On a Life less (extra)ordinary

I was itching to do yoga yesterday. I wanted to stretch and relax and just let it all hang out in the downward facing dog, but couldn’t because it was a full moon day (a beautiful one, at that). You see, rest days are required even with yoga. Ashtanga yogis and yoginis are encouraged to rest when the moon is full or when it is in its dark phase (new moon). Humans are watery creatures (we are 70% H2O) so we also get pushed and pulled by the movement of the moon across the sky. During the full moon, we go through a high tide, more emotional and energetic, but not well-grounded. Maybe that’s why some bay at the sight of the round, shiny moon. The opposite occurs when the dark moon is around—we are more secure and still, but more inclined to be immobile (read: lazy). We don’t practice because we have to let things be. Wary that I would do more harm to my already fragile system, I stuck with the tradition and left my mat alone for a day.

I was still left with the problem of how to relax and take my mind away from the pressures of work, though; it was a good thing that I had something scheduled later on that day and had a valid excuse to leave the house and take a breather from my sculpture. I have been attending Zen orientation with a group and yesterday was our 5th (of 8) session, the first time at the main Zen Center. I didn’t know what to expect—I actually didn’t have any expectations about the place or what we were going to do—so I just focused on getting there and made sure that I was wearing comfy (non-distracting, blah) clothes and was well fed before the sit. Our sensei taught us the proper dining etiquette at the Zendo (Zen center), how to wash our bowls after a meal, etcetera, etcetera. It was all very amusing. I was looking at her put the bowls away with care and was reminded of the fact that Zen was not a religion, but a radical way of life. EVERYTHING is treated with respect so even the simple act of folding a napkin becomes an art form or a ritual because you give it the full attention it deserves.

We started sitting after an hour. Each one of us sat in a lotus position on a cushion, faced a stark wall, and counted our breath. After 25 minutes of not moving, we got up and walked (in my case, with bones creaking), single file, around the room for 5 minutes, and then we sat down again and listened to our first Teisho (a lecture that can be loosely compared to a Catholic sermon). The speaker gave us a glimpse of the road ahead if we decide to make a commitment and seriously practice Zen—she read the koan “Ordinary Mind is the Way”:

Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?”
“Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied.

“Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.
“If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.
“How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu. Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?”
With these words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.

—“Ordinary Mind is the Way,” translated by Katsuki Sekida


During the discussion after the teisho, some people remarked on how they got stuck on the line “Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion,” while some fixated on “If you try for it, you will become separated from it.” I, on the other hand, was struck by one word: ordinary. The sensei said that the key to Zen is to look at ordinary things with an ordinary mind. I had a problem grasping this line, this idea, because I’ve learned through the years and through my experiences that nothing in this life is ordinary.

When I was a little girl I already knew that I was going to be extraordinary so I worked hard at changing myself. I knew I worked at being different. The thought gave me a sense of meaning, that I would do something great one day, that I would be someone important. I grew up and I still held steadfast on the idea, but grew weary and tired of trying to be “extraordinary.” And then I woke up one morning and realized that I interpreted my intuition wrong— I mistook being great for our twisted notion of “perfection.” Why was I killing myself slowly over this? I wasn’t going to be extraordinary; I already was.

Okay, okay, I know what you think, that I woke up one morning with an engorged ego. But that was not the case. I did not only see myself as an amazing person, I also saw everything as equally astonishing. It made me look at the world with curiosity again since each and every thing was unique. Even a dry lifeless plant was extraordinary. This realization helped me believe in myself and pursue my dreams. I didn’t have to try so hard to be something anymore and accepted myself the way I was. I must admit that this feeling fades once in a while and there are days when I struggle to hold on to this idea, but I still try to look at things with forgiving eyes.

So is this what Zen is all about? Is my confusion about the word just a matter of semantics? Have I really been living “Zen” all along?


I honestly don’t know if this Zen thing is doing much for me. Maybe I am just impatient—hence unreceptive to certain teachings—or I already know my ‘Way,” but is too ADD to see it. I have trouble grasping what it means, and I grow tired of doing it. I have been sitting everyday since I started attending the sessions, but instead of growing calmer like other people, I grow more emotional and less patient with some people. I admitted this to the sensei and she said that it was okay. Being angry does not mean that you are being un-Zen-like, if there is such a thing. Emotions are neither good nor bad after all and we, as humans, are emotional beings. We cannot negate and ignore the “bad” ones. For someone who grew up listening to the teachings of the great Yoda (“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”), this is one pill that is hard to swallow.

I can feel myself growing angry again. I am furious at the people in my life who take too much space. I have a life, you know, and it doesn’t revolve around you. I just let the feeling brew and simmer inside me. Maybe I am not angry at them for sucking my energy—maybe I am angry because I let them get away with it. See! Zen-like or not, having these thoughts are unnerving. Maybe I should change my name to Darth Smoldering or something. I wanted peace and silence (that’s why I got into this thing in the first place) and I get assaulted by neutral emotions. Maybe this is the storm before the calm. Huh?

So there. I am very curious about it now, but in a month, 2 months, a year? I’ve made a commitment to finish all 8 sessions of the orientation, but beyond that, I don’t know yet what I’ll do. It’s quite obvious that I still need to put in a lot of work into this—I still think of a big, talking mutant rat when I hear the word “Sensei,” for example. I’ve never been good with long-term planning, so I will just let things move along on their own. I don’t know where this thing will lead me (not to the loony bin, I hope!), so in the meantime I will just sit and count my breath. I am getting 25 minutes of peace and silence everyday anyway, and that is enough for now.


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