Radical Non-Doing

Last weekend I went along to Zen Center to offer the zazen instruction, which I have not done for a few months, and which I enjoyed very much. In the few minutes between finishing the instruction and settling down for the lecture (I hadn’t intended to stay for it, but since it was my friend Tim, I wanted to support him, and it was an excellent talk), I went upstairs to use the residents’ bathroom in the ‘holy hallway‘ – knowing that there would doubtless be a line for the two on the ground floor. It turned out that the upstairs bathroom was getting some use as well – there are four stalls adjacent to each other at the far end of the bathroom, and three of them were occupied. Generally speaking, the male residents don’t shut the stall doors when they are peeing, so I could see who was there, and, to my surprise, as I approached, I saw a resident who has been around long enough to know better busy with his phone in one hand while in full flow. I know him well enough to feel able to offer a gentle ticking off.

It reminded me – as I told him – of getting to visit the Facebook campus once, at the invitation of someone from Young Urban Zen who worked there. It struck me, as I usually tell the story, as rather like being in the Truman Show, with everything almost looking too good to be true. The sitting group my friend was a part of took place in a small room in one of the farther-flung buildings; heading to the bathroom before the session started, I saw that there was a coding problem posted at eye level above the urinal – something to contemplate while you were peeing. Except that the person next to me was too busy texting to glance at it. At the end of the sitting, reflecting on that, and the treadmill desks I had seen, I mentioned to the small group that they were the only people at Facebook not busy doing something, and that this radical non-doing was an essential counterbalance to what was expected of them through the day.

All of which is a long-winded way of getting a gentle plug in for my dear friend and dharma sister Djinn, who writes very eloquently on the subject here, and who is addressing this widespread modern phenomenon at Tassajara in a few weeks. Readers with long memories might remember a similar plug a while ago (this time she is working with Shokuchi, who is also great, and who led the first yoga retreat I ever did, at Asilomar – Zachary is of course now leading the open-air lunchtime meditation with me, our current non-doing offering for those in the city). These days it feels that we could use daily – if not hourly – reminders that non-doing is necessary to our well-being. If you can’t get yourself to Tassajara for a few days, how about half-an-hour or so at the Embarcadero next Monday?

And if anyone might feel a little shocked at using stories about peeing in a zen context, I recently came across a story I read way back at the start of my practice, which resonated with me: a monk, or perhaps an official, asks Joshu about the meaning of zen. Joshu replies along the lines of, ‘I’d love to tell you, but first I have to go and relieve myself. Think about it, such an insignificant affair, and yet I have to do it for myself – can you do it for me?’

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