Quite a long time ago, I was a young Zen student in the midst of a two-month practice period at Tassajara Mountain Monastery. We were about ten minutes into the second early morning sitting when something crawled onto my neck. I knew right away that it wasn't a spider; it didn't move like one. I figured it was an ant My first inclination was to swat it, my second to brush it away. But as I started to raise my hand, the inner voice stopped me. Don't! the voice said, and went on to remind me that wanting to get rid of distractions from "practice" was actually avoidance of practice. Real practice means waking up to, and accepting, whatever comes, said the voice. In truth, what I didn't want to be distracted from was the not-practicing I was doing.
So I kept my hands in my lap, and let the ant crawl under my collar . . . and down my back. For an eternity that ant was the world; the entire scope of my consciousness was the stop-and-go-tickle of six tiny legs. It was an icy cold November morning but I was soon drenched with sweat and breathing hard. The ant worked its way down my spine, changing directions at places where the shirt stuck to my skin. Sometimes it moved to one side, sometimes to the other; sometimes it went back the way it came. Traversing my midriff, the ant almost got into my belly button before having to turn around. The tickle was about as close to unbearable as it could get, and I spent most of that brief eternity teetering on the edge, so very close to crushing that ant in its tracks. But I didn't. The voice kept on reminding me, firmly and quietly, that the ant was just one infinitesimal fraction of all that was going on in and around me--that if I could expand my consciousness to include the rest of my senses, the rest of life's incessant movement, the ant would lose its importance. Breathe evenly; listen to the sound of the creek; focus on how your thumb tips touch ever so lightly . . . ever so lightly.
I began to regain my composure. Then the ant would make a sudden dash, or I'd imagine that it was about to, or I'd worry about being bitten. Immediately my breath would get quick and shallow, and the sweat would stream down. The struggle went on and on, but in the immediacy of the battle I really had no concept of time. I remember clearly, however, the point at which I surrendered, completely, unconditionally. I just relaxed, and a vast calmness settled over me. The ant crawled, the creek babbled, the incense was especially thick and fragrant. I could feel the whorls of my thumb tips barely rub together as I drew and let each breath go.
The ant re-emerged from under my collar, scurried around my neck and, at last, crawled from my chest hairs onto my shirt. For a while I expected it to return, but it never did. Even so, my skin (but only my skin) continued to crawl, all the way to the bell ending zazen. And even so, my breath continued to circulate slowly through the zendo, a room no longer bounded by walls.
a long stream of ants
Today my wife and I are doing zazen in our home. A short time into the sitting something crawls onto my neck. It isn't an ant. I brush it away. Immediately a wave of guilt sweeps over me. I remember once telling my wife about the Tassajara ant episode, and how impressed she had been. I'd mentioned the incident to a few other people too, not to boast, but to illustrate how practice isn't always what we think, or hope it is. In fact, it sometimes isn't at all what we want it to be. Today another unusual opportunity to practice presented itself, and I brushed it away. This time I failed, or at least that's what I tell myself.
Suddenly the tickle returns to my neck. I pause and . . . brush it away a second time, noticing as I do how the broad, square sleeve of my robe rises and falls with my arm. Again a wave of guilt . . . anger too this time. I'm weak. I'm lazy! Why did I do that? I actually find myself hoping that the . . . whatever-it-is, will come back and give me another chance to endure.
It does! For a third time I feel the tickle of tiny legs on my neck, in precisely the same place as before. A fly maybe? Flies always seem to come back, again and again, to the same place. No, it doesn't move like a fly. Must be a spider. Yes, a spider. When I brushed it away, it must have simply climbed back up its line, with my burden of childhood fear. Pretty good size spider too! I reach up and flick it away. Now I'm fuming. I've added stubbornness to anger and guilt. Boy, what a failure! Today I've replaced the unbearable tickle of legs with feeling guilty, angry, weak, lazy and stubborn. My breathing is rapid and shallow. My thumbs press tightly together.
The inner voice continues: Quite a rut you're in, thinking that practice has to be the same now as it was way back when. Real practice doesn't mean be unyielding;you don't have to be a martyr you know. Do you think you have to follow the same path now that you did thirty years ago? This morning's practice has nothing to do with brushing away that spider. It has to do with how you choose to feel about brushing it away. Listen to the wind; feel the sun's warmth; relax those thumbs; slow down your breathing.
Gradually I regain composure. As I do, a vast calm-ness settles over me: compassion. I have compassion for myself. I'm okay. Glancing at the clock, I see that forty minutes have passed. Slowly I reach forward, noticing the way the long square sleeve of my robe drapes from my arm. The bell's ripples fill the room.
slowly the spider ascends
a strand of light