After the newness wears off, how do I sustain my practice and make sure it doesn’t end-up in the closet next to the saxophone I don’t play anymore?
I can empathize! How many of us have that great thing we started and never continued? I also have a dusty violin in the corner of my study and a 20 year old quilt that just needs its vine appliqué to be completed. When we come to Zen practice, and experience its value despite the effort, it’s natural to want to secure this new thing because we get how good it is for us even if it’s hard. But if we look closely, this is more of the mind’s anxiety about the future that has not arrived which takes us away from the trust of this very moment, trust in our own intrinsic buddhanature. Someone asking this question is already completely endowed with the way seeking mind needed to continue on the path with openness and wonder one foot after the other, which is the only way we truly do anything.
When the newness wears off, that is when we can really begin a new level of practice. We can be very curious about the “same old ho hum” mind and look again at what is happening. How does the mind disconnect from lively engagement when not entertained? Is today’s zazen really the same as yesterdays? Is my body the same as yesterdays? Is my mind the same? What doesn’t change? Over decades of practice, many of us go through a number of spaces – sometimes buoyed by the great wide ocean, other times braving a midnight storm, or sometimes parched in the wide open high plateau. Regardless, it is all the same path, one step after the other.
What might be helpful to know is that how we feel about practice is not a reliable motivator for practice. It’s like if I only brushed my teeth when I felt like it, I’d probably not have so many teeth. Practice is the same, it must be habituated in the body so that I show up to the cushion whether I feel like it or not. That is why it’s better to sit 5 minutes 5 days a week than 2 hours once a week. There are endless supports for habituating practice – zazen, sanzen, bowing, saying Zen verses, devoting time to study, and most importantly staying in touch with sangha. We keep each other practicing just by showing up together.
My teacher used to give this quote attributed to Emerson when people felt that there small daily actions weren’t adding up to their ideal of the practitioner they think they should be:
Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.
For our purposes, the “thought” here refers to our original intuition or aspiration with which we started practice. We all have some version of this intuition, when we really hear the dharma, that we are meant to awaken and have in us everything we need to actualize this in this lifetime. Please, trust your practice. As our chant says, travel the pathways, embrace the territory and treasure the roads.