As I wait for the lessons sown during last week's Rohatsu Sesshin to sprout and poke through in my mind, I'll visit an important lesson from a couple months ago: while they can have their purposes, comparisons are empty.
A good place this pops up is during warm up stretching for Aikido. We all have different body types and flexibility so my teacher always reminds us to not compare ourselves with others; just focus on stretching. It does no good to compare whether we can touch our hands to our toes, elbows to the floor or whatever. Our effort is to stretch and that is its own benefit.
Usually she points out that if we push ourselves, that stretching that far will never be that painful again. Each time it will just get easier. Ideally this is true if we do it everyday, because our muscles will have stretched, resetting their maximum length. I find this false though, it's not enough to not compare ourselves with others, we shouldn't even compare ourselves with ourselves. Frequently I'll have days when I'm tighter than I have been before and I can't quite reach as far as I could last time. If I get caught up in thinking I should be able to go further, I could hurt myself.
Applied to my Zen practice, this came up in dokusan. I was mildly annoyed that after a wonderful progression of improvement in my sitting, I was having a spell of difficulty focusing during zazen. Doing the natural thing, I questioned it and examined it to discover what this meant. The obvious intellectual conclusion is that I just have to let the results be the results with acceptance and continue my effort.
In my mind, I "know" that the path is what matters and not the goal; that it's about the effort I expend not the results. This situation made me realize the truth of this, but I have yet to actualize it.
It makes no sense to compare the practice of this moment with that of a past moment when each exists completely independently of each other. There's no way to take two moments, set them side by side and critically compare them any more than its possible to take two persons' minds and compare their activities side by side. Any former perception of past results is altered by time; it's no longer real like the present.
We practice zazen to cultivate many things. The Six Paramitas do a good job of summing them up: generosity, ethics, patience, enthusiastic perseverance, concentration, and wisdom. Acceptance and discipline are a couple more that fit in there, too.
We plant the various seeds with our daily life in the soil of our very being. Our practice is the sunlight and nourishment that encourages their growth. We can't pull on the sprouts to make them grow faster. Neither can we neglect one in favor of another.
When we struggle with our practice, these virtues are starving. The extra effort we put forth is needed to wring out the sustenance they need; it doesn't just pour easily from the watering can.
Sure we can kick back and take it easy, the virtues might grow on their own but they're just as likely to shrivel up and die. Besides, what's the point of cultivating a harvest if we don't even care enough to make it is as bounteous as possible?
So accept life's ups and downs, do your best in the moment because that is all that matters.