On my last pass through the $1 pile at the local bookstore I found a somewhat ragged but still perfectly readable copy of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki's slim but deeply engaging collection of lectures on Zen practice. Books like this are worth coming back to periodically, every couple of years, in much the same way a great film like 2001 or La Dolce Vita becomes a wholly different experience after you have passed through a bit of life. My first reading of Dropping Ashes on the Buddha — another book in the same vein — was punctuated with me saying to myself "Yeah, I know all that." On a more recent re-reading of the same book I instead found myself saying "Oh, I know exactly what he means by that..."
Suzuki emphasizes Zen practice — sitting, training, encounters with one's master, etc. — because the process and the experience acquired through it is far more important than any amount of talk about it. The talk is useful as an explanatory device, as an analogy, but it is not a substitute for making real in one's mind the crucial self-discoveries required along the way. One of my own slowly-accrued opinions about the process is that enlightenment is not about waking up one day and "seeing the light", but spending any number of years seeing everything in that light and acting accordingly. The doing of it well is the enlightenment. You don't have it unless you've already been in the thick of it for some time and made it into a part of your own nature.
It's the same as when a novice writer comes in the door and asks for advice about how to write that Great Book they have in their head. The first and hardest thing for them to give up is their preconceived notions — not just of what their work is supposed to be, but how to go about making it. They see falling short of the target as unacceptable, even if their whole notion of the target, of the distance to the target, of hitting the target, is all based not on true experience but on seeing the process from the outside — by bearing witness to nothing more than someone else's finishing product. Many of them aren't prepared to accept falling flat on their ass three, four, five times in a row. They think they have to get it RIGHT, or be shot in the back of the head.
The few who see falling flat on their ass as being no different from "getting what they want" — no different for them emotionally, that is — have far fewer hurdles to overcome. They see the whole process of trial and error and success as just that — a total process, where the stuff you ditch is vital to the whole, too, even if you're the only one who ever sees it.
I shall have a great deal more to say about the parallels between Suzuki's explanations and my own experiences with creative work in future posts.
And at some point I'll tell the story of how I threw out the same novel twice — once with tears and the second time without blinking.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind