Do you grow your fingernails or do your fingernails grow themselves? This was the kind of tree-falling-in-the-forest discussions we had in college, burning up our tuition dollars in late night metaphysical speculations in hazy, smoke-filled rooms. And all these years later, I find myself asking it again. I cut my fingernails too short the other day and it hurts to play piano, so I’m wanting them to quickly grow back. But it is, so to speak, out of my hands.
A Zen student told her teacher with a bit of pride, “I’m getting much better at sitting zazen (Zen meditation) with concentration and fewer distracting thoughts” and he responded, “When you sit well, you don’t sit zazen. Zazen sits zazen.”
I know what he means. I feel it at the piano sometimes when the music is pouring out of my fingertips and playing itself. If someone walks in the room and I self-consciously want to show off, the whole tower of blocks falls down. When everything’s flowing just right, music plays music. Zazen sits zazen. Basketball plays basketball. Teaching teaches teaching. All we have to do is get out of the way.
Of course, “all we have to do” is the understatement of the year. To get to that place, you need a solid, determined, willful self that puts in the hours to make it happen—no sidestepping that. But the problem is when that ego wants to take credit—“Look at ME! I’m growing my fingernails!” All that directed energy from the self ultimately aims for the self’s demise, kind of like a slow, purposeful suicide, not from despair, but from joy that our little self has joined with the large roaring larger self of World, just one cell in a singing body of World, one breath joining the inhale and exhale of World. Having worked so hard with our tiny self at the center of our tiny world, we now have the capacity to get out of the way.
I had such a moment last night playing piano alone in my home and can’t wait to jump back into that refreshing river. But it will be better when my fingernails grow themselves.