It’s Only Temporary Relief, I’m Afraid

People easily misunderstand Zen. When a practitioner puts his legs into a pretzeled position and sits there without moving for long stretches at a time, it can seem as if this is a ‘punishing act’ or as if this requires ‘great endurance’ or ‘great perseverance.’ Moreover, it can seem as if this Zen master, urging him to sit through, is a real stickler.

Neither could be further from the truth. In fact, being instructed to sit like this is an act of great compassion, and sitting like this is one practice that shows one, here and now, what equanimity really is.

To see this, consider what usually happens. The physical body feels physical sensations that are strong, unpleasant, and relatively long-lasting, and the mind not only labels this experience “pain” (fine so far) but then goes on to propose a solution: “Move the legs in order to find relief.”

This is a terrible, commonplace mistake. For what can be discovered, if only one sits still, is precisely how the finite mind generates its own problems and then proposes its own solutions. And, what’s more, those solutions can only ever provide one with a sense of temporary relief.

Let’s look more closely at that pregnant point about finding only temporary relief:

You don’t like New York City, so you move to Austin. Years later, it turns out that Austin is not the place for you, so you move to Bali. Finding “the right place” only provides you with temporary relief.

But then the same goes for all of the following and more: changing relationships, changing jobs, getting a promotion, achieving higher status, accruing more wealth, getting a dog, having a baby, and so on. All of these, promising some form of happiness, only end in temporary relief.

Temporary relief from what? From the seemingly endless cycle of birth or death–that is to say, of suffering (samsara). And only temporary because such a move, a part of the process of samsara, actually contributes to samsara‘s continuation.

So, you see every time you “dislike” pain and “like” painlessness you are perpetuating samsara. Every time you cling onto a pleasant state you do the same. In fact, so long as you remain entangled in loves and hates, likes and dislikes, not this but definitely that, not that but definitely that over there, you remain caught in the same samsaric cycle.

Do you see?

The journey home can begin with sitting in a pretzeled crosslegged position and remaining there. As the mind quiets, you may come to samadhi, a unified, concentrated state of peace and clarity. You may experience equanimity. These are clues to finding your way all the way home.

And where is home? Precisely where one’s suffering has been seen through to the end, precisely where one’s suffering has been brought to a natural, definitive end. Home is genuine contentment–genuine in the sense of remaining unmoved, solid, and constant. Home is rest in movement and movement in rest. Home, beyond temporary relief, is where one can finally, truly take it easy.