Engaged to Reality

“As Zen practitioners we discover calmness right in the center of our hurly-burly life.”

When I was in my twenties, I attended classes and sat meditation at the Zen Meditation Center in Minneapolis. The Center is located on Lake Calhoun (now renamed Bde Maka Ska). The first time I went there, it was a warm summer day. From the open windows you could hear the cars going by and people shouting on the beach below and above jets taking off from the airport. I was used to meditating in a quiet spot and thought I would never be able to meditate with all the noise. But I gave it a try, and after a while I found that I could just accept the noise. It was the sound of that place and that time, a part of its reality. With time, it came to seem as natural as my breathing.

The quote at the beginning of this article is from a book titled, Nothing Holy About It: The Zen of Being Just Who You Are, by Tim Burkett. I knew nothing about the author when I bought the book, but its title caught my interest. After reading a few chapters, I realized that the author had been the Zen instructor who led the meditation on that first day and most of the other times when I attended.  (It’s a good book. If you are interested in meditation of any kind, I’d recommend it.)

Coming across this sentence in the book reminded me of that first day at the Center and how much I had learned from it – the most important being precisely that I could find calmness right in the center of the hurly-burly of life.

There have been times in my life when I’ve felt like I’d like to be a monk tucked away in some quiet monastery. My brother had attended a Catholic College that included a Benedictine monastery. That monastery had a beautiful location and monks seemed gentle and contented souls. If it wasn’t for liking sex so much and having such a strong desire to experience the world fully, becoming a monk might have been an option, though likely a Buddhist rather than a Christian one. But barring that option, I did the next best thing. I developed a contemplative practice amid my everyday life.

True spirituality can never be an escape from everyday reality or a going backward to the simplicity of childhood, but must always be a moving forward into a deeper engagement with life and reality. Marriage, a family, a career, keeping up a house, and the rest of it all greatly impinge on a contemplative practice. But if you make such a practice a high priority, second only to the needs of family and friends, not only can you keep it going, but you can bring all those activities into the practice. Believe it or not, you can turn doing your taxes into a contemplative activity. And since taxes are one of the recurrent realities of our existence, finding a spiritual dimension in doing them is a rather creative way to engage with reality.

There is an old saying in its tradition that “Zen is chopping wood and carrying water.” How much easier it is to be contemplative while chopping wood and carrying water than paying energy bills and sewer assessments. But such is our reality. And if we think we need some more accommodating reality before we can begin a spiritual practice, we may wait forever.

Of course, developing a contemplative life amid the hurly-burly of life is not easy, anything but. Staying mindful in the modern world (and probably at any other time) is challenging. It requires a kind of reverse gymnastics. Where a gymnast has to build up the strength and agility to do leaps and twists, in meditation we have to train a mind that is given to leaping and twisting to just sit still for a while. For some reason the mind seems to prefer tumbling about.

I am now retired from work, my children have moved out, my wife and I get along wonderfully. I have pretty much everything I want. In many ways this makes a contemplative life much easier. But sometimes it almost seems too easy; sometimes I miss the challenge of incorporating the world’s hurly burliness into my meditation. Facing challenges in both physical and spiritual practices provides opportunities to become stronger.

One nice thing about a contemplative practice is that age is no obstacle. It’s not like the jogging practice that the aches and pain of age finally caused me to abandon. I feel no loss of mental agility; no stiffening of the neurons. Often in meditation my mind feels as fresh as it did when I was a child.

* * * * * *

There is a great engagement with reality that still lies in front of me – continued aging and ultimate demise. I hope I can remain open and mentally fresh even as I move through that reality. Nothing I could have gained during my life, I’m quite sure, is of greater value in facing that reality than what I have gained in my contemplative practice. And for that I give thanks to all the teachers, in person or in books, that have helped me develop it.


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4 thoughts on “Engaged to Reality”

  1. That’s beautiful Thomas. It also speaks to some of the troubles that I am encountering as I try to build my own meditative contemplative practice. Thank you for giving me some ideas and inspiring me there

  2. Thank you, Thomas. One Zen teacher said, “Marriage is the monastery of the West.” I find it so.

    Hurly burly life.
    Thoughts tumbling wildly on,
    Practice continues.

    • James, very nice haiku. Punctuates my article wonderfully

      I’m not sure I completely understand what the Zen teacher means by his or her statement. But thinking about marriage in Buddhist terms, I might say that marriage is a large Dharma gate, but through that gate is an elaborate maze that may lead us deeper along the Buddha’s way or get us so turned around that we lose our way completely :-).

      • You’ve captured the sense of it. Marriage offers repeated opportunities to confront the ego’s programs for happiness. Parenting as well.


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