letting go of “letting-go”

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Zen practice is easy. All we have to do is sit still and pay attention. And we don’t even always have to sit still; we practice every moment, doing whatever it is we happen to be doing, being mindful of whatever it is we happen to be doing.

If we’re lucky, we sometimes get to go to retreats where we can do concentrated practice over several days in a dedicated setting. Or in these “unprecedented” pandemic times, we get to sit together virtually with others who are doing the same thing, by way of online internet technology.

If we’re working with a Zen teacher, things may come to appear to us a little bit more complex. We have a partner – a guide – in our practice of sitting still and paying attention, and we have a goal, a standard we want to meet. And if we’re doing koan study, well … things can often seem to go completely off the rails. “Why can’t I get this koan?” “What am I holding onto that’s keeping me from seeing through this koan?” “Why can’t I let go and just see and present the right answer?” “Am I just a dummy?” “What am I doing here anyway??!!?”

But whether we’re doing koans or not, we may have the feeling that we’re supposed to be letting go of our attachments and thoughts and tendencies and all the other things that are pinning us down and causing us to suffer, to not be free. And we find ourselves in a vicious circle of trying – trying to get it right, trying to let go of everything that’s holding us back, trying not to try.

And that may be the secret to getting out of that vicious circle. All we have to do is stop trying! Don’t spend energy trying to make our practice “right.” Don’t get tied up in knots trying to awaken. Just stop trying. But isn’t that just the vicious circle in another guise? Trying not to try? Where is our way out?

Well, how about this? Just sit. Just be. Just do whatever it is we happen to be doing. And do it fully. The contemporary Zen Roshi Norman Fischer says this in his book titled What Is Zen?:

When you desperately press for some goal or aspiration, your very pressing becomes an obstacle. You are tense, you try too hard, you are impatient, you get discouraged easily, and this hampers you.

He goes on:

The liberation we seek – the relieving of suffering, increased participation and depth in our actual life – is, ultimately, liberation from ourselves, from the tyranny of our own habitual point of view that has kept us small and unhappy. When we press to “get something out of the practice,” we are reinforcing everything in us that is crabby, needy, and self-centered. When we let go of our need and just relax and enjoy our practice, we begin to see its benefit.

So, when we can let go of our need to have our practice look like something in particular or yield a particular result or imagined way of being, all starts to become clear. Fischer again: “Zen practice helps you to live your actual life, not your descriptions of it.” And isn’t this what we all want? Just to be us!

Thank you.