I recently stumbled across a picture of myself from high school, right around the age when I started meditating. This was around 1990, and you can tell: in the photo, my pants have too many pockets, my sweater is huge, I have so much hair. I look at the face of that boy and wonder, what was he thinking about? What was on his mind? I’m not sure I really remember, but I might remember a little.
One thing I do know about that boy: if you’d told him he’d still be doing this practice thirty years later, he would have been pretty impressed with himself. More than that, he would have pictured that thirty-years-older self as looking, feeling, seeing, being so different from himself—the cumulative power of three decades of sitting would surely be reflected in everything that the older self said and thought and did.
Well, here I am. When I compare that boy’s expectations to my current reality, I’m left with this: I can’t feel it. I am different, of course, probably in every way. And thirty years of sitting plays some part in that, somewhere. But we never get to take that privileged vantage point of experiencing the practice as something cumulative. We don’t carry all those moments of silence, feel how each one built on the ones before it. We only ever get to practice now. And now always feels like, well, now.
There’s a part of me, when I think of this, that feels a little sense of loss. With anything we do—learning a language or an instrument, cultivating a friendship, taking up a spiritual practice—wouldn’t it be gratifying to feel the weight of all that we’ve put into it, to be able to at least sense in our bodies the full scale of how we got from zero to wherever we are? Younger me thought older me would feel that. There’s a lot I’ve forgotten, but not that.
But more than the sense of loss, there’s the recognition of lightness. I’m free from weighing my practice as a whole, of measuring it or trying to see it all in a single display. Each time I sit down on a cushion, I get to start over. It’s a gift.
There’s a lot of talk in Buddhism about the duration of practice. Probably twenty years ago, I read a Zen book saying we should sit for ten years, then ten years more, then ten more after that (solid advice, but again, kind of a letdown). Other teachings, of course, talk about lifetimes of practice, even kalpas (eons) of practice. But it’s not because practice all adds up—it’s because it doesn’t, not in a way we can perceive. “Practice for myriad kalpas,” in my understanding, means “Give up on the idea that you get to reach the end and look back on it all.” Let go of that moment ever arriving.
The only way to stretch a practice out over immeasurable time is one day at a time, one breath at a time. This breath right now, the one making its way in and out right now, is the only one you’ll ever have. Not the only breath you’ll ever breathe—there have been lots of those, and hopefully there will be many more—but the only one that is yours to experience, to fully know. It’s already gone; you’re already on to the next one, the new one, the real one.
This is what practice looks like: taking the next step knowing there’s nothing behind or in front of you. You’re just here; it’s just always now. This practice is always the practice of now. We commit to doing it for countless lifetimes, innumerable kalpas, and then we let all that go, because it’s enough to keep noticing, “Oh, here I am.”
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia (his talks can be found on the their podcast) and editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide.