One of my favorite Zen texts is “Notes on What to Be Aware of in Zazen,” by Keizen Jokin. Re-reading it recently, I found myself thinking about this line: “Don't be concerned with how well or how poorly you think you are doing; just understand that time is as precious as if you were putting out a fire in your hair.”
There’s a lot to this.
First, “Don't be concerned with how well or how poorly you think you are doing.” How do we do that? The first answer is, not by deciding not to be concerned with it. That just adds a new layer—now, in addition to measuring our practice, or our meditation, or whatever it is according to good or bad, we’re also measuring our lack of concern about how well we’re doing. That just compounds the problem.
It also isn’t a matter of genuine indifference. Whatever we do, whether it’s meditating or bowing or cleaning the toilet, we don’t want to cultivate an attitude of not caring about the quality of what we do. “Not concerned with” and “indifferent to” are worlds apart.
This lack of concern is something we discover primarily through repetition and time. We simply wear ourselves down. I usually advise people to meditate every day, even if sometimes it’s just for a couple minutes. That isn’t because it’s so sacred or because you’ll definitely reap this or that reward. It’s because if you do something every single day for years—and if, in doing so, you develop a faith that you will continue to do it every day for years to come—then it stops being worth measuring. It’s like playing an instrument. Yes, over time, you probably get better. But day to day, because you practice every single day, you know that one bad practice isn’t a big deal. You know that a great practice also, sadly, doesn’t mean that much. You have highs and lows, but through it all, you just have the practice, the constant return to whatever it is, regardless of performance. That’s what lack of concern looks like: total lifelong commitment.
The second part, “just understand that time is as precious as if you were putting out a fire in your hair,” is classic Zen—Keizan was not the first or the last to use this image. On the surface, there’s a message of urgency, and that’s how it’s usually understood: life is short, so don’t waste time. It’s true. Life is short—even the longest human life is not that long, and they’re all getting shorter day by day. Buddhism of every tradition invites us to look at that—not just to “get it” intellectually but to stare it in the face with every outgoing breath.
The other side of this is the single-mindedness of it. If your hair is on fire, it isn’t just that you want to put that fire out as quickly as possible, it’s that while you’re doing it—while you’re smothering your head with a towel or dunking it in the sink, or whatever you do—everything else is secondary. Your promotion? Important, but not as pressing as this. And that regret you keep thinking about whenever the world gets quiet? Not important at all. As the flames reach your scalp, you can let that go, completely, without a moment’s hesitation or feeling of loss. You don’t need it. You never did.
This one sentence is such a beautiful encapsulation of what it means not only to practice deeply, whether that’s meditation or something else. It’s about how to practice for the sake of practice: recognize impermanence, commit (really commit), let go. Repeat.
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.