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Zen Meditation: It's not what you think!

Non-Attachment

When we hear about zen practice one of the words that we often hear is “non-attachment.” We learn that zen teaches nonattachment. What does this really mean?

Most of us feel that the things that we care about are the things that make life worth living. Our friends, families and loved ones, beautiful experiences like art and music or being in nature, the pleasures of the body, the taste of good food, the feeling of accomplishment getting things done. Does nonattachment mean letting go of these things? Does it mean that we should stop caring? And if it does, do we really want to do that?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me about the Buddhist approach to preferences. She said that she had heard that Buddhism teaches that we should have absolutely no preferences, but she couldn't see how this was a good thing or even possible. I said that being human means that we will have preferences. There's no escaping it. We prefer health to illness and kindness to insensitivity. We'd rather not have pain and worry and we'd prefer to be happy. In fact, to say that we should live without preferences sounds an awful lot like a preference to me.

But this is not the end of the story. If we start to demand that we get our preferences, that all our wishes be fulfilled, we are in for a big struggle with a lot of suffering. So the lesson that life keeps trying to teach us is that things won't always go the way we think they should. If this bothers us, then we are going to be bothered a lot. I think most people see the truth of this, but they don't know any alternative.

We think the alternative is to just give up, to stop caring. Sometimes we do just that. It may change the way that we suffer, but it's not very satisfying.

What the Buddha taught was mindful awareness of the present moment. If a like or a dislike arises, we are aware of it. We don't judge it as good or bad. We don't chase after it or try to run away from it. We just accept that this is what we are currently feeling/thinking. Knowing that it is true now doesn't mean that it won't change. Knowing that it will change doesn't mean that it's not true now.

We try to act with wisdom and compassion, but we don't always succeed. Even when we do act this way it doesn't always turn out the way we'd like. Letting go means continuing to live and do our best. It means not denying the way things are but it isn't some kind of resignation.

We are living human beings. We prefer life to death, love to hate, compassion to cruelty. Every moment we need to make a new choice, even if that choice is not to choose. On what basis do we choose? Out of our karma, our current understanding, and our current situation comes a preference. Can we see it for what it is? Can we choose without demanding? Can we choose without abandoning the wholeness of the present moment? We have to do something. We have to care. How do we do that? How do we keep our balance in the midst of joy and pain, excitement and boredom?

Nonattachment means seeing our preferences for what they are. We realize that the world, which is to say our life, is very complex and beyond anyone's control. We may have preferences, but if we are to find some satisfaction and involvement in the world we need to let them rise and fall. The more we stick to our preferences, the more we are going to suffer. When we accept that, we can view our preferences differently and the suffering will actually ease a little bit.

Nonattachment doesn't mean not caring. What it means is not demanding that things go according to our preferences and holding ourselves hostage until they do.

The opening paragraph of Dogen's Genjokoan ends by saying, “Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.” I interpret this to mean that we cannot control things with our attachment and aversion. Flowers bloom, blossoms fall. We tend our garden, weeds spread. As one poet said in a different context, “Be angry at the sun for setting if these things anger you.”

But don't resign, don't be bitter. Care. Be engaged. Love and love again. Like the flower, bloom and fall. There will be weeds, but keep tending the garden.

A couple of months ago I heard an interview with the poet Leonard Cohen. He read from his new book of poems, The Book of Longing. One poem says,

"Only one thing made him happy,
and now that it was gone, everything made him happy."

© 2006, Burai Rick Spencer
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