Friday, April 11, 2014

On Living More Zen-ishly

I want to be Zen. Probably not real Zen, since I don't know all that much about it, but my conception of Zen. Which is pretty much the polar opposite of the real me. I'm not scared of Zen as a Christian, like it is something that will pull me away from faith in Christ. I know that the aspects of Zen I am drawn to are consistent with what we hear in the Bible. There are all kinds of "shoulds" in the New Testament, telling us how people who believe the gospel ought to act, or rather will act more and more as they grow in faith. Those things are summarized in a way I can easily digest in the statement Make Positive Effort For The Good.

In Natalie Goldberg's book Writing Down The Bones, she talks a lot about Katagiri Roshi, her teacher in Zen. She would moan and complain to him more than you would expect a zen student to do (and as a fellow Jew, I can relate), and once when she was depressed and miserable he simply told her to make positive effort for the good. I like that statement because it encompasses all the Biblical commands while also 1) helping to decide exactly what the heck you should do right now when there are probably many choices and 2) acknowledging that sometimes positive effort might be a very small thing, which helps when you tend towards depression, some kind of physical limitation or live with a lot of children. When you consider in each moment what action would be a positive effort for the good, you might choose to read to the child who has been pestering you to read, you might fold laundry, or you might make coffee and sit for 10 minutes in silence while you drink it - that counts because it is a positive effort for the good to avoid being put in the padded room.

I think this idea also assumes the practice of mindfulness, which is paying attention to the present moment and not judging it. That includes the stuff going on inside. In both the self-help culture and the Christian culture, there is this inability to have compassion for ourselves and others because we are always judging everything and everyone in comparison to some lofty ideal. Some people think acceptance means giving in to mediocrity or compromising your ideals. Ideals are good, but in practice they are always unattainable because we live in a fallen world and as you approach them, they always recede into the distance. Even if you are the type who has huge Radical-like goals for your life and a lot of physical energy, you are still only a finite person in the present moment - and in addition to eradicating the slave trade in your lifetime you also likely have to eat, do some kind of necessary work and/or interact with family and occasionally stay in bed with the stomach flu. Mindfulness is being where you are right now, feeling what you are feeling right now, accepting what you can do right now and not seeing the present moment as an enemy to be defeated so you can get on with whatever it is you would rather be doing or should be doing or would rather be feeling.

Here is an example from my own life. I always have a lot to do. I have all the household chores, all the childrearing with everything that entails, creative projects I want to work on. In addition to that, I am a naturally internal person, a thinker and someone with a lot of emotional baggage. When I look at any given moment, do I usually just make a positive effort for the good, no matter how small? No, I get swept away by my thoughts and emotions, which sometimes prevents me from doing anything, but most often just makes whatever I choose to do harder. Believe me, washing the dishes is a lot more pleasant if you just wash the dishes instead of washing them while beating yourself up about past failures, imagining future tragedies or personal glories or resenting people who should be doing the dishes instead of you. Of course, we all have thoughts and emotions constantly, but when you are mindful you are simply observing them along with whatever else is going on. So you simply become a person who is washing dishes and also having frustrated or resentful or sorrowful feelings. You accept that and don't turn it into an occasion to bash anyone (yourself included) OR an occasion to abandon the dishes.

I think the idea of accepting even the rocky and/or murky and/or downright horrifying parts of our inner landscape makes a lot of Christians uncomfortable. We don't want to admit what a mess we actually are. Or we think that accepting something means we are satisfied with it. But it really fits right in with taking God's word at face value, His word that tells us we absolutely cannot make the trek out of that dangerous and ugly place unless someone takes us by the hand and leads us out. Mindfulness, rather than being a kind of apathy, allows you to have clarity about things so you can determine how, practically, you can make positive effort towards the good in all of life.

I recently heard Pastor Tullian say that we need to look at the imperatives in the Bible (basically, God's we should act, think, etc.) through the lens of the Great Indicative - the fact that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It's only when we do this that we can freely work to make positive effort for the good, because it allows us to stop obsessing over How We Are Doing - a favorite pastime for most of us, and one so time-consuming and discouraging that we don't usually have time or eneergy for anything else.

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