Monday, October 10, 2011

Advice for Beginners

This past Friday and Saturday I went back to City Center after a long hiatus. How long? Well I was surprised to see that it's been almost three months since the last time I was there.

A Memorial

Friday I went to attend the memorial service for Steve Jobs. I've had the privilege of working for Steve for a few years now and have been a fan for a long time so the news was particularly difficult, and added to the loss of one of my grandmothers the day before it made for a somber week. Driving down to Cupertino on Friday was pretty emotional and as I offered incense in front of a small picture of Steve that evening it was hard not to break down and just start sobbing. I left immediately after the service, though, and didn't stay for dinner. So while I got back into the building my aversion is still in play.

A Come to Buddha Moment

Saturday I went to attend the morning Zazen and lecture, though I missed the early sit, service and oryoki breakfast because I was up late the night before. After the talk Nancy, our Membership & Alumni Manager asked me to say a few words about why I signed up as a member. It was an emotional moment at the end of an emotional week and I didn't want to go on too long and ramble so I made just two brief points:

First, what goes on at Zen Center in the city and Green Gulch on Saturday and Sunday mornings are just the tip of the iceberg, there are so many diverse and interesting programs on offer around Zen Center that it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't find something of interest. If you're new to Zen Center there's a lot to learn and many opportunities to do so.

Secondly, the practice of sitting meditation is difficult. It's physically demanding and can be emotionally challenging. I struggled for years with my personal practice and only in the last ten months of being involved with the Zen Center have I been able to get beyond 20-30 minutes sits a few times a week. Zazen is a team sport, and having the support of a community is essential to making real progress. I have immense gratitude for the care and support of the community I've received.

To expand on what I said Saturday, here is specific advice to beginners at Zen Center, taken from my personal experience over the last ten months of involvement:

Advice for First Timers

Come back. I've seen a lot of people come and go from the weekly meditation introduction, this is to be expected, the practice of Zen isn't for everybody. But if you find that the introduction whets your appetite then come back and sit as much as you can, there's a lot more to Zen than sitting but everything revolves around that. Suzuki Roshi, when confronted with a new student full of questions and problems that they wanted solved by a Zen master would give the same advice in pretty much every instance: "Come back at 5AM and sit Zazen with us."

The advice seems odd, we have problems and want to find solutions, want to know what action to take to resolve them. Being told to sit down and do nothing, well, it's a real challenge to the way we've learned to deal with the world. Don't try to fix anything, just sit and accept it as it is. This is the heart of the practice, and for beginning students the most important thing is just to start the process, which means sitting as much as you can.

Advice for Returning Beginners

So, you came back, great, good to see you again. Now it's time to get to know the community a bit, this will be important for the next step, when you'll find that having a support network built up is pretty much essential. There are many opportunities to interact with the residents and members of Zen Center, volunteer, spend a week at Green Gulch as a guest retreatant (I don't recommend signing up as a guest student just yet), take a class or attend a workshop that looks interesting.

The idea here is to get to know some of the residents and regulars, build some relationships and prepare yourself for your first one-day or half-day sitting. I spend a lot of time volunteering for the children's program and hanging out with other Zen Center parents, for e.g. Showing up for early sittings, service and soji is another good way to meet people, though you may end up scrubbing a few toilets in the process.

To Join or Not to Join

Now comes the big moment, do you want to become a member? I joined on Buddha's Birthday this year, before my first One Day Sitting, and honestly I don't recommend it. Not that I regret it in any way but the full day of sitting is a good test to see if you're really into the practice. Some people have a very hard time with the forms, some people are really attracted to them, it pays to find out which camp you're in before signing up. If the forms aren't for you, there's a number of vipassana meditation centers around the Bay Area (I personally find that Vipassana is too secularized, but a lot of people like it for that reason).

If you find that the One Day sit is tolerable and if you notice that the world seems like a quieter place the  next day you might feel compelled to come back. If that's the case then signing up a a member makes a lot of sense, you'll be supporting an amazing community of dedicated people who will do everything they can to support you in our practice. You are basically supporting yourself by giving back to the community and I think you'll find the rewards are worth much, much more than the discounts and newsletters.