Zen Student: I’ve been practicing for years, and for the last several months, it has become rather ho-hum. I’m still sitting regularly, attending group practice, but feel bored and wonder if something is missing.
Teacher: Our practice goes through many phases over a lifetime, shifts that ask us to deepen our understanding in ways we cannot yet know. Our inner and outer lives are in constant flux, so how could practice not be required to change as we walk the path? If we can muster some patience and trust this process, it always bears fruit. Start with: So interesting! The first approach to all new practice experience is to let go of evaluating whether what is happening is good or bad and whether you are doing it right or wrong. And then be curious.
Rather than fix the boredom outwitting it, go deeper into its environs. There are a million ways to experience what we label as “boredom.” Shift the mind from conclusion to investigation. Take some time to notice boredom’s texture in the body. How the energy might sink down, the body feel heavy or numb. Is the heart restless, or craving something exciting? Where is the mind’s attention going? What thoughts are circulating? What emotion is present? What impulses? Sit with this experience as a whole. Patiently, breath after breath, without any opposition whatsoever, we enter a paradoxical refreshing intimacy with the state of ho-hum. As you stay with it, what shifts or changes?
The important thing is not to give up, which means putting aside what boredom is telling you – that is, get out of here quick.
Once we’ve become intimate with some troubling phenomena, there’s a silent question to hold. What is this asking of me? Practicing is like being a snake shedding its skin. Year after year, we live into something that then becomes familiar. We take our new insights for granted. Then one day, whatever ideas we have about practice become newly restrictive. They no longer serve. We must shed that layer and venture out with a new more spacious and sensitive membrane. Without providing a preconceived response, we settle even more deeply studying this mind of boredom. For some practitioners, this state might completely dissolve without any understanding about it. For others, there may be the discovery and release of some deeply held karmic patterns and realization beyond the small self.
Sometimes ho-hum is simply the result of the comparing mind – expectations of what should be happening and ideas of how we should be feeling. Sometimes ho-hum is a retreat, a way to avoid some experience of anger, grief, shame or fear. Sometimes ho-hum emerges when we’ve misplaced our faith and forgotten why we practice. Sometimes ho-hum arrives when we’ve lost touch with our deepest personal koan. Sometimes ho-hum is a state of protection that keeps us from getting too close to something profound, selfless and wild. Sometimes ho-hum is just ho-hum.
Before knowing the nature of this particular ho-hum, it is always important to check in with the condition of one’s faith. We can find it in the yearning that brought us to practice, the suffering that begs its end. It’s said that the mind that seeks the way, that envisions a path, is the mind of buddha. What brought you here? When we appreciate and care for that impulse, that is the pure fuel of practice that keeps us steady and bright. It is immediately enlivening.
Staying steady with our stuck places brings humility. Practice is not upward and onward, bigger and better. More like down and in, around and through. Once when I gushed admiration for the level of insight my teacher expressed, Kyogen replied humbly that in truth, he had not gone anywhere, but with practice, circumstances simply caused him to become larger.
Fallow times are important to embrace in practice. Nothing happening. OK. No problem. But actually, look again. Like the still earth in winter, there is a lot happening under the surface in the dark. It’s a very powerful time. The earth absorbs the nutrients of rainfall. The husks of plants soften and decay. Dormant seeds begin to slowly swell and wake up. The etymological root of humility is related to humus, meaning “ground” or “soil.” To rest in the fallow time patiently without forcing or fighting is the path. One has to resist the impulse to make something happen.
Each difficulty we face in practice is a dharma gate with a blinking neon sign that says, Enter here. As soon as we’re curious about something, the state has already begun to shift. Like walking out into the moonless winter night, at first the cold is biting and we want to retreat. But if we stay still, our eyes start to acclimate to the subtle contours lit up by distant stars. The mystery of the dark beckons us to be quiet and listen.
With palms together,