What Will I Get Out of Practice?
The popular media these days seems to promise meditation as a cure to all that ails you, from stress to illness to low productivity. And indeed, many people are motivated to take up meditation in response to suffering of one sort or another. But the truth is, real practice won't give you anything you don't already have. We want to make meditation into a self-improvement project. We want to become calmer, wiser, more compassionate, more focused. Over time, we do tend to stumble into these qualities. But we can't just focus on what we want to gain from meditation.
The word "meditation" sounds very spiritual, but really all we are doing is sitting still and attending to our breathing. Lots of thoughts and feelings come and go, but at the core we are just sitting there. In this sense, practice is very physical, and very simple. We are just being with things as they are.
Often we set out with an understandable wish to gain something from our practice. But meditation is much more about stripping away the workings of our minds that get in the way of seeing things as they are. In the course of this work, we find that we relinquish our opinions, judgments, stories about ourselves and the world, even the self-improvement project. We have to give up all our ideas about how we should be and how other people should be. We even give up our much cherished identity. This can be frightening, but it's also incredibly liberating.
What might we hope for as spiritual practice ripens and matures? Here are a few thoughts; I'm interested in other points of view.
After a year of regular practice, you will probably find that you are more compassionate toward yourself and others. You will be less emotionally reactive. And you will be more tolerant of all kinds of difficulty, in yourself and in the world.
After five years of practice, you will likely be experiencing more clarity about who you are and what's important in life. You should have less angst about yourself, and more inclination to see how you can realistically be of help in the world.
After a decade or two of practice, you won't struggle much with life. Your main orientation will be how to best respond to any situation you are in. Not that you will be a perfect person, personality and rough spots endure, but you will be clear and resolved enough about yourself to work with internal and external suffering skillfully.
Practice Beyond Meditation: Stepping into Tradition
While meditation is central to Zen, it is only one part of its method of transformation. In order to mature in our practice, we must take up other aspects of the tradition. When we enter the path of Zen, we become a part of a very old path that has many ways of teaching and supporting us. By becoming a part of a sangha (spiritual community), we find that we support each others' practice, and vividly experience the truth of interdependence. And when we take a spiritual teacher, we are able to form an intimate relationship devoted to cultivating our realization, finding our blind spots, and working with difficulties along the way. And by studying the teachings of Zen, we learn from the wisdom of our ancestors.
In my experience, over years of practice I have been indelibly shaped by taking the precepts and putting them at the center of my life. I've also been fortunate to enlarge the view of practice in the midst of life by immersion in the koan tradition. These are more advanced aspects of practice for those who commit to the Way. But my experience is that the precepts and the koans are a powerful technology for challenging our habits of mind and body, and for waking us up. In order to truly reach mature stages of practice, we are best served by taking on the wisdom of the whole lineage and tradition, and allowing it to work on us.