Emily, a former Zen student of mine, wrote me recently from her new address in Sacramento. She said, “I don’t think I could have imagined the difference that sitting even for just a half hour a week…would make for me – but the results have been very practical – the bad neighborhoods in my mind are a lot safer now that someone is watching and the lights are on at night.”
It’s an irony of sitting [meditation] that it invites to mind the very thing you’d like to avoid. If you undertake the practice of sitting in the hope of finding a little serenity and peace of mind only to discover that your mind runs riot with all sorts of troubling memories, apprehensions, and trivia, it’s understandable if you think your sitting is a failure. It isn’t of course. An intimate acquaintance with the bad neighborhoods of the mind is indispensable to dispelling the threat these neighborhoods pose. The simple practice of sitting has the capacity to walk you down every bad street of the most fearful neighborhood your mind can concoct. It can bring you to the threshold of every door that unlocks on every bad room with every bad occupant that thought can entertain. But however distressful this might be, the ultimate consequence is that sheer familiarity will rob the mind’s worst neighborhood of its power to threaten you. Or as Emily wrote, the bad neighborhoods “are a lot safer now that someone is watching and the lights are on at night.”
One of the worst neighborhoods of my mind is a memory of the time I was very unkind to a man who’d been kind to me. His name was Harold, and we worked together on a turkey ranch out of Palmdale, California, in the Mojave Desert where I’d been hired as field foreman. Harold operated the incubators and hatchery for the ranch. He’d been there for some time, and when I first arrived, he had me in for supper and afterwards made himself available for companionship or advice. Harold was a stutterer, slow and halting of speech. He was fat to the point of obesity, and the other hands on the farm had nicknamed him “the pear.” To my present dismay and shame I fell in with this belittling of Harold, wanting perhaps to fit in with the majority who tended to treat Harold as something of a joke.
And what’s worse is that I mentally rewrote the history of my behavior in such a way as to justify the betrayal of someone who’d offered me friendship. Souls are lost this way, not Harold’s soul, but mine. One of the worst neighborhoods of the mind is the neighborhood of history rewritten to avoid the shame, regret, or guilt of a wrongdoing. Only the full acknowledgement of the truth will atone for such a wrong. That’s why I have here told you the truth about Harold. I haven’t done so to punish myself for something bad that I once did, but rather to fix firmly in mind the truth of what I actually did. Past existence unlike present existence is not itself amenable to change, but being held up to the light of present understanding, the past can facilitate change. I have learned in my hours of solitary sitting to own the bitterest of regrets, genuine regret being essential for the redemption of any wrong.
Emily said that she couldn’t imagine the practical difference a little sitting could make. But I have lived to see the worst neighborhoods of my mind made a little safer now.