A lot of the older teachings compare the teachings of Buddhism to medicine. Its an apt analogy for many reasons, if suffering is the sickness then the medicine would, logically, alleviate suffereing. The comparison works on another level as well, something that I only recently became aware of. Like medicine, Zazen and buddhism in general, seem to only be measurable in their results and not in the actual actions themselves. What I mean is that when you have a headache and take an aspirin the action of taking the pill does not bring instant relief (despite what the ads would have you believe), popping that pill does nothing for your headache at the instant you swallow it. Rather the medicine must be dissolved in your body and then travel throughout your bloodstream until it reaches the specific part you are trying to affect. After enough time has passed for all this to occur then you begin to feel the effects of the aspirin, you feel relief from your headache once the medicine has had time to be processed through you, not the second that you swallowed it.
I feel like it is safe to say that anyone doing Zazen (meditation) for more than a few months will develop doubts about it. After all, we are told over and over again that there is no goal to our sitting! Without a goal our normal, conditioned minds think “why the fuck am I bothering to sit here with my knees aching and my brain doing somersaults if there is no goal!?” Ive done it many, many times myself. At first I outwardly agreed with the “no goals” message while secretly hoping for some kind of pay-off like peace, or enlightenment, perhaps an end to my struggles or even just wishing for cessation of my desire for a goal! After awhile even those goals will go away and this then is when the “dark night” of the Buddhist soul begins, because once you stop secretly having goals the mind says “why bother?” and without that secret goal I think a lot of folks quit sitting all together, I quit a few times myself and thats when a funny thing happens…
See, the whole time you have been sitting “wrong” it has still been working on you. Like medicine you dont “feel” the effect at the moment of ingestion, the effects are only noticeable in how they affect the “symptoms”. If you have been sitting regularly and then skip a few days you will notice that a lot of old conditioning comes back, for myself that manifests as feeling very edgy and irritable, I begin thinking of scenarios and old grudges where I felt humiliated or attacked. The first time I quit meditation I was shocked at how quickly I turned into the same dissatisfied, frightened, angry person I had spent my whole life being. I was argumentative, unable to compromise or move passed a perceived slight, I just felt at odds with the world instead of in accord with it. Once I got my dumb ass back on the cushion all those negative habits and thought traps quickly disappeared. It still happens, I suppose I am “cursed” to meditate for the rest of my days but if all it takes to get my shit together is 10 or 20 minutes of meditation a day then I’m glad to do it.
The funny thing is that when I’m actually meditating, as in when I’m sitting on a cushion (called a zafu), I don’t feel any of this change occurring. It’s usually boring, often distracting as my monkey mind send one thought after another that I dutifully let go of and return to my breath. These days the knees don’t hurt anymore and I don’t find myself lost in a daydream for 8 of the 15 minutes I’m sitting for, but I also am not feeling more “peaceful, enlightened, or calm”, I just feel like I’m sitting and not much is going on. Now, however, I know that something is happening though I can’t feel it, the medicine of meditation is working on some level I can’t (or even care to) fathom. Amazingly, the years of doing “nothing” have produced something wonderful, a life I could never have imagined. I have learned to trust that when I take the pill by actually sitting daily that the suffering is alleviated, it’s not quick or “exciting” but it does work astoundingly well.
Even if I can’t feel it.