When I reflect on what it means to ‘show up’, three levels of meaning come up for me.
The first is literally, physically, to show up! To actually get my backside in gear and ‘show up’ at the Zendo at least once a week – even when I’m tired and drained after a long day at work. It also means to ‘show up’ and get my bum on my cushion each morning and evening at home, whether or not part of me might prefer an extra hour in bed or just one more episode of whichever Netflix series my wife and I are currently engrossed in! (our light entertainment wind down after our toddler goes to bed!). It means to get out of bed, to go to work, fulfil my responsibilities. Doing that which the generation beneath me calls ‘adulting’. This basic level of showing up is a pre-requisite for anything else of interest, meaning or benefit to take place.
Sometimes showing up on the cushion each day is effortlessly automatic. I just do it. Other times, such as if I’m tired or ill, it takes a little grit and discipline – ‘right effort’ as it’s called in the eightfold path, combined with ‘right intention’ – reminding myself of the intentions, motivation and aspiration that bring me to practice – to relieve the subtle Dukkha of unease and lack, to live with greater freedom, spaciousness, clarity and authenticity, to appreciate my life and live more fully, to be of benefit to others. But when I do show up, the rest often takes care of itself. The candle is lit. Incense is offered. Sitting happens. Chanting happens. I remind myself that “life and death are of supreme importance”. I’m almost always glad for having done the formal practice. But first I must show up. I’m naturally lazy so showing up isn’t always easy. I’m embarrassed to say that my first instinct in many situations seems to often be – what is the easiest course of action? What requires the least energy, time or responsibility from me? When my practice is solid and flowing and I am in a good place, this is experienced as a transitory resistance or tension in the body that arises when I need to act. It is felt and experienced, and then I just do what needs to be done – what the reality of this moment requires of me. When my practice is less solid or I am tired or feeling stressed and overwhelmed, this resistance can take root and is fed by thinking. My mind is skilled at generating convincing rationalizations and justifications for not doing what needs to be done! In order to show up, I must get out of my own way and just put one foot in front of another.
The second level of meaning that ‘showing up’ has for me is to show up to my life as it manifests moment-to-moment. This goes beyond just being physically present, going through the motions and doing what needs to be done. Whilst sometimes going through the motions is all I have to offer, I aspire to much more than that – to actually engage wholeheartedly with my life as it unfolds, moment to moment. This is one of the main motivations for my ongoing practice. When I show up at this level, I’m not just physically present (whether on the cushion or getting on with my daily activities), but am paying attention; attending to what is in front of me – bringing my whole heart-mind and life energy to whatever it is that I am doing, whether it is sitting Shikantaza, working with a koan, playing with my son, working with a client, walking, cooking, cleaning – as Tenshin Roshi says, what you are doing now is the most important thing. And then what we do next becomes the most important thing. When I remember to show up at this level, life takes on a vivid richness and vibrancy, it feels fuller and more complete – I am able to embrace, value and appreciate my life. The Universe is teaching each moment, but if I don’t show up, I miss the lesson and the opportunity. But I can easily forget to show up in this way, falling into the conditioned patterns of busyness, avoidance, entertainment, distraction, and addiction that distance me from my life, numb me and distract me from the most important thing. Zen practice has a way of reminding me to pay attention – “time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost… Awaken!”
The final layer of meaning for me in the term “show up” is that, as well as being physically present and bringing my energy and attention to the matter at hand, I aspire to do so with authenticity, congruence, and vulnerability. This level of ‘showing up’ is about how I show up in relation to other people. My practice / life does not exist independently from the interpersonal relationships that give my life context and meaning. There are my wife, Lynsey and son, Morgan, my parents, brother and extended family, Sensei and the Sangha, friends, colleagues, clients, and the numerous acquaintances and strangers that populate my life on a moment-to-moment basis. How I relate to each of these people feels like an integral part of my practice that is not separate from sitting on the cushion, working with a koan or studying a sutra. It is often in relation to others that my practice feels most alive. To ‘show up’ in these relationships means to be honest, but more than that, to speak my truth and be who I am, insecurities and all. It feels like I owe it to myself, to the people in my life and, somehow, to life itself, to give full expression to my nature… to express the full spectrum of my unique manifestation of Buddha Nature. This includes giving expression to my unique talents and qualities. But to show up means to acknowledge and express not just the acceptable parts of myself, but also my shadow – those tendencies and vulnerabilities that I would rather you didn’t see in case you don’t like me or reject me…
I’m really quite scared that you won’t like me, you see. Logically I know it doesn’t matter. I have a reasonably healthy sense of self in many respects – I know I have several likeable qualities and that I have people in my life that do like, love, respect and value me. But I still fear your judgment and rejection. I freeze sometimes when we have to make small talk, and chastise myself for not being able to think of something interesting to say. The thing is, I’m a good conversationalist! In fact, I have a professional qualification in listening and engaging people in conversation! And if we were sat in a comfy coffee shop with nowhere to rush off to, I’m sure we could really make an authentic connection. But catch me off the cuff if we bump into each other unexpectedly or even in the 10-minute tea break after service on a Wednesday night… and the fear descends, manifesting in an awkward self-consciousness. Even though my life is full of people, I feel lonely sometimes, like I don’t really fit or belong anywhere. I sometimes feel like an imposter, waiting to be found out. I feel overwhelmed by life sometimes like I want to hide or run away. Then there are my body issues… I am overweight and feel such an aversion, inhibition and self-consciousness around my own body… and yet I continue to make choices that maintain my current body shape. It’s part of a bigger ‘red thread’ in my life in which I struggle to find balance but oscillate between restriction and indulgence. This creates a sense of shame and a desire to hide and not be seen.
I’m doing my best to ‘show up’ now by letting you into some of these insecurities. Perhaps you have some of them too, or some different ones. I don’t always have the courage to ‘show up’ in this way, but I aspire to take a risk to express my authentic feelings and speak my truth when it is the right time to do so. This allows deeper connections to be forged and gives others in my life permission to accept and express their own feelings and their own shadow. I practice showing up when I speak my truth, even when it goes against what everyone else present feels, and even when they might not appreciate what I have to say. Again, I do not always have the courage to do this, and once lost a friend through failing to do this when the time was right, but I aspire to practice it when the opportunity arises.
I also strive to show up and practice in my relationships by aspiring to be accountable, responsible, honest, humble, generous, gentle, kind and compassionate. To show up in this particular way – in short, to embody and manifest the precepts in all of my relationships. I fall short of this several times every day, but it feels integral to my practice to keep… practising! The Mahayana path is centred around the Bodhisattva ideal – the seemingly impossible aspiration to save all sentient beings. I don’t know how I do that. But I do know how to be of benefit to the people in my little corner of the Universe, by working on myself (to save them from myself, as Brad Warner puts it!) and ‘showing up’ to the best of my ability – as a husband, father, counsellor, Zen student and Sangha member, and when I get it wrong, learning from the experience so that I can do better next time. In this way, I feel like I am responding to this life, ‘showing up’ in a way that honours it – the wise warning echoes around my head – “Take heed! Do not squander your life”.