I used to be an enthusiastic Zen practitioner, but I’m experiencing a slump. My sitting these days is dull, and my desire to sit has declined significantly. How can I regain my energy for Zen practice?

This is a tough problem, and not easy to resolve. It’s also a common problem— nearly everyone runs into dips in enthusiasm and motivation. States of mind, like every other phenomenon, are impermanent. We all have to face the challenge of doing what we value in spite of our own resistance. Julius Erving, a truly great professional basketball player, said, “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” When it comes to Zen practice, it will help to remind ourselves that getting to the mat, even when we don’t want to sit, makes it more likely that our slump will ease up.

So how do we do that? How do we grind it out when we’re not inspired? The most reliable way is to put your focus on doing, independent of trying to shape your thoughts and feelings. Whether it’s a question of getting yourself to the mat or of dropping distractions and returning to the practice once you’re there, it’s the same. Keep it simple and don’t obsess about conditions. Conditions will change, on their own, without our needing to manage them. If we’re willing to return to the work of this moment, again and again, regardless of “how we’re doing” and without demanding that things be “a certain way,” things will work themselves out in their own time.

It’s actually a relief when we realize we’re not called upon to manufacture an attitude. We just need to make an effort. T.S. Eliot said:

With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

—John Pulleyn