by Alan Friedman
A prominent plaque of birch bark at the Green Gulch Zen Center is inscribed with the words "The way is not difficult, save for picking and choosing." I first interpreted this as how a tired child might act when confronted with 31 choices of ice cream. Instead of focusing on getting his very favorite, he might focus on the 30 other flavors he can't have. The joy of being treated to an ice cream cone could degenerate to frustration & tears. Being ruthlessly honest, this is very much how I have often behaved.
Lately I have been trying to become aware of CHOOSING to do all my actions and to see them as flavors that I have chosen. This improved my "attitude of gratitude" but left me wondering what it has to do with Zen. Isn't Zen involved more with detachment than with choice? Zen is also about Attention. When my attention is glued to my now, I have the possibility to replace habit with choice at every moment. That provides the fearful possibility to choose the highest course of action at each moment, which might explain the Zen Center's emphasis on choice. This is a powerful tool, and a chance to apply it to simple daily life readily presented itself with the arrival of the mail.
I have been carrying a lot of baggage. On the physical level for me at this time, it is represented by vast piles of mail, books, papers, magazines, and files. While other people struggle with challenges like money, health, love, or death, I'm grateful to be occupied with such a trivial problem. On deeper levels, I (like most everyone) have been carrying the baggage of a lifetime of unexpressed emotions, shame, insecurity, and a whopping Android.
I am visualizing myself clinging to the hull of an overturned sailboat, and I can just make out the coconut trees of an island perhaps 5 miles distant. I don't want to leave the hull because I don't know if I can swim all the way to the island, and I don't know what currents, reefs, or other dangers lurk between me and the island. I want everything in that boat because any little bit of it might be critical for my survival. I am trying to swim to the island by towing the entire overturned boat along with me. Clearly, I'll never get there at this rate. Either I cling to the hull and drift aimlessly about the sea for a long time (I can get food & water from the boat), or I cut loose and swim for the shore.
Cutting loose means putting my life on the line at that moment. It means putting my trust in the Universe, facing an ultimate peril, expending tremendous energy, and either flourishing or perishing quite soon. It is meeting Fate. Clinging to the hull saves me from any scary decisions. It allows me to procrastinate Fate. It assures me a long, miserable, low-level survival with even a slim chance that I might wash ashore or be spotted by a passing ship. It is safety and comfort in the present moment. I can always wait a little longer before letting go.
Which do I choose? I really don't know. I'm not even sure that I really deeply know which choice is better for me. In the intensity of a Tayu discussion, it is easy for me to feel grandiosely spiritual and assert that I would surely choose the riskier but fuller life. If the real moment presented itself, it would be profoundly harder to "make the leap of faith". I might even pretend that I didn't notice the choice at all.
That's just it! The choice is really there at every single moment of my life, but I have been typically blind to it or pretending not to see it or saying to myself "I'll just fetch one more thing before I go". I try to hype myself by saying "Just Do It" or "Go light; go cheap; go now." My understanding of "sudden enlightenment" is that it is "only" the conscious choice to cut loose of ALL baggage RIGHT NOW. Simple but not easy.