My root yoga guru – Swami Muktananda – had a great story. Two swamis were travelling in India and had no place to sleep. They found a home of a business man, and, in the middle of the night, entered an empty bedroom. The elder swami advised the younger, “Whatever you do, don’t become anyone.” That morning the owner discovered them and started shouting at them, “What are you doing in my home?” The younger swami was outraged and said, “I am a swami!!” The owner beat him and threw him out the door. The elder swami said nothing. The owner said, “Clearly this man is a fool. Get him out of here.” The younger swami was bruised and bleeding. He said, “How come he beat me and not you?” The elder swami said, “I told you not to become anything!”
Chapter Two of Suzuki Roshi’s book Not Always So, is called “Express Yourself Fully.” Suzuki Roshi says, “Trying to become someone else, you lose your practice and lose your virtue.” I often object, thinking, “How can you ever be anyone but yourself?”
Soto Zen is famous for its austere forms: sitting meditation facing a wall (zazen); formal walking (kinhin); bowing together; even eating meals in a highly formalized way (oryoki). I actually love this kind of practicing together, but I can definitely see why many Westerners object. We think we are preserving our identity and authenticity by being original and unique. And yet, Suzuki Roshi says that he could see each person’s unique nature, when everyone was sitting in the exact same unmoving position facing a wall.
I think back to the national sprint bicycle championship in the 1970’s – a time when one would think I was most uniquely and specially expressing myself. On the qualifying round to put me in the top three, my foot came loose from the pedal. While I went around the track with my foot helplessly pulled up, and the cranks going round and round (a sprint bike has a “fixed gear”), I could hear my teammate cheering me on. Afterwards, instead of humiliation and despair, I just laughed and laughed. Not just because it was funny, but because I could see that that had nothing to do with who I really am.
Last December I was at a week-long Zen retreat in Mexico. It was in silence. Even if it were not in silence, I can’t speak Spanish. We moved and walked and chanted in formal unison. At the end of the week, I had such love for each person. I felt at some mysterious level I knew them better than my co-workers in the law office where I have worked for twelve years. Real and deep intimacy with each different person.
So maybe fully expressing ourselves is fully experiencing the love that is always so.