If you read about how Zen has traditionally been practiced over the centuries in China and Japan, or have had the chance to practice at other American monastically oriented Zen centers, you know that traditionally Zen practice has been very rigorous indeed, usually centered around week long sesshins of great intensity. And if you compare that with the weekly schedule we have here, you might come away with the idea that we're just practicing some brand of "Zen Lite!" There used to be an analagous controversy within psychoanalysis. Was it a "real" analysis only if the patient was lying on the couch or coming 4 or 5 times a week? Was once a week therapy inevitably a poor substitute for the "real thing?" Well, after many years of practicing therapy and analysis, I can say that I've seen many people whose lives were radically transformed during the course of a once a week therapy, and have seen analysands lie on the couch 4 times week, year after year, and go nowhere at all. Obviously real practice doesn't come down to just logging as many hours as humanly possible facing a wall. In fact, I'd say real practice isn't about what happens in a zendo at all, about how many hours or how many sesshins you sit, or about what experiences you have on the cushion - real practice is about how you face your life.
What we do here, what we do in therapy, is watch how we go about facing - and most importantly - avoid facing our life as it is. And no experience in the zendo or insight in therapy is worth much if it doesn't address this basic issue. I remember 25 years ago, in my student days in what was then called the"human potential movement," how impressed I was by the intense feelings and early memories unleashed in various Gestalt and Reichian weekend "intensives" I attended. But the next month, it seeemed the same people would be back with the same basic problems and go through it all over again. There was an enormous, almost addictive appeal to the intensity unleashed in those workshops, but all too often, little translation of that insight into the everyday. And over the years I saw the same kind of thing happen at Zen retreats - intense experiences, but too often little change for the better in people's daily life. What I've come to believe is that most effective form of practice for most people is a steady, day-in-day out practice, month after month, year after year, one that doesn't emphasize the intensity or "special effects" that we all seem to crave. Intensity all too often breeds an ego-attachment to accomplishment, mastery, endurance or one's own specialness in one way or another. For someone addicted to specialness, this ordinary day- in -day out simple practice seems too ordinary, but is, in fact, most of the time too difficult for them to tolerate, as it provides none of the ego-goodies that they've come to expect from the mastery of difficulty. They will quickly want to move on to the most rigorous, most intense, most "real" Zen they can find! But a practice that doesn't gratify our sense of specialness may be the hardest -and most real - of all.