Jiryu’s latest letter from the mountains:
What is integration of practice?
At Tassajara, the earnest Zen students are in sesshin and the whole valley is locked in silence. The silence is deepened, punctuated by the roaring creek, the crickets, blue jays and even the occasional shriek of a little boy. How loud real silence is!
This is an extreme practice. All external goals or worldly ambitions are cut off. With no outlet, there is only space for true nature. Only what it is to be alive, itself. Only breath and body and consciousness.
I value this cocoon, this womb of practice. But I’m clear too that it isn’t a stopping point, much less an ending point. It’s maybe one half of a life.
I remember many years ago on my parents’ first visit to Tassajara, we drove up the road together to see the sunset from a ridge. Marveling, feeling even complete in the shadows of bright reds and orange, I said something like, “This is it, a human life. You see a few beautiful sunsets, that’s all.”
I was new to practice, filled with “Zen,” so it was left to my Dad to add, “. . . and build a few houses . . .”
It doesn’t take too long at Tassajara to realize that as nourishing and even as fulfilling as a sunset is, there is indeed more to a human life. We see sunsets, but we build houses, too. We’re not just eyes, but also hands. While fundamentally we live only to meet this silence again and again, there is in fact more to do: something to build or to make or to serve in the world of noise.
I’m more clear than ever that I need to know how to step from the silence (of ten minutes or ten years) into the “rat race.” I need to find a way to do this that elevates both, that integrates. That’s what I’m exploring.
A short couple of days out of this three-month retreat recently put me back in full touch with the rat race. The dizzying flurry of errands and demands, of diapers and dinner and meetings and bed. I could feel my mind sharpen and change—get what I need. Where is the money? Where is the baby? Where is lunch? Where is success? Drive the car. Email. Plan. Succeed.
The rat race is fueled by the push to succeed—from buying toilet paper to making a career, the big and the little rat mazes are all only mazes because there is cheese at the end.
Succeed! Get cheese!
But within that drive there is, when I can stop and notice, an underlying anxiety and a different kind of longing. This is the longing—the “Way-seeking Mind”—that pushes me to practice. It brings me to the zendo, to the cushion, to the sesshin or practice period.
But silence to noise, stillness to busyness, zazen to work, isn’t necessarily integration—it’s oscillation. So we talk about “balance” as though if we could get the mix right, we’d achieve integration. But integration is more than just the right rate of back and forth.
When I’m caught in my large or small goals, caught in the rat race, I can feel that my practice is out of reach. I have to wait it out—make “rat race”-type plans for the next chance at zazen, the next meeting with my teacher, the next retreat. Sure, those are good things to do, and certainly they are part of a process of integration, but what’s most important is to be able to get in some awareness, some space, some wisdom, at that precise moment of dis-ease or disharmony or confusion or construction. I don’t want to just schedule my next “practice time,” I want to touch and to know my true and vast life in this moment.
And I can do this by just making a small inward shift, somewhere deep and barely conscious or somewhere nearer to the surface, a shift away from my immediate goal and into the actuality of the present.
The rat race doesn’t obstruct my practice, doesn’t block the Buddhadharma. To paraphrase Dogen Zenji, for someone on the path, there is no rat race—maze and cheese or not, it’s all just flowers of true Buddhadharma. It’s all just opportunity to take a backwards step. Without leaving our home in the rat race, we can know that who and what we are is boundlessly bigger than that. We can know the immensity of the ordinary.
I may be a rat running through a maze, and that’s fine and right—it’s what rats do in mazes. The point is that I can dare to remember, to hold somewhere dear in my heart or my belly, that the point of my life isn’t actually my running, my cleverness, or my successes at cheese, but rather my living ratness, right now, in its inconceivable vastness and inconceivable value.
That, to me, is real integration.