New Year’s Zen

I awoke to the sound of drizzling rain on the eaves. Darla remained fast asleep, so I had the house to myself for most of the morning. New Year’s Day is one of intentionality, at least that is how I intend for it to be, and this one started well. I set a pot of bean soup to simmering on the stove, and sat down to mend my meditation cushion.

If you’ve used a meditation cushion (zafu) for any appreciable length of time, you know that the seams will eventually start pulling apart at the weak spots, thereby allowing the kapok stuffing to escape in little puffs whenever it’s compressed. Now, some may think this is a sign that it’s time for a brand new cushion. Au contraire! Sitting zazen is a very intimate activity, you see. One gets used to his or her zafu as one gets used to an old pair of blue jeans. You cannot simply replace an old pair of jeans, and you cannot simply buy a new zafu. It is far easier to learn how to use a needle and thread.

Zafu with mended seam

I’ve had this particular zafu for a couple of decades now. It was one of many crafted by practitioners at the Zen center where I once practiced. Perhaps I made it myself? I certainly had a hand in making many of them during my tenure there. Perhaps I personally stuffed it tight with kapok? I certainly stuffed a number of them while sitting out in the garden trying not to let too many of the natural stuffing fibers escape on the sun-warmed breeze. It’s become flatter over time, though, to which I’ve adapted by using a folded blanket underneath – with more folds as time went by. However, there is something special about this zafu that I’ve become accustomed to. Yes, I’m home whenever and wherever I sit zazen. But when I’m sitting on this zafu, I know that I am both home and at home. It is a refuge that I’m able to settle into with much greater ease.

Many Zen practitioners become quite familiar with a needle and thread. Either they’ve sewn something called a rakusu – a bib-like garment signifying lay-ordination, for instance – or they’ve taken part in the crafting or mending of the zafus upon which they and others sit. It is a task that makes us even more intimate with our practice. No, it is our practice.

Starting this New Year by mending my zafu seems a perfect way to begin life anew with greater intentionality. It is good to be intimately involved with the details of our life. Mending a zafu or sewing a button on a garment, cooking a pot of soup or maybe even growing the ingredients, fixing something old or repurposing it into something else that’s useful – these activities, rather than being mere tasks that steal our time from us, actually deepen our experience of life itself. They are every bit worthy of our time, when we let them become our time.

This year will be one of intentionality. This is my vow. I will both simplify my life, and become more intimate with its details. I will approach these details not as tasks, but as life itself. By the way, I think the soup is ready.

Copyright 2022 by Mark Robert Frank

All images are the property of the author unless otherwise noted.

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