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Lions Roar : January 2016
“I’VE TRIED THIS three times and it’s just not for me.” She had approached me in the hallway after lunch on the first day of the silent medita- tion retreat. “So I’m going home to spend the weekend with my husband,” she said. I smiled and said good-bye. I’d had my doubts about this mostly older group of people who’d shown up for the weekend beginners’ retreat. Not because they were older, but because they were just what I’d asked for—beginners. Looking around the room of strangers at the welcome dinner a night earlier, I doubted they could handle the sitting. I’d oversold the whole Zen thing again. Whatever they thought they were in for, none of them was ready to handle the truth of Zen, even so-called beginning Zen, which is no different from advanced Zen, which is no different from real life. Or so I thought. I recognized a lifetime of my own excuses in the careful wording of her parting comment. “I tried. It doesn’t work. There are more important things to do.” Perhaps she’d spent the morning meditation period coming up with the right way to phrase it, a way to leave tact- fully. I’ve done that. Sometimes we do that before the retreat even begins, to give ourselves an early out. THIS DHARMA LIFE Sit Down and Make Yourself Uncomfortable There are endless reasons not to meditate, most of them legit. But if you do it anyway, says KAREN MAEZEN MILLER, something changes. One time I organized a daylong retreat at the request of someone in a distant city, someone with whom I’d corresponded for years. This person had offered to meet me at the airport and host me as an overnight guest at her home. She’d invited her friends to join her at the retreat. There was much antici- pation and excitement. But a few days before the event, she emailed me to say she wouldn’t be attending, and it was partly because of me. “I can’t imagine leaving my family and I know you would want me to be with them.” Yes, I know the kind of want- ing and needing that we imagine other people have, especially when it is time to sit down and meditate. I remember the way Maezumi Roshi had greeted me at my first retreat. “Are you ready for me to torture you?” We’d both laughed, but we knew it wasn’t a joke. The truth is that meditation makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes just the word “meditation” makes us uncomfortable. The thought of meditation nearly always makes us uncomfortable, and doing it really makes us uncomfortable. The stillness is excruciating and the silence is intolerable. Are we doing it wrong? No. Meditation is not supposed to be comfortable, at least not at first. It is the practice of making yourself comfortable with discomfort. This can be shocking to discover, because meditation is so often sold with the assurance of stress reduc- tion. A question about this came up after the afternoon dharma talk. “Doctors say that meditation reduces stress, but it doesn’t sound like you see it that way,” one guy asked. I had been acknowledging the difficulty of the practice and offering what I thought was encouragement to keep going. “It does reduce stress, just not the way you think it will,” I answered. DAVIDGABRIELFISCHER KAREN MAEZEN MILLER is a Zen priest and teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. Her most recent book is Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden. SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2016 27 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE