‘A personal reflection on showing up’ by Dorinda Cho’on Talbot

When I was offered the opportunity to give a talk at our London day of Zen recently, I decided to choose the topic suggested by the SWZ Newsletter editors:

Woody Allen said “Eighty per cent of success is showing up, and often inspiration waits until you do.” The editors went on to say that someone else (that famous 21st century Zen teacher) said “When we are willing to show up with our insecurities we create new possibilities.” What does this mean for you and do you have any experience of its wisdom or otherwise?

The following is an adaptation of that talk, based on my 30-odd years of showing up on the cushion.

A slow descent
I’ll begin with the idea of showing up. Maybe because it sounds American, I don’t know, but I don’t like this phrase. There’s something simplistic about it – it sounds a little bit casual, throwaway, a little bit glib*. I don’t want to just show up, or make an appearance. I’m rewinding back to the beginning of my practice here and what motivated me to start sitting. I don’t need Woody Allen or anyone else telling me to show up. I’m already here, I’ve been born! That’s the thing, I want something more. So for the purpose of this micro exploration, I’m going to replace or clarify the phrase showing up with being present. Eighty per cent of success – in this context, the success of living my life as fully as possible – is the intention to be fully present. And that chimes with my motivation for beginning, and continuing, practice.

When I began Zen practice, around 30 years ago, circa 1987, I was desperate to find a way to be comfortable in my own skin, to land in my own body. Zazen seemed to offer a tried-and-tested way of learning how to be present to the experience of my own life.

Now that I’ve said I don’t like the phrase showing up I’m going to be using it all the time! You could say that 80 per cent of success is down to showing up on the cushion (or the chair, of course). In other words, deciding to take time out from a left-brain-led life of constant busyness and distraction and making a commitment (at some point it has to become non-negotiable) to be here now.

If you could see my 30 years of practice as a super-slow motion film it would look like a long, slow process of sitting down. Arriving. Moving back towards the midline of the body and settling downwards to connect with the earth. I have read that some traditional elders describe the purpose of spiritual practice as being fully descended — I love that description and find it really helpful. My years of practice have been about finding the stability, alignment, flexibility and resilience to begin to settle and open up to the actual experience that my body is receiving — as well as all the information/experience that my body has received to date but which has been ignored, walled off from consciousness and held in hidden places within the soma. As Buddhist teacher and writer Reggie Ray says, the body, the soma is the unconscious — it’s not an abstract back room somewhere in the brain. To expand a bit on how deeply body based this practice is, I want to offer a quote from Reggie’s book Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realisation in the Body:

“We might think that the process of walling off experience is fairly simple, manifesting through obvious physical tension – a tight back, frozen shoulders, a rigid pelvis, and so on. The experience of Tibetan yoga suggests that this is a vastly oversimplified view. In fact, the repression that occurs when we push back against the body’s knowledge involves every part of our body – not just our muscles and tendons, but our cartilage, all our organs, our nervous system, our bones, and even our blood and lymph systems. According to Tibetan yoga, when we push back against our experience, the totality of the unreceived knowledge is held in every part of our physical organism down to our very cells.”

So there’s plenty to be getting on with in this showing up on the cushion! But if we can learn to reside in the body, learn its language and receive what it has to offer then life does begin to open up. There can even be something quite delicious about this process of deeply reconnecting to the soma – returning to the primordial, or to our natural state, as Reggie would say.

Okay, so if 80 per cent of success is showing up, sitting down on the cushion and beginning to listen to and feel into our experience in a new way. What’s the 20 per cent? I want to suggest here that perhaps that 20 per cent is whatever it is that I need to do in addition to sitting down. What else might I need to do in order to support this journey of arrival, of descent?

No way!
Which brings me to the second phrase or second part of the second phrase – When we are willing to show up with our insecurities we create new possibilities. Now, on one level that’s nonsensical, because there isn’t a me and my insecurities. When I sit down, I am sitting with everything, including my insecurities, my fears, my traumas. But again, it isn’t that simple. My initial response to that phrase – certainly back in 1987 as an angst-ridden 26 year old – is No way! I’m not at all willing to show up with my insecurities.

Surely, my insecurity is the problem. Isn’t it the fear and anxiety, the shakiness beyond my control, that are preventing me from being fully present to my own life? This brings up a feeling of impasse. It reminds me of the film 127 Hours, where the American hiker has to cut off is own arm when a boulder traps him in the base of a Utah canyon. There is some motivation there, but it’s not really willingness, it’s more like desperation. And at the same time, there’s an unwillingness, a refusal – and perhaps even despair at the impossibility of the situation. The idea of showing up with my insecurities – especially in front of another human being – can feel as impossible as cutting off my own arm!

Also, on a separate note, seemingly simple statements such as the above, can even feed my fear, add pressure to a pressure-cooker situation. It’s all too easy for my ego to translate it into -– I should be able to be present with my insecurities.

Willing and able
So maybe the question is less about willingness and more about what will enable me to be present to my own experience, including my deepest insecurities and traumas. I need to be willing and able. And what I need to be able to do that – at any one time – will probably be very different to what another person might need. So as well as the slow-motion process of showing up on the cushion, connecting to the earth and learning the language of the soma, the 20 per cent is an ongoing enquiry into what I need in my life right now to be able to be present with my insecurities. It’s easy to push those needs away, thinking they are just an indulgence of the ego, but actually there’s a danger of ignoring something that needs to be taken care of.

At a certain point — about 20 years ago — I begrudgingly realised I needed some help in order to get to know my insecurities. I couldn’t do it on my own. In truth, I don’t think anyone can do it on their own because there’s no such thing as an isolated person, a single being — we come into being through relationship. Although sitting practice enabled me to begin to connect to my somatic experience, it was of limited use (for me!) when it came to being able to connect with other human beings. Personal psychotherapy (in particular Buddhist-based Core Process Psychotherapy) has been an invaluable part of my journey. The emphasis is different, but I consider it to be part of the same work of opening up to the totality of my experience. Essentially it’s about learning how to trust another human being in order to explore barely known about and very deeply held insecurities – hard-to-grasp states such as frozen fear and dissociation, for instance.

Before embarking on a psychotherapeutic enquiry, I think I had some idea that the three poisons — the activities of aggression or pushing away; desire or trying to draw in positive experiences; and ignorance — were something that I was wilfully doing. The Core Process training has helped me to feel into how they operate on a deeply somatic, felt-sense level. It’s been hugely beneficial to understand more about how my earliest – including prenatal – relational experiences have set the blueprint for how I meet the world. I have a lot more understanding of and compassion for my fears and insecurities. I can be with them. It seems that I don’t have to cut my arm off with a penknife, after all!

Finally, to the last part of the phrase. When we are willing to show up with our insecurities we create new possibilities. (I’m sorry, but I’m rushing to finish so that I can show up in front of Netflix.) Needless to say, even the last part of the statement doesn’t entirely work for me. It sounds a bit too much like a strapline for Jimmy McGill’s TV commercial business – we create new possibilities. For me, showing up – inhabiting and trusting my whole body, which is not separate from the earth – removes the need for me to do or create anything. If I can be more at ease with allowing and somatically enquiring into those shaky parts of myself, I can then see and take part in the possibilities that are already there, that are just arising all the time. And what a bloody relief that is.

*Glib — fluent and easy, often in an insincere and deceptive way. C16: probably from Middle Low German glibberich slippery.  All you need to do is just show up.