Don’t Just Sit There

“Don’t just sit there, do something.”

I think I had heard that all my life.

It seems to be the opposite of Zen. My first instruction to beginning meditators is, “Sit still; shut up.”

A Zen wit translated to, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

That was the perfect medicine for me, the lifelong social activist, who was so terribly without peace in his own skin when I finally began to sit down daily.

Well, that’s an exaggeration. 

I was worse before my seven years of psychoanalysis, worse before my years in Encounter Groups and Consciousness-Raising Groups. More insecure. Angrier. Finally, I was settling down with Zen after a 30-year flirtation.

“Don’t just do something, sit there,” came like a breath of fresh air.

So I just sat. And my life began to settle and I began to smile without even realizing it. Enormous gratitude for the teaching which was bringing peace into my life arose and with it a desire to give something back, a desire to share what I was finding with others. 

How could I fit Zen into my psychotherapy practice? That was perhaps the first question that arose.

And then after I had met Roshi Bernie (Sensei then) and Jishu (just plain Jishu, a senior teacher at the Zen Community of New York, not yet having received full authorization as a teacher), I was asking very concretely, how I could be of service to Bernie. What could I do to help? 

At that time, I couldn’t even get to carry his bags. There were far too many more senior Zen students waiting in line ahead of me for that opportunity.

And then strangely, I hesitated when, out of the blue, Bernie asked me to serve as Chair of the ZCNY board of directors. 

“Don’t just do something, sit there.” 

I was traveling every Saturday from Brooklyn to Yonkers (where the Zendo was located for weekly meditation and services, sometimes a second time each week for classes) to find the quiet place of stillness and away from the stresses of organizational life. I wanted Yonkers to be a place of refuge.

Smiling, I bowed. “Yes.” I was honored and flattered and grateful for the opportunity to give back.

It was something, but did not begin to fulfill my debt of gratitude.

Sometimes later, at dinner with Bernie and Jishu, I was privileged to listen to their conversation about Jishu’s path. I think by then, she may have received transmission and was Sensei Jishu. In Bernie’s vision, she would succeed him as Abbot of the ZCNY. This would be a growth step for both Bernie and Jishu, allowing Bernie to take on arising national and international challenges. A crucial step in this process was for Jishu to supervise her first Shuso. This a requirement of the Japanese Soto Sect on the pathway to becoming an Abbot. 

(Shuso is a crucial second step on the three-step process to becoming a Soto priest. Under Maezumi Roshi’s guidance, the opportunity to serve as Shuso, a lead student during a three month study period, had been opened to lay practitioners at the Zen Community of Los Angeles. Bernie continued that practice at ZCNY).

“Who will be your first Shuso?” Bernie asked.

Jishu had a number of ideas.

“No,” none of these would do. To meet the Soto Sect requirements, the first Shuso must be a Soto priest, Bernie explained. None of the candidates that Jishu had in mind had been ordained.

I barely slept that night. I have told this story before. I won’t retell it all now.

I offered to ordain, something that I had never considered doing, in order to become Jishu’s first Shuso. Terrified at what I was proposing to do. Eventually, she accepted that offer. Gratitude.

An extraordinary opportunity to give back.

 Other opportunities presented themselves. Gratitude and opportunities to express my gratitude. Stepping again and again from the 100-foot pole.

I don’t think I understood then how unusual my experience was. Coming to Zen practice from Social Activism, getting up from the cushion, and doing something perhaps just came more easily to me.

Now I wonder, how does it happen that people get stuck on their cushions?

I have always believed (is it a mistaken generalization of my own experience?) that if you sit long enough — how long is enough? Each person is different — you will eventually experience a great feeling of gratitude for the peace that the practice has brought into your life. And, out of that gratitude, you will be moved to do something, to give back, and you will just naturally respond to the opportunities that are right in front of you.

Beginning from “Don’t just do something, sit there,” you will naturally find yourself in the place of  “Don’t just sit there, do something.”

In my experience, the opportunities are endless. You can’t do everything. Just respond.

“Sentient beings (or ‘creations’) are numberless, I vow to free them.” 

Social entrepreneurship is one tool for freeing sentient beings, freeing creations.

Out of gratitude, this vow arises. Opportunities to serve, to give back are endless.

Why open another school? Why not just make this school better? Because the number of students still needing better alternatives to their existing schools is large. Endless? I don’t know. Because the number of people who could be great teachers is endless if only there were great schools for them to teach in. Endless? I think so.

What about schools for Lakota children in South Dakota, schools that would help them preserve their language and culture? How can we help them? How can we be of service? What about the Shinnecock children on Eastern Long Island?

Opportunities always arise. We cannot get to them all. Just putting one foot in front of the other foot, I do what I can. I am lucky perhaps. I have gotten off the cushion in this lifetime.

Do I still believe that if you sit long enough the gratitude which naturally arises will eventually lead you to get up off your cushion and do something? I think so.  But I am understanding more Bernie’s commitment to finding Upayas (skillful means) to accelerate the process of awareness, of waking up to the conditioning which imprisons us within our skin.

Maybe too this is about me learning patience. Perhaps, this process is going to take some people a very long time. Each of us comes to this practice with our own prisons. I smile. I am very lucky in my life. That’s karma.

Stop screaming, Ken. This is an opportunity for me to work with my impatience. Learn from Bernie’s Upaya. Create offerings. Offer the offerings. People will respond when they are ready, at their own pace.

I have gotten off the cushion and I am still on the cushion.

“Don’t just sit there, do something,” and “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Both. Continually.

That is our Zen practice.