Sunday, July 11, 2010

Zen is Everyday Life

Before taking up Zen, everyday life is just how life is lived. When you start to practice Zen, everyday life becomes a mystery, a thing unto itself. After ‘practicing Zen’ everyday life again is just how life is lived.

During the summer months my practice community is dispersed and we are involved in many family and social activities. I’m looking forward already to the cold, rainy and snowy month when my practice community will come together again.

As reported earlier, I recently spent some time with Barry Gordon, a spoon carver with over 30 year of experience. One thing that I picked up watching Barry was the importance of intentionality. This notion is still coagulating but here is what I've seen so far.

You could depend on the moment or "the wood" to inspire you as you formed the spoon. Stand in front of the bandsaw or the chopping block and start whacking away. I call this the "Michelangelo Subtraction Approach" - start removing wood and seeing what develops. Lately this has started to feel a bit to 'willy-nilly' and this feeling intensified after working with Barry.

Alternatively, you could inject more intentionality.

I've started to make patterns for my spoons. When thinking about what I want to accomplish, the drawing has been very helpful. As an activity unto itself, drawing connects me with my spoon making at times I can not be in the shop. Pattern making has already lead me to see design 'opportunities' I want to avoid using again. Notice the bottom pattern in the picture above. The curve in the handle looks graceful and suited to the size of the spoon. Using the pattern in fresh Red Oak, I now feel that the curve it too 'curvy' and the spoon feels funny 'in the hand'. I'll post a picture when done comparing spoon with pattern.

Another activity that adds intentionally is keeping a file of inspiring photos and clipping from which to draw ideas. My image file contains almost 800 images of spoons scoured from the web that I peruse from time to time, studying the work of others, some positive some as lessons of what not to do.

Sweet 'hand-feel' of a spoon is the ephemeral quality of comfort and connection you get when holding a well crafted spoon. I've held and made spoons that lack this 'hand-feel' or a 'spooniness' quality.

Which are you? A Michelangelo who removes everything that is not the spoon or someone who injects some measure of intentionality into you carving?

The more I practice the more I realize just how little I know about Zen. I'm finding talking about Zen ain't too helpful. Sometimes a lot of what passes for Zen is nothing but critique. Like a movie critic, critiquing life. Counter productive yet the social norm. Acceptably missing the point!

I must confess that I don't know a thing about Zen. I don't know why I practice. I can't remember even why I came to the practice. Maybe it is transient, but I find my desire to hold ideas in my mind weakening even more. I have no idea about Zen and am comforted by that. Weird confession. The practice being so nebulous. To say it is "everything" or "your practice is your practice" is a cop out. I sit. That is about all I can say for sure.

There. -- Your turn.


  1. Will,
    Enjoyed "seeing you" here while we are on sabbatical.
    I'm intrigued about your "not knowing" why you practice zen. Is that a quick n easy answer fronting for a more complicated and less cogent one? Why is any one thing more important than any other, including spoon making?

  2. Craig, so good to "see you". Saw someone else 'cutting the cheese' at the Coop, have you moved on?

    Frankly, this question of 'why practice' is not very interesting to me. Partly it is a loosening of the grip of certainty. Partly it is confronting reality. The reality that you cannot think your way out of thinking.

    Speaking of fun, yea! spoon carving! Confused by the connection between 'don't know' and one thing being more important than another. Right now, you, I and this comment have the most import. Soon it will be lunch. This weekend it will be spoon making.

  3. Will, I enjoyed meeting you at Country Workshops last week. I know less than nothing about Zen, but I do know that I appreciated your stillness. :o)

  4. Kari, knowing 'less than nothing and Zen' is wonderful and a profound Zen state. I don't say this to confuse you. Zen Master Seung Sahn, a modern teacher who helped bring Zen to America, liked to remind everyone who'd listen "Always keep don't know mind."

    If you're interested, in 1987 Seung Sahn wrote 3 short letters to a beginner which expound on this knowing 'less than nothing'. Very moving.

    Yes, it was so nice to finally meet you in the really world. May you be happy and healthy.