Practice of Immediacy has shown me that Zen practice is freedom. Using art media to express what is right here, right now, I slow down and deeply experience life, including what often passes quickly and with minimal awareness. PIA seems particularly helpful in opening to what is unpleasant or unexciting, and magnifies experiences that are so subtle as to be overshadowed by more energetic ones. Nothing is taboo or too unimportant to express: an undercurrent of fear, red-tailed hawks vocalizing, the wind blowing through the branches of a 400 year old oak. While it is true that all of this is available no matter what I am doing, there is something about PIA that throws things into higher relief and deeper intimacy. And I feel another kind of relief too, the kind that comes with realizing that I don’t have to hide from anything that life presents. My own actions or those of others, words, objects, situations, relationships, nature—I am free to be all of these. But if I want to run from them, to run from who I am and find only separation, I am perfectly free to do that too.
I am a musician and I have struggled with the creative flow for nine years. The struggle began when I started studying the classical guitar. Within that time I have become frustrated with music. Just when I thought I was going to give up creativity I discovered the Practice of Immediacy. What a gift. Sometimes the gift comes when you least expect it. At first I didn’t get it. I thought I did, but when I did PIA in my second sesshin [retreat] the light turned on. An intense flow entered me and I became completely at peace with the chaos. My fingers moved and after a while there was nothing more to express from the senses through my fingers, I hit a creative flow and I began to play. I felt like a little kid painting the room with sound. There was nothing to create, nowhere to get to, nothing to worry about, I was here. All of a sudden someone announced “dinner is ready,” two hours felt like two minutes.
I continue to use this practice daily in my music, it helps me create art and it helps me grow in my meditation practice. I used to spend a lot of time focusing on my breath in meditation, but after an understanding of the Practice of Immediacy it has opened a whole new world of experience. Now meditation is completely out of control but in a great way, sometimes practice can be peaceful, but sometimes it can be uncomfortable and intense and its O.K. because the experience is always moving and changing like a movie. For me the Practice of Immediacy is a process that helps me be open to everything inside and out and keep the flow of life moving constant in my awareness.
When Jikyo Sensei brought us into the workroom where we would engage in the practice of immediacy during Rohatsu sesshin [retreat], I was genuinely enthusiastic and secretly arrogant. As she carefully explained the practice and pointed out the materials, I thought, “Yup, yup, I can do this, what’s to explain? You roll up your sleeves, get in there, and CREATE, let your presuppositions collapse, throw your constraints out the window, go with the flow, yada, yada, yada.” As the hours of sesshin ticked by, I slowly recognized that I was not rushing off to practice immediacy. I was, indeed, rehearsing reasons why I would not do it during this period, but rather during the next block or sitting, and when that passed, then the next. Finally my anxiety and embarrassment over my evasion leveraged my ass off my zafu and into the workroom.
Once there, I felt less apprehensive. After all, I had drawn a thing or two, painted and sculpted a little, glued up a collage, and even thrown a wobbly pot. I nosed amongst the media looking for inspiration and hit upon a complete Chinese ink painting kit. Aha! Something I had never done before, something with which I could really be IMMEDIATE! I laid claim to one end of a table and opened the kit. An instruction booklet winked seductively at me, and I succumbed. Lovingly I read over the method for creating the black ink, the descriptions of the various pens and their uses, the demonstrations of finger positions, the rules for loading the ink on the brush, the details on how to execute a bamboo leaf by stroke and pressure. Step by step I followed along, practicing each example as deliberately as a small child learning to make perfect O’s and S’s.
A firm but gentle hand clamped down on my shoulder , and Sensei’s voice whispered urgently in my ear. “Put the book away, Yuho. This is not about following the instructions.” Busted. Caught in the act, I spluttered the beginnings of a lame excuse. She interrupted, “Just put it away and start.” And so I did, but it wasn’t easy after I rolled up my sleeves. My presuppositions refused to be wrestled to the floor, my constraints wedged themselves in the window frame, and the flow was streaming somewhere beyond my end of the table. Somewhere in the distance I could hear a bird warbling “yada yada yada.”
For the rest of sesshin I struggled with immediacy. Each dot of glue, every feather and sequin, every brush stroke, even each scrap of paper called out for an evaluation, a judgement. Here? How about this shade? Too dark. That would look better over there. Scissors or ripping? What makes me think I could be an artist. That’s ugly. This isn’t right. How can I make this better? I hate this. Oh, this is a perfect composition. Who could imagine purple and green together? This is frustrating. It doesn’t look the way I want it to. People will think I am a jerk. And even, Wow, look at that! I found it impossible to “just let it go.”
Later, at the end of sesshin, we talked about our experience of immediacy practice. I couldn’t really claim to have been wholly immediate. I saw how my mind embraced structure and all things linear, even as I tried to push through the screens of my thinking. I remembered being that little girl, tongue between her teeth, trying to always color inside the lines, or print a perfect O, a perfect S. I remembered that I was rewarded when I succeeded, or chastised when I did not. Small wonder I hesitated to enter the practice of immediacy. And I said, only partly to myself, where else did this happen? Everywhere. All the time. It’s not called the human condition for nothing.
And somehow, seeing it in action, it didn’t feel so bad.
—Jean Yuho Ford