Encouraging Words from Imelda Carlson

From time to time, we publish short articles from AZG teachers, who talk about aspects of practice we might not otherwise consider, and to encourage us to continue. Here, AZG teacher Imelda Carlson writes to us about practice in life as well as on the cushion.

September 18, 2021.

When we look at Adelaide Zen Group’s program for the year we may make plans for the coming year’s practice: which sesshins we’ll go to, how regularly we’ll sit with the Sangha, how attentive we’ll be in our daily life practice. All commendable and praiseworthy plans.

But as the year goes on we may find that work and family and perhaps a pandemic get in the way of these plans and we can’t fulfil them.

What we can always fulfil is our daily life practice.

Daily life practice is the complement of sitting practice but it is a hundred times harder to do. Its rewards, however, are immense, as it is the path to living in peace and harmony with all beings. If you want to truly engage with the world then balance your sitting practice with a regular practice in daily life. Without a daily life practice, zazen won’t bear fruit. It becomes like a green plant that is confined to a dark cupboard. It pales and has no direction in which to grow. Eventually, the question will be asked: Why am I doing all this sitting, and there will be no clear answer.

To begin a daily life practice, start small, and it is best to choose an activity that you quite enjoy doing – after all, why make it hard for yourself? An activity that uses the hands is ideal as the movements of the hands and fingers are precise and small and the eyes naturally follow such movements.

The kitchen is a good place to start. In fact, the kitchen is rich in opportunities for practice; ask any tenzo (the sesshin cook).

So suppose, for example, I set myself to fry onions, a simple kitchen task that I enjoy doing. I plan to do that task just as it needs to be done, nothing extra. I put the onions in the hot oil and there is sizzling and steam and aroma. One hand stirring the onions. Ah, this is the way to cook!

There – I’ve strayed in the first ten seconds. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is the return to the practice. Back to the stirring, sizzling, steam and smell.

No one practices all the time, continuously.

Practice involves a lot of straying and then returning. Straying from the path doesn’t matter – it is the return that builds strength. The more often you return the better you get at returning. Nor does it matter how long are the intervals between straying and returning. The intervals may be minutes, hours, or even days. Only the return matters. Gradually, the repeated returns wear a well-worn path that one willingly treads.

You may have tried a daily life practice and found that you couldn’t keep it up and you let it lapse with the thought that it was too hard, and it would be best to leave it to a later date after you have done more sitting. Or you may think that it is too hard for beginners and it is only for senior students. You are getting in your own way with such ideas.

Just keep returning to the task as it needs to be done. No separation from it. Straying from the task is not a failure, but with the return you are the master. Each return, each coming back home builds strength and perseverance and habit and reveals a place of rest within our daily chores.

The key is to keep at it. You will be surprised at how quickly daily life practice bears fruit.