There's this line about Zen practice that comes up a lot, that it doesn't "give" you anything. You get nothing for sitting zazen, which is entirely the point. It's not about "getting" something, but about being able to see what's already there. If you "get" anything at all, it's perspective, and even then it's not framed as an achievement but as a clearing-away of things.
A lot of folks find this attitude flip and annoying when they first run into it. I don't blame them. It sure sounds flip, and when delivered from the wrong hands and in the wrong spirit, it can be a problem. The last thing people need in this world is more mystification. That's probably why I don't recommend people's first encounter with this stuff be the really heady, confrontational form of it, because that tends to just turn them off. But I also don't believe in providing them with nothing but some watered-down incarnation of it, because then they miss out on how to push themselves.
The aspect of this I keep thinking about most, though, is how belief systems and practice paths, and a lot of other things in this life, don't really give us anything anyway. They just show you what you already have, and you need to make the most of it. Giving a person power doesn't so much change them as reveal themselves all the more completely for what they are, as we have all discovered the hard and painful way as of late.
The more evangelical belief systems don't make you into a better person because you adopt them. They just give you a different context and framework to do whatever it is you're already going to do, good or bad.
None of this is magic. But I think a lot of us want to look at it that way, and are hard-up for any other way to look at it. We want something that when brought into our lives, turns it into something better just by the mere fact that it's there — or something that when we perform it, will have the same kind of magical effect, whether on ourselves or others (and I suspect when it comes to others, it's really about others vis-a-vis ourselves, so it's ourselves, period).
When I was a kid, and for a good while into my adult life, I felt like the things I most needed to experience to feel complete, or at least less incomplete, were things from the outside. The presence of this person, or the experience of reading this book or seeing this movie or hearing this piece of music. All of those things still matter, especially the presence of the other person. But what changed was this idea that those things had to come first to make change possible, that I was waiting for the right thing to light the fuse. I suspect that's something evolutionary: you need to have that illusion first, and then need to have it dispelled, in order to make the most of it.
"You don't get anything because there's nothing to gain" is such weird wisdom I'm not surprised many people never do more than circle it warily and back off. But it's not really that weird. It's just another version of that old armor-piercer of a question, what do you really want? Most of us don't know what we really want; we think we want a lot of things, but more often than not those desires are the results of social conditioning or circumstances or a whole raft of other invisible pressures. If you look at it hard enough, you realize that a lot of what you want is about what you expect to gain from satisfying that desire, and how desires tend to be inherently unsatisfiable anyway.
The idea behind all of this is not to never have desires, but to relate to them differently — to not see them as insatiable hungers that must be filled lest we suffer awful consequences, but as states of mind that are no more "us" than the shirt we had on the other week.
A concluding side note. I don't want this idea to be abused by people who assume that because there's nothing to be gained, there's also nothing to be done — that neither they nor anyone else needs help or deserves it. Totally the wrong lesson to draw there. This is not about quiescence or acceptance on the lowest possible level, which is what the Monster Men of this world are only too happy to have. This is about the transformation of people's expectations from within, naturally and spontaneously, which is about the only transformation that matters in this world. Nobody gets strong-armed into seeing the light.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind