Beginning Zen practice can seem daunting. Beginning anything new is a little scary, but after some time we become more familiar and more at ease with what we are doing. When I first began, my attempts at Zen practice amounted to nothing more than sitting in a chair – a swivel one at that – and trying to get the mudra right. I felt foolish, awkward, and self conscious at first, thinking that if anyone walked into the room they’re going to think I had lost it.
Eventually I tried sitting for longer, again in the same swivel chair because that was all I had, and attempting to focus on my breathing and counting up to ten; as was recommended in the book I was reading. Am doing it correctly? Have I got the mudra right? Are my eyelids closed enough? Do I keep them open or close them? I was really self conscious and wanted to get it right.
Other questions came up: Was this for me? Why am I doing this?
At some point I moved to sitting on the floor and using a pillow for support. I had even gone so far as to buy a candle; what the hell was happening to me? It all felt very strange and disconcerting. It was at this time I realised I needed some guidance and found it in a Zen sitting group which I was amazed to find was right on my doorstep in Liverpool.
Off I went still feeling awkward but knowing instinctively that this was right for me. I met the man who was to become my teacher, Dave Scott. I had arrived early at his apartment and was introduced to some basics of practice. I’ll never forget my inner resistance to bowing, all twenty seven of them! At the end of the sitting period there was tea and a talk and I quickly started feeling at ease, enjoying the company of like minded people.
Next came a mat and a cushion; and further on the setting up of a home altar and while at that time not a regular practice, a practice of sorts. I tried it out, went on sesshin and dipped in and out. Just when I knew the practice was for me I don’t really know; but if we have deep seated questions and a sense of dissatisfaction with life as I did, then I suppose we either just put up with it or do something positive about it. I decided I wasn’t going to put up with my own nonsense anymore and decided to commit to the practice more and more.
The next stage was shoken, asking Sensei to formally be my teacher, and then taking jukai which for me was a proud moment and a public statement to the sangha of my intent to follow this particular path. Taking those initial small steps is what mattered most to me, because it led to where I am now, practicing on a regular basis and just doing my best. I asked myself recently what it is it I’m learning and I suppose the simplest answer is that I’m learning to live my life with more awareness, learning to live with way things are and not getting caught up too much in thoughts about how things should be, and accepting that this is a continuous process.
Keith Shingo Parr