Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Abiding in the Ordinary

When many people come to introspective practices, such as meditation, they come looking for special experiences, or they want to achieve extraordinary states of consciousness. To paraphrase Zen Master Suzuki Roshi, what is ordinary is to strive after something you think is special. What is truly special is to abide in the ordinary.

One powerful example is the feeling of the breath as the primary object of attention in vipassana practice. We may think that there is nothing more ordinary than this movement of air coming and going out twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for an entire lifetime. Yet what could be more important to us than this little stream of oxygen? If necessary, the human body can survive without food for about three weeks, and without water for about three days. If we stop breathing, however, brain cells begin to die after about 3 minutes, and brain death will follow in as little as 5 to 6 minutes.

There is a Zen teaching story about a student who came to the Master and said, "Roshi, don't you have any meditation practices more advanced than just feeling the breath over and over again? It's just so boring!" The Master thought for a moment, then replied, "Yes. You are ready for an advanced practice. Come with me." The Master led the student to a courtyard behind the Zendo, and stopped in front of a barrel of rain water. "Gaze into the the water," the Master ordered. As the student bent over the barrel, and the Master grabbed his head and plunged it into the water. The student flailed around, but the Master was strong and held his head under for about half a minute. Then he released the student, who jerked his head out of the water and gasped for air. "There," said the Master. "Was that breath boring?"

So rather than striving for the extraordinary, revel in the ordinary. Enlightenment is not about walking around in a permanently altered state of consciousness. It is seeing and accepting life as it is; finding beauty in the mundane, and insight in the commonplace.


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