Show your work

We began the 6th week of the practice period yesterday.  Today is the 37th day of the 100 day training period.  As I thought of those numbers I was all set to break that down into the smaller fractions, but damn!  It’s a prime number.  The percentage is easy enough….37%.

It used to drive my dad crazy when I’d mow our one-acre yard.  I’d break it into numerous little sections, doing one, then the next: the area at the bottom of the hill.  The parallelogram between the pine trees and the road.  The nice flat square on top of the front yard, a perfect croquet pitch.  He was a trigonometry and calculus teacher, he actually carried pencils and a slide rule in a pocket protector in his white shirt.  Like most of us in the 60’s who didn’t want to be like our fathers in any way, at the age of 14 I quit taking any more math once I’d completed geometry and didn’t need to do any more required classes.

But as I find in so many ways, no matter how fast I run from it, one day we all become our parents.  And though I left off with math in 8th grade, I still inherited his head for figures.  I can do equations in my head.  I can figure fractions and percentages without much effort.  (As I’m writing this I thought of an article I just read that gave the advice that the first 10% of any written piece is all “throat-clearing,” and should be deleted so that we get to the meat of the story.  And I’m already wondering if I’ve reached the 10% point and can delete this yet.)

For years when I’d sit zazen by myself and didn’t have a good timer, I’d have to keep checking the clock to know how much longer I had to sit.  And in the same way a watched pot never boils, when I kept checking the time it never seemed to arrive at the end.  In fact it was something like Zeno’s paradox, posited by a Greek philosopher, where an individual wants to go from point a to point b.  The person must first travel half the distance, then half of that distance, then half of that, with the outcome being one never arrives at the end.  And in the same way when I keep checking the time, each time I’d look, half of the time remaining from when I’d checked before was always gone.  So it seemed too I’d never get to the end.

I’ve also always had an ability to know what time it is, within 5 minutes or so.  Which doesn’t help me in long sitting periods.  Even when losing track of time, I find it’s easy to start figuring based on “my legs are just starting to get numb which usually happens about 20 minutes in…” Times when I was the doan for sitting periods at the zendo, I’d keep glancing over at the clock incessantly.  Fearing always that I’d go over the time period.  Because when someone else was keeping time, I’d be certain some periods they had gone over and in my frustration, become incensed at him or her for making us all sit longer.  Ok, just for making me and my aching knees sit longer.   So if i was the timekeeper I’d not want to incur the silent wrath in all the minds of the people who I was forcing to sit longer than scheduled, and keep looking every few minutes.

I think I broke the task of mowing up because I didn’t like it all that much, and it let me keep feeling I was making progress.  And accomplishing small tasks each time I’d finish up the little area.  Oddly enough, we’re told that is the way to tackle big tasks, to break them down into smaller parts so they’re not so overwhelming.

But for me it’s not even about doing what I don’t like.  I do the same thing when I’m doing something I enjoy, thinking, “oh this movie is wonderful, and it’s already half over!”  Which seems to me to be part of what is the dukkha in even pleasurable things that Buddha spoke of.

And though I’m to the point of settling in to the practice period now, and really enjoying it, I still do that figuring in my head….”37%, already more than 1/3 of the way done, only 73 days left…”  Like the figure in zeno’s paradox, I never arrive at the goal.  The goal for me is this present moment, and I’m always only halfway there when I’m counting.

I’ve been reading “The Flowing Bridge” by Elaine MacInnes, a book on mu and the miscellaneous koans. And I’m struck as I think about my discursive mind’s obsession with measuring and counting, that there are quite a few koans that deal with that very thing.  “Count the stars in the sky.”  Another speaks of “one who can count the grains of sand in the sea.”  Yet another of “the one who can survey land.”  Another version of the last one has it, “Why is it one who fences off land can’t leave that enclosure?”  I laugh as I think of how I fenced off land in my own mind as I mowed.

At the same time I’m on the section in Genjokoan on wood, fire, and ash.  And I don’t think that what Dogen is aiming at is not for me to try to figure when the wood is halfway on the way to being ash.   Letting things be fully what they are at the moment they are existent in is what we aim for.  When I can put the clock aside during my zazen (thank god for the timer apps now, so I can put that aside and forget about it.) I am able to more fully enter into what is in front of me and around me.  When I am always counting or figuring, I seem to be keeping the ten thousand things (there’s that counting again) at arm’s length (and measuring again!)  When I fence off things, I am fencing myself off.  I keep on dividing what can’t be divided.  Counting what can’t be counted.

Perhaps the teaching of my father can serve me well here.  When he mowed, he simply started at the edge, and worked either back and forth, or in concentric circles growing smaller and smaller until the last blade of grass was cut.  No dividing what is indivisible.  No measuring, no figuring, no looking to the end–just him, the mower, and the lawn, until there was nothing left.  Just the fullness of the moment, and the smell of the sweet grass.


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