Filed in Zen (Chan)

Competing With The Incomparable

"When I'm practicing with a group, I often compare myself with the people sitting around me. I wonder if they are more focused, if they're moving less frequently, if their posture is better. How can I stop feeling so competitive?" Q&A with Michael Wenger

Michael Wenger

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When comparing yourself with others, do you usually find that you compare favorably or unfavorably? If you compare favorably, do you feel proud? If you compare unfavorably, do you feel devastated? Either of these reactions will keep you from seeing things as they are. If you are feeling competitive, the real question is, Who is it who compares? Don’t repress this feeling or tell yourself how bad it is, but study it as a foolish trait for which you have some affection.

Master Dogen, the thirteenth-century founder of Soto Zen in Japan, was asked by a student, “What should you do if you find yourself in an argument? Should you try to win the argument or should you concede, even though you feel you’re right?” Dogen advised neither path. Become disinterested, he told the student, and the argument will lose its energy. The same advice can be applied to feelings of competitiveness in practice: Let go of your attachment to appearances of one who wins or has “got it right.”

Practice just with what is happening in this moment, with your thoughts and sensations, your discomfort or your wandering mind—in other words, with whoever you are, right here, right now. This is the real work. Are you making your best effort?

The practice of the Five Perfections can help us realize this idea.

1. The perfect time to practice is right now—not tomorrow or next week or when you’re less busy, but right now. Nothing is lacking now: the dharma gate is wide open. All the “if-onlys” in the world are just excuses that keep you from meeting this moment.

2. The perfect place to practice is right where you are—not in an ashram in India, or in a monastery in Japan, or in a different meditation center in your town. You can always compare. Instead, practice right here, in earnest!

3. The perfect teaching is the one before you. Richard Baker Roshi once told of a dream he had: He was trying to find the answer to a question, and the telephone rang. He ignored the phone and focused instead on the question. On the thirtieth ring he picked up the phone, and the answer came to him through the receiver. What he had labeled a distraction was really the point.

4. The perfect teacher is whoever is in front of you. It’s a real relationship, not an objective measure of who is the best. You may learn more from a teacher who has faults and who practices with them.

5. The perfect student is you. You have within you all the ingredients you need to practice. You are in charge, and once you realize this, you will seek—and find—all the help you need. This is the most important of the Five Perfections.

Sometimes, though, comparing yourself with others can actually be helpful. There comes a point in practice when you have changed the things that are easy to change within yourself, but the more fundamental changes remain. When you feel that you have hit a wall in your practice and don’t notice any obvious progress, you can find encouragement in the growth you observe in your fellow practitioners, and realize you may also be growing subtly.

Again, “Who is it who compares?” The more you can come to see everyone as yourself, the more you will be able to use everything around you to learn about who you are, and the more you will be able to transform yourself and be an occasion for everyone else’s transformation. We are all sentient beings, and we are all capable of experiencing one another’s salvation. If you are only involved in protecting your small self, you are in constant peril!

The Point of Zazen

realization is effort
without desire
clear water all the way to the bottom
a fish swims like a fish
vast sky transparent throughout
a bird flies like a bird

                            —Dogen

Michael Wenger has practiced at San Francisco Zen Center for thirty-two years and still enjoys being on the cushion. He is currently in charge of development and dharma group support.

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