I want to start with a little poem by the Zen monk Ryokan:

Today’s begging is finished; at the crossroads
I wander by the side of the Hachiman Shrine
talking with some children.
Last year, a foolish monk
This year, no change.

When I first heard this poem at a retreat, I was kind of appalled. Last year, a foolish monk. This year, no change?? Well if there’s no change, then what the heck are we doing here? So I want to talk tonight about meditation and the wish to change.

About a week ago, I went to a public hearing with the Zoning Board of Appeals about our new neighborhood coffee shop, called Nirvana. It was the night of the village stroll, so only a handful of people were there. When it came time for public comments, one of my neighbors got right up and gave a charming little speech on behalf of the shop. A bit later, I got up and spoke a few words. It looked dicey for a while, but eventually the board voted to approve the shop. I patted myself on the back for doing a minor good deed.

Then last weekend I went to a neighborhood party, and the first person I saw was the neighbor who had spoken at the hearing. She told me that at least six people had come up since the hearing to her to tell her how much they loved her remarks. It turns out the hearing was broadcast on cable TV.

Of course, my first thought was, “We were on TV??” And my second thought was, “Hey what about me?? Nobody has told me that I was wonderful!” And then around the 10th or 11th thought came, “I guess I’m not a good public speaker. Oh shoot! I told Jim I would do a dharma talk next week, what was I thinking!?” and on and on and on.

My point is: this is what the mind does (and I should add that in Buddhism, the term mind includes not just thoughts but also emotions.) It spends much of our waking hours trying to get a fix on the self and answer the question, “How am I doing? Am I okay?” The Zen term for this, I believe, is “checking.” We keep asking:

Am I doing it right? ? Am I good enough to belong? Am I good enough to be loved?

And typically we spent a lot of time toggling back and forth between grandiosity: “I am so special! I have been studying the dharma so long that I will give a talk that will knock their socks off!” and the opposite: “Who do I think I am?? It’s going to be boring, self-centered,” etc. etc.

Apparently, we are more or less stuck with this back and forth activity of the mind until the day we die. Years of practice do not completely stop it. But we do develop the capacity to view it with humor and affection, (a teacher of mine has a term I like: rueful amusement) and — if it’s particularly painful – to hold it with compassion.

I started to practice while I was a college student, motivated by the painfulness of this kind of constant self-evaluation. I had a deep belief that there was something fundamentally wrong with me that needed fixing, and spiritual practice seemed to offer a cure.  In my first practice, which was in a Hindu tradition, there was a mantra, and the breath, and even a little stand to prop my elbows on so I could block out sound with my fingers. Each time my attention wandered, I was instructed to bring it back to the mantra and the breath.

Now this is actually a very good practice, since we all have to learn to steady our minds at some point. Except for me, it didn’t really address the problem that had lead me to practice in the first place. I would sometimes experience great feelings of peace and bliss while practicing, but a short time later my crummy old self would be back.

Eventually, the single-pointed focus began to feel too restrictive, and I began to cheat. Instead of just following my breath and repeating my mantra, I began to listen to the sounds of birds and traffic outside, and to notice the content of my thoughts as they came up, instead of just returning to my mantra.

A few years later, I  met my first Buddhist teacher, who instructed me to listen to sounds. Later we added awareness of touch, and eventually were instructed to notice the arising and passing of thoughts. I thought, “Wow, this is great…this is what I’ve already been doing.” It felt like coming home.

But mindfulness practice by itself can have the same shortcoming as the concentration practice I had been doing before. While paying attention to the sounds of birds, the feel of a breeze, or a thought arising and passing  away, there can be a great feeling of spaciousness. The troublesome self seems to disappear for a while. But eventually it comes back, including all the unwanted parts.

So finally I came to the point where I had learn to deal directly with this troublesome self, especially the painful self-judging habits that had lead me to practice in the first place. This took the form of several years of metta – or loving kindness – practice, where the focus is on holding all parts of the self with kindness. To stop trying to fix things, but to just hold them with tenderness and sympathy.

And that meant especially embracing the part that was constantly asking, “Am I okay?” It’s very simple, and very hard. Because as soon as you start trying to direct loving kindness to yourself, all the negative attitudes, the judgments, the not-good enough feelings are exposed. And you have to learn to work with them, too. Sometimes you do the practice and you don’t feel even a single drop of loving kindness. But you can still have the intention to be kind, and it turns out, that’s enough.

In the beginning, I followed a fairly structured practice. Eventually, it evolved into an inner voice – a sort of Jewish/Italian grandmother voice – that would say, “That’s okay, sweetie.” and sometimes, “Of course you feel that way!”

Because that’s the fundamental question you eventually come down to: can you be okay with everything? Just as it is? Everything about yourself? And everything outside yourself? Even the things you don’t like?

Zen teacher Charlotte JoKo Beck has a term that I like: practicing your ABCs which she says stands for becoming A Bigger Container. When something comes along that you don’t like, can you be a container big enough to hold it…a space where it’s okay? And if it’s not okay, if you reject it, can you become a big enough container to hold that?  To hold your rejection, your anger, and so on and have that be okay? She says, “There’s no limit to how big the container can become, because the container is a measure of the amount of life we can hold and be okay with.”

When I started to come to Zen practice here on the Cape and then later in Providence, one of the things that struck me was the laughter. The people in this school had wonderful laughs. Sometimes it could be a little annoying. It was like they were all in on a big joke, and I wanted to say, “Okay guys, spill! What’s so funny?” I think Zen is particularly good at seeing the humor in our predicament, in our constant struggle to have things be different from the way they are, including our wish for ourselves to be different

On some level, the essence of humor is an appreciation for the constant thwarting of our expectations. In a cartoon, you might see a guy walking along, and then oops! He slips on a banana peel! Or an anvil falls on his head! If you were the cartoonist, you might make it a little bit funnier by having him whistling as he walks along, dressed for a date with a little bouquet of daisies in his hand. Because that heightens the contrast between what he is expecting and what he gets.

You may have seen a thing going around called “six-word autobiographies”.  Some of them are funny and some a little sad:

Secret to life: Marry an Italian.
My life was a beautiful accident.
Thought I would have more impact.
Not living up to potential.
I was and now I’m not.

But one I particularly like is: Not what I had in mind, because it captures the way life so often thwarts our plans. And also the fact that it’s our mind that tells us that life should be different from how it is….that we should be different from the way we are.

Now you are probably thinking that it’s not at all funny in real life when bad stuff unexpectedly happens. When we slip and fall, maybe break a hip, or when it happens to someone we care about, not funny. Or when we lose our job, not funny. Or how about those people in California last week? They were safely at home and a jet fighter plane crashed into their house, killing the mother and baby. Not funny! Not what they had in mind! But can you imagine becoming a big enough container so that even that is okay on some level? Even though it hurts and and you struggle against it and hate it? Can it be both sad and okay? Maybe you’re not there yet. I know I’m not, although sometimes I have a taste of it. But anyway, that’s the work, that’s what we practice.

In so many cases, we don’t get to choose how things are, but we can choose our relationship to how things are. Sometimes we can laugh. Sometimes we can accept. Sometimes we just have to cry. Zen has a phrase for those sorts of those times…Great Love, Great Sadness. When all else fails, it’s good to remember to use our best kindly grandmother voice, and say, “That’s okay, sweetie…That’s okay”