Not Too Hard, Not Too Soft: Finding the Sweet Spot in Practice
3:19PM May 10, 2023
Today is day two of this May 2023, two-day sesshin and we'll start with a story. I warned you yesterday that there is no limit to what I will use. The story is called it's from the book Fables by Arnold Lobel. And it was the winner of a Caldecot Medal in, I think it was 1980 or 1990. It's called the Crocodile in the Bedroom. A crocodile became increasingly fond of the wallpaper in his bedroom. He stared at it for hours and hours. Just look at all those neat and tidy rows of flowers and leaves, said the crocodile. They're like soldiers. There is not a single one that is out of place. My dear, said the crocodiles wife, you are spending too much time in bed, come out into my garden where the air is fresh, and the sun is bright and warm. Well, if you insist for just a few minutes, said the crocodile. He put on a pair of dark glasses to protect his eyes from the glare and went outside. Mrs. Crocodile was proud of her garden. Look at the hollyhocks and the marigolds. She said smell the roses and the lilies of the valley. Great heavens. Cried the crocodile. The flowers and leaves in this garden are growing in a terrible tangle. They're all scattered. They're all messy and entwined. The crocodile rushed back to his bedroom in a state of great distress. He was at once comforted by the sight of his wallpaper. Ah, said the crocodile. Here is a garden that is ever so much better. How happy and secure these flowers make me feel. After that, the crocodile seldom left his bed. He lay there smiling at the walls, he turned a very pale and sickly shade of green. And because it's a fable, there is a moral. Without a doubt, there is such a thing as too much order. And that's the end of the story. And next, we're going to turn to awakening to Zen by Roshi Kapleau. And we'll be reading from a chapter and I won't be reading the entire chapters too long for our purposes. The chapter is called discipline and naturalness. And it was from a talk probably a teisho that he gave in 1973. And this is how it begins. Many people wonder about the benefits of a disciplined life of doings Zen, of planning for certain regular activities. Many people look upon this kind of thing as a natural. It seems to be taking away from the enjoyment of life. To live a disciplined life seems perhaps egotistical. And then he says some of the inner conflict or what people say to themselves, when they are living a so called discipline life. Well, I should I should do that. Or I shouldn't stay out beyond such and such an hour because I find it hard to get up in the morning. Or I shouldn't go out with these people because they love to talk. Or I shouldn't go out and do such and such because it might lead to such and such. And then he says, To practice Zen seriously, seems to make for a joyless, antisocial life. Life isn't celebrated with love, drink and laughter. Besides, Zen seems to have an ego trip of its own and uncomfortable painful damming up of the joy of life. Instead of it's bursting forth and fullness. This sounds terribly unnatural. I'll continue. The trouble is that most of us today lead such unnatural lives to start with that we don't need that we don't know any longer what naturalness really is This, this seems to be true of our culture as a whole. If we take natural to mean spontaneous, free flowing without compulsiveness, without regret or remorse, then we begin to see this, what is it like not to be driven by the ambition, perhaps, to do certain things, or to achieve certain goals
more and then he says, most people are driven, yet it is quite true that every should, ought and must, is a limitation on our inborn freedom.
What he says here, about seeing Zen as an ego trip of its own, as a uncomfortable, painful damming up of the joy of life. I've actually heard a comment like that from people who see others that way. And those others may be someone who is devoted to some endeavor, a sport, a craft, a hobby, some discipline. So from the outside, it might look that way. But I think those of us practicing Zen and doing that in such sheen would say otherwise. However, I've also heard this same comment from people who are practicing Zen, who have done more, push themselves to heart may be sitting longer than their lives, their bodies and their concentration will let them and so they're forcing it trying to make things happen, they have some ideal or goal in mind.
Think many people especially there at the beginning of practice, can get so motivated.
