(Photo by In Her Image)

I don’t usually refer to myself as a Zen Buddhist.

Actually, I almost never say it. This is despite the fact that

a.) I regularly read books on Buddhism/study its concepts, and
b.) I resonate deeply with the teachings, and
c.) I sit zazen (Zen Buddhist sitting meditation), and
d.) wear a little buddha around my neck at all times that I very rarely have taken off for the past five years, and
e.) a few years ago, I spent a two-year period studying with a sangha (Zen community).

Many people might say, “Put all of those together, and that equals a Buddhist.” If I told you that I read books on Christianity, resonated deeply with the teachings, prayed daily, wore a cross around my neck, and went to church regularly, you’d probably say, “Sounds like Kate is a Christian.”

Yet often, I’ll hesitate to claim myself as a Buddhist openly, even if it’s what I feel within. I hesitate to do so for several reasons. First of all, in my early and mid-twenties, I think that I was attracted to Zen more because of the label than because of what it had to offer. I was hoping that if I called myself a Buddhist, I’d be “fixed.” Buddhists, after all, were enlightened people.

I went through a period of shame about that realization, surprised at how far I could distort spiritual practices in order to serve Ego. Now that the shame has receded, what I often notice is that I don’t feel it necessary to claim myself as a Buddhist–far more important that I get more present to the what-is-ness of my life.

The projections of others also bothered me. Buddhists do this, Buddhists don’t do that. On more than one occasion when someone reacted to something I’d said or done with surprise, they said, “But you’re a Buddhist!”

(P.S. In case you’re wondering, Buddhists do not say “fuck.” If you call yourself a Buddhist and then drop the f-bomb, someone will point this out).

But I do the projecting thing sometimes, myself. I run across Buddhist blogs on the web where someone’s writing a lot of critical snarck and then the commenters are validating the critical snarck, and then I get spun off on that (“Can’t this ‘Buddhist’ see that they’re not only writing judgmentally about others, but they are making judgement of others seem okay and encouraging their commenters to be judgmental of others, too–all while using a religion that is supposed to be all about compassion and non-judgement?”).

Or maybe they’re not writing critical snarck, they’re writing great, uplifting things, and everyone’s validating them as a good and righteous human being, and I’m just imagining that blogger coyly toeing the ground, going, “Aw, shucks, thanks guys for seeing how incredibly wise I am.”

This continues until I notice that I’m doing the exact same thing by running the judgments in my head–thinking that I know what Buddhism is supposed to look like for another person–when in fact, I only know what it looks like for me.

Here’s what it looks like for me: it looks like committing to a practice of opening my heart, getting present, dropping judgment, practicing acceptance. When I feel present and connected to me, which happens in small increments at random moments when I am meditating regularly, the feeling is similar to that of rounding a corner and suddenly seeing a landscape sunset spreading before me–the beauty stops me, freeze-frames everything.

And then it’s gone.

That’s perhaps the biggest realization that I’ve had about spiritual practice– that the sense of felt spirit waxes and wanes, constricts and expands, washes in and then recedes. If it were as simple as following a series of rules and then reaching some destination point, it would no longer be spiritual practice.

There’s something inherently spiritual about finding a new rough edge and then learning–all over again, it often feels like!–how to be with that edge and not resist it, to show your rough edges some compassion and love yourself in the process.

All of that requires presence, and whether someone finds that through prayer in a Catholic church or reciting the Koran in a mosque or sitting in perfect silence at a monastery facing a blank wall or through dance or through writing or through all the myriad ways of creating stillness in one’s life, I don’t really care.

No dogma–that’s another thing Buddhism is continually teaching me.

There’s just something really beautiful about dropping down into the center of ourselves, especially when we discover that that center is not necessarily perfect, tranquil, balanced calmness.

I just want to be with all of it, all of me, all the mixed up sad confused un-put-together places intermingling with my orgasmic, radiant joy.

I just want to breathe.