. I had a moment, though, gazing out my window just before I stopped procrastinating, when I saw what seemed like my future. I caught a glimpse of the city in all its majesty and had to stop and laugh at the predicament I was in. Things suddenly seemed very simple. I told myself I had to fill out the form and answer the questions in a way that seemed convincing. But it was obvious that I was forcing myself.

I looked out at the beckoning lights, the hills and sheets of fog, and some part of me knew. Even as I had resolved that this container was the right fit, even as every practical incentive lined up with staying at the Zen Center, I knew I was fooling myself, hiding more than facing myself outside it.

I found a desk in the hallway and began writing by hand. In answering the first question about why I was applying to the WPA program I felt a mix of pained duress and genuine reporting. But some calm bubbled through when I started to tell my brief life story. I had been an academic and now wanted to pursue “experiential practice and study.” This is the truth, I realized, and Zen found its way into my experimental nexus because I was genuinely attracted to it.

The problem is that I was also looking for a solution. The Zen container is meant to be hermetically sealed, and the training it offers is a radical and sustained assault on the ego. I thought I wanted this; I hypothesized that it offered exactly what I needed. But as the novelty wore off and I felt myself desperate and dependent, I found that too much of my self, my identity, even my paltry ego seemed worth preserving.

A few days earlier, I had an eerie experience in the zendo — the meditation hall — that crystallized this realization. We were dusting off the zafus, sweeping and mopping the floor, and stepping lightly around the various statues, drums, and other ornate objects some people say have nothing to do with religion.

Almost on impulse, I began repeating four lines over and over in my head. During each morning service we chant them three times in succession:

All my ancient twisted Karma

From beginningless greed, hate, and delusion

Born through body, speech, and mind

I now fully avow.

Sometimes this is called the repentance verse, and I was now chanting it while I worked. As I noticed this I felt myself descending to a realm of mystical, other-worldly reliance. This realm is entirely foreign to me, and as I delved down deeper, I felt all my intellectual defenses fading.

This scared me all of a sudden. It’s the closest I’ve come to bona fide religious faith, and it happened through a process that seems indistinguishable from brainwashing.

I don’t know what to make of this in retrospect. But the next morning I was more willing to question the faith I felt I was being inducted into. The whole arrangement , I decided— what one long-time resident calls “a social experiment masquerading as a religion” — can’t fully be separated from religion.

It would be misleading to call it a cult; but the first definition that comes up in my Apple Dictionary — “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object” — seems to fit the Zen Center almost perfectly.

I don’t remember hearing so much about the Buddha, the Three Treasures, or the Beings in the Six Realms when I was a volunteer. It was only after I became a regular participant in the daily services and started observing all the rituals that I began to sense the closedness of the system I’d entered into.

I hesitate to criticize the Zen Center, not least because I feel so grateful for the warmth and generosity I’ve received from many of its practitioners. But nearly four weeks into my stay as a guest student I’m not convinced that this isn’t a religion.

It’s called a temple after all, and there are a lot of rituals. Maybe bowing in full prostration nine times before an altar each morning can be construed as a purely secular “container.” Zen seems to attract avid intellectuals who excel at using words to deny the value of words. But if it walks like a duck…

* * *

I know I’m confused about Buddhism in countless ways. But what has dawned on me since I filled out the WPA application (I never submitted it) is that I’m free to consider other interpretations of the self and reality. I don’t have to submit fully to Zen or Buddhism or any esoteric rituals. The fact that I was tempted to is the result of my ancient twisted desire for a panacea that really works.

As Philip Larkin writes, there is “no lasting salary / beyond the bowels’ momentary applause.” No panacea to be found.

It’s taken me a long time to recognize this truth — maybe all I needed to do was read more of his poetry — and I’m chronically at risk of forgetting it.

Suffice to say that I’ll be leaving the Zen Center this weekend knowing I learned a few things. Above all, the key is awareness. As Gil Fronsdal explains, “Once we are in the present moment, we can begin exploring our experience: what we are driven toward, what we push away, how we create our suffering.”

This is the essential practice, accessible at all moments whether or not we’re sitting. There is a purely secular way to justify and explain it, and perhaps this language and worldview are better suited to people who chafe at the rituals of belonging.

But it’s really not that complicated. At least it doesn’t have to be.

Christina Feldman tries to make this point in “Doing, Being, and the Great In-Between” (Tricycle, Fall 2016). “When we rest,” she writes, “we begin to see the interwoven nature of how events and identity bind together through misperception and clinging to create suffering. We learn to unbind from that perpetual contractedness through awareness. We are less prone to launch ourselves into the compulsive and agitated activities of doing and fixing, getting rid of, in the endless search for the ideal self.”

Stop searching, in other words.

Best of luck.