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Two Kinds of Practice

Practice can proceed either from the top down or the bottom up. What do I mean?

What I call a top down practice is a concentration practice, such as working on the koan Mu. Everything becomes Mu. I breathe Mu in and out; Mu breathes me in and out. Outside and inside disappear, the boundaries between the self and the world disappear, and there is only THIS. When we are nothing but THIS, there is no separation: no separate self, no separate object of experience. But such a moment, no matter profound, always ends, and we return to our ordinary way of seeing things. Now it is true that each time we have such an experience, the self we return to is subtly transformed, its boundaries not quite as rigid or well defended. The problem in this type of practice is always how do we bring the experience of no-separation down off the 100 foot pole of momentary realization and into our everyday life? And the danger is that we come to prefer the view from the top of the pole to doing the real work on the ground.

A bottom up practice proceeds from the other direction. We practice an awareness of separation. There are two basic hallmarks of separation in our lives: fear and anger. These mark off what we don't want to face, where the self feels it is not getting its way or not being treated the way it wants. It's at this level that Zen and psychotherapy practices  dovetail, and is the particular form that practice takes here at the  Ordinary Mind Zendo. What am I avoiding? What do I expect from others?  Where did I get that expectation, and so forth. In our sitting practice, we become attuned to the physical manifestations of fear and anger in our bodies. These will always present in the form of bodily tension somewhere or another; they are the physical correlates of our psychological guardedness. When we sit, we bring the focus of our attention right to the boundaries of our experience of separation, right into the physical pain or tension that marks the line we don't want to cross. And that's where we sit, right on that line, right in the midst of that tension. Whatever boundaries the self habitually tries to set up in life, it will try to set up here and now in the zendo. Boundaries of judgement of one's self and others. Boundaries of how we think we're doing well or badly in our practice. Boundaries of expectation regarding other students or the Teacher. Whenever our fear or anger illuminates  one of these boundaries, that's where we put down our zafu.

After years of mature practice, the distinction between the two directions dissolves, and more and more we are able to simply be present and be responsive to each moment, aware of our resistance as just another momentary  phenomenon that we experience as it passes. And whichever way we practice,  ultimately our goal is the same: "Being just this moment: compassion's way."