Halfway through 2021, I stopped meditating altogether.
After cultivating a fairly steady practice since 2014, this came as a bit of a surprise to me. I have occasionally stopped for a couple of weeks, and “daily” has sometimes meant 4 times per week, but I always return to practice fairly quickly because I notice it in my nervous system when I don’t. Perhaps more practical than any spiritual quest, meditation is one of the most effective mechanisms for regulating anxiety I have found, and Zen study helps me situate myself in the tempest of this world.
At first I told myself it was just due to summertime which always turns routines sideways. The heat dome and successive heat waves didn’t help as my sleep was disrupted frequently and I had trouble motivating myself to the cushion in the early mornings. As the cooler air of September prevailed I had the greatest intention to return to my rhythm during the fall practice period. But although I cleaned my Zendo and put fresh flowers on the altar, I did not sit once from September through December. “New job/new schedule,” I told myself whenever the feeling that I “should” be sitting arose, “I’ll get back to it when I’m ready.”
After a few months, a great resistance rose inside of me whenever I thought about sitting again. I predicted failure of attention and wild discomfort, convincing myself that returning would require starting from five minutes per day and building up all over again, something I didn’t want to face up to after years of being fairly dedicated.
But last Sunday, on the second day of the new year, I entered my zendo, bowed to the altar and then slipped onto my homemade meditation bench to join my sangha in Vancouver on Zoom. Knees on the cushion, facing the wall for the first bells of meditation practice, I immediately relaxed into the posture that feels like home to me even after many months away. Sitting, walking, sitting, then dharma talk and Zen service; besides a little fidgeting during the meditation periods, it was as thought I had never taken a break at all.
I often hear people say things like “knitting/running/gardening is my meditation,” but I don’t agree with this equivalence. I knit, weave, run, garden, cook – and as far as it goes, only meditation is my meditation. It is not the same as any activity (because it is primarily the absence of activity), even those which have a calming or focussing effect. Though meditation has a beneficial effect on my well-being, it is literally the only time in my day without purpose or utility. There is no end product. There is nothing in my life that has a similar effect to putting on my rakusu and bringing my attention to the breath. In and out. In and out.
I had forgotten that in my months of absence, but as I have come to sit for the last ten days, I am remembering every moment of my practice and my vows. I am missing my teachers and my community of practitioners anew. And I am reminded how this simple act of sitting daily helped me navigate the earliest days and anxieties of the pandemic. Somehow returning has been effortless, and I feel as though I’ve merely returned to where I left a part of myself and picked it up again.