no more drowning
Published October 15, 2021
When I was a young man studying Zen meditation, I got the chance to study with the outstanding Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick at Great Mountain Zen Center in Colorado. He gave me much great instruction, but there was a moment I will never forget.
During a weekend retreat at the center, I was noticing some great trouble in following my breath. There is commonly an instruction in Zen meditation to observe and count your breath (usually the exhale) without controlling your breath.
And the recommendation is to open to this experience as well, trusting that the breath will resume.
I was noticing that very often when I was following the breath with curious rapt attention, my own breath would stop or be very shallow, in a way that was painful to me for prolonged periods. And I was so rigid about trying to follow the Zen instructions perfectly, that I feared perhaps that my quality of following the breath with this kind of hyper attention was actually causing my breathing to behave so unnaturally.
In other, non-Zen settings, sometimes a meditation leader would offer an instruction like “let the breath be full and easy,” or something similar. I loved this kind of instruction because I noticed that I was able to actually do so, to let the breath be full and easy while observing it. This was a much more pleasant experience than a kind of drowning on a dry meditation cushion that I was experiencing trying to follow the Zen instructions.
And so I took this question to Roshi.
After I explained the difference I was experiencing in the two ways of following my breath, I wasn’t completely sure that he exactly understood what I was asking, probably because the difference is so subtle as to be internal. But it didn’t matter. He looked at me with compassion and a gentle smile and said, “if you’re trying to decide between two different ways of counting the breath, one that is very hard and painful, and one that is easy and peaceful…then choose the easy and peaceful way.”
His answer was so obvious as to be hilarious.
I now find myself laughing at my young self, trying so hard to “get it right” that I was getting everything about it wrong.
So, I ask you today: as you are working on your songwriting, do you ever find yourself having moments of self-torture where you want the word choice or harmony to be a little better, or you labor over 78 takes of the recording of the vocals for the chorus, or you keep polishing a song endlessly without actually finishing it? In those moments, is there a choice you could make that would constitute the easy way?
I invite you to keep your eyes and ears open for it.
This musical, creative life is hard enough that when it just so happens that you are presented with two paths, one hard and one easy, I just want to give you full permission to sometimes choose the easy way, my friend.
Taking a full and easy breath with you,
for golden lotus studio
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