And when they understand about enlightenment, they want it look really for it and will do anything to get it
and one of the sutras The hyung Gu Tada nicaya sutra the Buddha tells a story, or actually it's the it's a it's the Buddha. speaking to someone to Sona, a lute player. Sona is striving for enlightenment. And he's doing that through kini, walking meditation. He's walking, and walking, and walking. And all he ends up with is sore and bloody feet. And he wants to give up and he goes to the Buddha and asks for his advice. And this is what the Buddha said to him. He asked Sona, whether the lute worked well, if the strings were strong really, really tightly. Sona replied that it didn't still work so well that like that. Then the Buddha asked Sona, if the loop worked well, if the strings were strong really, really loosely. Sona replied that it didn't work so well like that either. Then the Buddha asked Sona, if the loop worked well, if the strings were strong, not too tightly, and not too loosely. Sona replied that that was the way the loo It worked best. So, the Buddha advised Sona to treat his practice like that. Neither to practice too tightly nor too loosely, but always to find just the right pitch of effort. The right pitch of effort
the sweet spot there is a common question with practitioners. And it comes out both in sushi and outside of sushi. And the question is, should I strive or should I not strive? Should I try? Or should I not try should I seek? Should I put forth effort? Or should I surrender? But implied in that question is the thought that there is a static state to achieve like the sweet spot on your couch, you know that spot on your couch, that when you sit there it is oh so comfortable. It's not too hard, it's not too soft. If you sit a little bit to the left of it, it's not so comfortable. Use it a little to the right of it, it's not so comfortable. But to nestle down into that sweet spot on your couch or in your bed. That's what's most comfortable. The sweet spot on your couch or your bed is static. Our practice is alive. It's dynamic. As long as we're alive, our practice will be alive. And we have to just move along with it. This sweet spot goes by many names. It's like that Goldilocks spot or the the Goldilocks zone with a zone flow or Samadhi. There is not a person in this room who hasn't experienced that in their practice. You would not be here or still be here. If you had never experienced it. Some folks after experiencing it are greedy for it. They try to re experience it. They try to figure out what was what did I do to to get that and how do I get that back
but that's just it. It didn't happen that way. It never happens that way. On purpose. It just happens it happened because we were doing our practice. The most we can do is set up the conditions so what do we do? We're doing our practice and we feel sleepy, foggy or the practices muddy. We're too loose. We can stretch ourselves up. Make sure our posture is correct. Lengthen the spine to get some energy flowing. Making sure our alignment is proper ears. shoulders, hips, nose and navel. Raise the eyes a little The eyes are too lowered it's like they're closed so raise them just a tad bit How to let some light in
and on the other end of the spectrum when we are too tight when we are tense and overwrought, our minds are spinning with thoughts we may just have a death grip on the practice and we need to loosen up
that death grip is going to show itself in the body we're going to feel the tension in our bellies. Our breathing will get quite tight in our shoulders in our faces to let that go
allow it to dissolve
another story this is from stories of the Spirit stories of the heart.
Once Abbot Anthony was conversing with some brethren, and a hunter who was after game in the wilderness came upon them. He saw Abbot Anthony and the brothers enjoying themselves and disapproved. Abbot Anthony said, put an arrow in your bow and shoot it. This he did. Now shoot another set the elder and another and another. The hunter said if I bend my bow all the time it will break. Abbot Anthony replied. So it is also in the work of God. If we push ourselves beyond measure, the brethren will soon collapse it is right therefore from time to time to relax their efforts
when we're feeling tight and overwrought we can also do keen Hain to release some of that energy. frustrations
are practice if it's working, we'll be alive. Sometimes too tight, sometimes too loose. That's just the territory. Just like when you're driving your car going for a walk. Sometimes you go up a hill, sometimes you go down a hill and you adjust your pace.
Flow in practice cannot be forced. We cannot be manufactured. All we can do is establish the conditions and let the rest take care of itself.
One final story. This is also from stories of the Spirit stories of the heart.
Two disciples of an old Rabbi were arguing about the true path to God. One said that the path was built on effort and energy. You must give yourself totally and fully with all your effort to follow the way of the law to pray to pay attention to live rightly. The second to disciple disagreed. It's not effort at all. That is only based on ego. It is pure surrender, to follow the way to God. To awaken is to let go of all things and live the teaching, not my will but dine. As they could not agree on who was right. They went to see the master. He listened as the first disciple praise the path of wholehearted effort. And when asked by this disciple, is this the true path? The master said, You're right. The second disciple was quite upset, and responded eloquently the path of surrender and letting go. When he had finished, he said, Is this not the true path? And the master replied, You are right. A third student was sitting there said, But Master, they can't both be right. And the master smiled and said, You're right, too. Stop now, and recite the Four Vows