My name is Honmei and my practice is counting my breath. I’ve been practicing at Hazy Moon for 11 years.
When I started practicing, I did it because I felt like I should. Practice is good for you, like exercise, and I felt a connection to Buddhism. At the time, I was trapped in cycles of mental fatigue and compulsion at work. I was tremendously neurotic and had a desire to try to “be” the right way so that people would love me and not criticize or reject me. I didn’t know how to do that, which made for a lot of fear, worry, and mental anguish.
After I started sitting, I saw that I had more ease and self-control on the days I sat, because I noticed its absence on the days I didn’t. I was overjoyed that I had a tool to relieve my crippling social fear. I was a fanatic in no time. I was obsessed and wanted to get the big end-of-the-rainbow experience that Zen talked so much about—what the Buddha realized. I thought that would make me totally safe and unimpeachable no matter what, and I was willing to give whatever it took.
I pushed as hard as I could and experienced highs, but also big lows after retreats or any period of strong effort.
At some point, Roshi started to pull back on the support or hand-holding he’d been giving me. I felt he was trying to teach me that my desire to practice had to come from myself, which I agreed with and wanted to fulfill.
But after the summer Ango that year, I experienced a crash. I felt that my effort was unsustainable, and if working this hard was what I was supposed to do forever for its own sake, I was never going to make it.
For the next five years I felt lost and alone in my practice. I am sure I created that “alone” feeling. Where before I had been praised, I now felt like a pathetic doubter who couldn’t muster herself to make the simplest basic effort. I was trying as hard as I could in a really tough place but it didn’t make me feel any better.
Still, I was unable to quit. In my heart I knew this practice is the only shred of hope out there. I tried pursuing other things, not with deep conviction, but with the kind of fingers-crossed belief that I might be more comfortable and approved of in worldly life.
It was a long time of trying to make a miserable effort to produce a change and feeling like a failure.
At some point, Roshi began demonstrating to us what his inner world was like. He was just empty and breathing normally. He wasn’t trying to do something. What I was doing wasn’t working. I had been trying to make my breath hold to the count. So I tried relaxing, breathing normally and counting it.
A sesshin came and I decided I wasn’t going to “turn a corner.” I was just going to enjoy the little moments and try as best I could to count my breath. I questioned whether it was right to not try to push toward something, if I was losing some spark or being sacrilegious. I didn’t ask directly, but was surprised to receive positive encouragement from Roshi that I was on the path and knew where to be.
Since then, others have asked if a transformation is going on with me. I don’t feel as if something happened or there was any moment where I became different. I can say I don’t suffer as much trying to get something out of practice, and I feel a stronger connection to it.
Recently, Roshi told me, “Quit being so enamored of your thoughts. What do they do for you?” It was humbling to realize how much time I’d wasted, thinking (because I consider myself a clever, insightful person) there was value in them. It was all just vanity, and in the end, it felt poisonous, exhausting, and indulgent. It’s a huge relief to not have to sort through that mess.
Someone once asked Buddha, what have you gained? “Nothing. I lost my misery.”