Life is very busy and also very short. It can fly by very quickly. Many of us are born with some particular drive or aspiration or vision to engage in spiritual inquiry. Some of us embrace what feels like our path and others of us push the nagging questions aside in favor of the necessities of the day. Later, after time has passed, some of us regret not embracing those big questions about life. So what can you do to find the time you need?
Recently, I got a note from a father who gets up very early each morning to work. He spends the evenings with his children and after they go to bed he is very tired.
He was, by nature, a spiritual seeker but he wanted to know: How do I find time for meditation practice?
How, when everything is so busy, are we supposed to find time for meditation and contemplation? How are we supposed to find time for spiritual inquiry?
To me, this is a hugely important dilemma. It seems like humanity is headed off the cliff and part of that is because we don’t understand ourselves and our true place in the world.
Here is my reply:
How are you? Thank you for your note through the Kwan Um’s “Ask A Teacher.” My name is Colin Beavan and I am a senior dharma teacher in our school. Your questions got forwarded to me.
You say that you used to practice in a certain Buddhist community but left it and now practice Kwan Um Zen style on your own. Clearly, in addition to your practical questions, you have some big questions about life itself! You seem very motivated if the thread of practice has continued through your life and from one style to another. On the other hand, you have a very busy life, between work and parenting, and also your mind comes up with excuses that cause you to put practice off.
But what is it that causes you to keep trying? What makes you care about this practice? What are the big questions for you?
In my own case, I am so desperately curious. What *is* this? What is the most fundamental part of what is going on here? In short, what am I? I don’t want my life to pass without finding some understanding. What about you?
Life is very busy and also very short. It can fly by very quickly. Many of us are born with some particular drive or aspiration or vision to engage in spiritual inquiry. Some of us embrace what feels like our path and others of us push the nagging questions aside in favor of the necessities of the day. Later, after time has passed, some of us regret not embracing those big questions about life.
For many of us, answering the big questions and developing a “spiritual” connection or–what we would call in our tradition–finding your “True Self” or “Big I” seems to take a certain amount of effort and dedication over years. That is why it is so often said that the time to start is now. “Hurry, hurry. Soon dead.” You might have read some words like from our founding teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn.
All of this is to ask: Why do you want to practice in the first place? How important is it to you? Also, you mentioned many family and work obligations. Do you ever wonder whether taking the time for consistent practice might make you a better worker, husband, father, friend and community member?
Whatever your motivation for practice, whatever is your big question, remembering that motivation is one way to help get yourself to the cushion. Whether you know it consciously or not, some part of you seems to have a vow to practice. In my own case, the question is not whether to honor that vow but how to honor it.
You mention that you have a hard time finding time to get to the cushion. My suggestion is that you choose a practice area–even just the corner of a room–and promise to touch your butt to that spot once every day. Even five minutes is a good start but just to touch your butt there for a moment is a good reminder too. Don’t worry about whether or when it will get longer. Just do your five minutes.
Secondly, people like you and I are not monks. Our life situation means our job is not to probe the big question–What am I?–while sitting in the forest. Our life situation is to probe the question while being a person who works and rides the Metro and moves through life like everyone else. Finding a way to peace, wisdom and compassion in this complicated world is a big service to everyone.
So in all times and all places, do all day practice. “What am I?” “What is this?” Many thoughts will flood in trying to answer those questions. But no thoughts can answer them. A thought that can contain the truth of what we are would be like a mosquito that can hold an elephant in its stomach. When the thoughts flood in, return to your breath or the task at hand and allow yourself to “Don’t know.”
“Don’t know” is the place of your Original Self. It is the place before thoughts and opinions. Our practice is about watching from the place of not knowing. Then your center will become strong and you will begin to truly understand yourself and help others without distraction.
So, in addition to your five minutes each day on the cushion, keep your Fundamental Curiosity and return to not knowing all day long. “What is This?” before you form an opinion about it? Don’t know.
Lastly, you mention having thoughts like “I don’t need to practice now. I’ll do twice as long tomorrow.” Those thoughts are your teachers!! They are not suggesting that you turn away from practice but are a really deep invitation into practice.
All day long, we have these kind of thoughts. “Do this! No, don’t do that.” They unconsciously boss us around and tell us what to do. We think that true freedom is to follow these thoughts. But actually, true freedom does not come until you understand the real nature of them.
So when they start coming just before you practice, that is perfect! You can sit down and practice and watch them while not knowing. Then, they become your teachers instead of your demons.
Last thing, if you need a sangha to sit with, why not start one? Just invite a friend who seems interested and then another. Then you can write to us and say that there is a new Kwan Um sitting group.
I hope you keep Don’t Know Mind all day long, get real understanding and use that understanding for the benefit of yourself, everyone you know and everyone you don’t know.
PS What do you understand right now?