Chapter 63: Consider Beginnings
“Study the hard while it’s easy.
Do big things while they’re small.
The hardest jobs in the world start out easy,
The great affairs of the world start small…
The wise soul, by treating the easy as hard,
Doesn’t find anything hard.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
I just completed my first sesshin, a week-long silent retreat in the Zen Buddhist tradition. It was not just hard, but a kind of hard so different from the normal round of challenges we all deal with on a regular basis. You sit in zazen, seated meditation, for roughly seven hours a day, starting at 4:30 am. From an evolutionary perspective, the fact that an animal programmed for sociality, movement, pursuit of desires, speech, and so on would choose to do such a thing flies in the face of reason. Realizing that the desire to give up, get up, and retreat from the retreat is a siren song seducing you away from your cushion requires Herculean restraint. Somehow, to simply sit is the most deceptively simply of things.
The dinner the night before we entered “noble silence,” one of the roshis happened to sit next to me. I asked him if he had any advice for my first sesshin. He shrugged his shoulders and raised his cartoonishly bushy eyebrows: “Hey, if you can’t sit for a week, sit for a moment.” Such was one of the hardest lessons delivered with the greatest of ease. I returned to it, like a mantra, the dozens of times throughout the week when the pain in my knees, the knots in my back, the sleep deprivation, the sheer frustration made me want to throw in the towel.
“What is desire?” He asked in the middle of his Dharma talk later that week. “The rejection of some aspect of this moment.” Desire here doesn’t mean natural desires for food, company, and sex. It means desires fueled by delusional beliefs and powerful emotions—the belief that I must have this, the fear that I will lose that, and so on. When we cling—when we push away from or pull on some piece of the present moment—we distort reality. We tug on some thread of the World Wide Web in which we are enmeshed, and create tangles for ourselves and others. Indra’s net is turned into samsara.
The teaching is that the hard and the easy, the great and the small, this and that are products of the mind. As Mother Theresa says, we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love. Thus do small things become great.
As the saying goes: “Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.”
In other words: there is much to be gained by seeing procrastination in existential terms. You’re not just putting off hard things—you are making easy things harder and, beyond that, making things harder for those around you.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”