Having done tattoos that range in size from the size of a pea to whole bodysuits I have noticed a strange phenomena. I could wrap up a sleeve or a whole back piece and the customer will look at it in the mirror, smile, and go “that’s perfect!” On the other hand I can do a teeny tiny tattoo on someones wrist and they invariably hold it one inch from their nose and say “um can you make this one (atom sized) line a little thicker here?”, then you do that and they look at it from a millimeter away and say “I hate to be a pain but this one part is a millimeter higher than this part” and so on. I’m not exaggerating either, I’ve finished an entire arm and not had to go back and retouch a single line and spent 15 minutes making insignificant tiny adjustments to a tattoo which will look like a fuzzy dot in a year. The simpler the design is, the harder it is to do “perfectly”, the difference being that on a large tattoo one takes in the entire piece and so the tiny parts which make it up are less significant than the micro tattoo which may have only 4 or 5 lines total so each one becomes outsized in its importance.
I can’t tell you the number of people who have told me that they “want to start” meditating and yet when I suggest starting now say something like “oh I’ve tried and I just cant do it” or “I would love to but my brain is just to crazy/busy/noisy”. Zazen is basically sitting, letting thoughts come and go as natural without holding onto any particular one, so why is it so hard? Just like those tiny tattoos, the simple act of sitting seems to cause way more consternation than much more complicated and difficult tasks. I routinely tell someone to sit still in a chair while I poke them with needles for five or six hours and not only do people agree to do this, they pay me for the experience! Ask most of these same people to sit comfortably facing a wall quietly for 15 minutes and they would freak. the. fuck. out. Keep in mind that many of these folks have told me, without prompting, that they want to meditate!? In their mind there is some terrible barrier to simply sitting down and just being quiet for a few minutes, these are not newbies to life’s difficulties either, they are people who have had children, been arrested, saved lives, and been interviewed for once in a life time jobs and all the other daunting, scary, and trying aspects of life are yet are still shit scared of the thought of just being alone with their thoughts without an I phone, tv, or friend to help them.
I’m here to tell you that it’s not scary. It doesn’t require you to be any type of person, it wont be crazy or explosive or dramatic, you wont see visions and the devil wont sneak into your head. You don’t have to have “no thoughts” (as if such a thing were possible) and you don’t have to know anything about Buddhism. You just have to sit, and be patient. You can too do it, I don’t care what your excuse is, you can.
So why is it so difficult? Well as the title of this blog suggests, simple things often feel harder to do than complicated ones. A poem is in many ways more difficult than a story because each word is far more important. You edit the thought down to its essence without the security of a bunch of extra words to pad it and cover up the ungainly bits, for a poem to be successful it needs to flow where a story can ramble on and on hinting around at what the author means. In tattooing I have had the sadistic pleasure of watching people who do very complicated or painterly type tattoos try to pull off a “simple” traditional rose or pin-up girl and fail. They know they fail and you can almost hear their brains rebelling, “this shit is so simple a kid could draw it, I can tattoo a photo-realistic squid zombie so why can’t I DO THIS!?”
The reason a novelist can be a lousy poet or a realism tattooer a lousy traditional artist is the exact same reason that people starting off in Zazen find it so daunting. It’s because they don’t have the practice! Where we get tripped up is that we know its “simple” and we often confuse that with “easy”. But even something as simple as drawing a rose requires practice, repetition, diligence and patience. We live in a world where we expect to either be an expert right away or we consider ourselves “not gifted” in that particular endeavor. It’s just not the way it works, thankfully, because with a little applied effort and some dedication we can improve ourselves in almost any way we chose to focus on.
People sometimes call Zen a religion, others a philosophy, but in truth it is a practice. And practice is all it takes to “get” zazen. If you wanted to run a marathon you wouldn’t wake up one day and run 26 miles. You might try, but you would fail and trying to “get enlightened” (whatever that is) by waking up and sitting once is the same thing. Just like the prospective marathoner you start off small, in 10 or 15 minutes chunks, you don’t beat yourself up if you spend half the time thinking about sex or burritos or your x-box, you just come back to your breath over and over. The cool thing about Zazen is that when you “fail” is when you actually make progress! The art of zazen is that when your mind wanders you gently let go of the thought and just come back, do that enough times and you will find the same thing happens in the rest of your life. You stop waking up at 4 am worrying about the gas bill and you stop being mad at something happened years ago. You practice being in this moment and like the marathoner who practices running every day, eventually you find that you can do it, naturally.