A Zen’s-Eye View: Only you can evaluate practice

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Even though we live in families and in communities, the fact is that we are born alone, and we will be alone when we face our death. Likewise, as we enter the path of practice, we each travel it alone. Of course we might have others who are practicing with us, but if there are a hundred people in practice, there will be a hundred different paths. Everyone brings the teachings into their lives in their own way. Each of us has different challenges to bring to spiritual training. Life in general is this way. We enter alone, we go out alone and in between, no matter how many family members, friends or acquaintances we have, we are still alone at a fundamental level. This slogan is about finding confidence in our aloneness.

It is hard to accept this kind of existential aloneness in ourselves or in others. We want people to know us, appreciate us, love us, and we want to have some way to truly understand others. But no matter how much we bare our hearts, we can never convey the fullness of our experiential reality. Nobody can live in our heads, and no matter how much we probe, we can never fully penetrate another person’s experience. Even the greatest poet will tell you that words cannot fully express the reality of our inner lives — we can only approach doing so.

It is natural to want others to affirm our spiritual progress. But, according to slogan 20, if we want accurate feedback about how we are doing, we must rely on our own judgment. But it is unsettling to realize that no one else really knows what is going on within us, so we look around for confirmation. We look to others for feedback and for clues about how we are doing with our Zen training. Instead of looking directly at our own experience, we give our eyes away and try to find ourselves in what others reflect back to us with their words and actions. But that reflection is not all that trustworthy. Most people, even our closest friends, are easily fooled by appearances. We evaluate what we encounter according to our own biases and preconceptions.

It is easy to become so used to looking for the approval of others that we lose confidence in our own self-knowledge. But according to this slogan, we must learn to trust what we know about ourselves and not rely so heavily on others. Only we really know when we are being phony or genuine, aware or unaware, compassionate or uncompassionate. No matter what may be going on at the surface, or how confused we may feel, deep down we know exactly what is going on and what we are up to. That is the witness we must hold.

Today’s practice: Pay attention to the loneliness of experience. Notice the difference between seeking for confirmation and direct witnessing. What makes you trust or distrust your own experience?

This column is a long series of short essays exploring the meaning of the Lojong Slogans. It is inspired by the work of Judy Lief.

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-3390.