My first experience with formal Buddhism came some years ago at Zen Mountain Monastery, an impressive stone structure tucked neatly into the side of Mt. Tremper, in the Catskills, in eastern New York State. I arrived at the "Introduction to Zen" weekend with a fair degree of trepidation and almost no understanding of what to expect.

But I knew that there was something I needed and wanted, something missing from my life, and for reasons perhaps more instinctive than logical, I guessed that Buddhist teachings might be my best way to locate what I sensed was lacking.

So on the third day of the weekend retreat, when I finally had my chance for dokusan (one-on-one teaching) with John Daido Loori Roshi, the abbot and founder, I was brimming with questions. So much had been packed into 48 hours--the basics of meditation, the correct way to bow, Buddhist philosophy, work practice, Zen and art.

I could only ask one question, and I felt some urgency to ask the right one. After an awkward series of bows, I sat on the cushion across from Daido-shi, a tall, big-shouldered man with a meticulously shaved head and ornate chestnut orange robes. He looked toward me, smiled a very warm, very sleepy, amused smile. He had seen his share of nervous beginners that weekend.

Sitting meditation is hard. The sheepish admission "I sit every day...almost" is like a mantra to my Buddhist friends.

"Do you have a question?" he asked.

I spit out what I had silently rehearsed: "How do I diligently pursue what Zen has to offer, without grasping?" It seemed like a dumb question before it is even off my lips.

"Just sit." He smiled with his eyes, then nodded.

The response seemed too simple, so I repeated the question, trying somewhat different words but asking essentially the same thing. "How can I be deliberate about seeking Buddhism and yet not be too attached?"

"Just sit," he repeated.

To be honest, I have followed John Daido Loori's advice better during some spans of the past five years than I have during others. Too often, I am like a child who can't sit still--figuratively and literally.

Sitting in meditation is hard. It takes a discipline that seems to come easy to very few people, and one that is so difficult for many that the sheepish admission "I sit every day...almost" is like a mantra to my Buddhist friends.

Worse for me, I have no sangha, no regular sitting group in my small Central Pennsylvania community, so there is no peer pressure, no support, and no one to notice when I slip away from sitting practice.

Everybody has an excuse, however, don't they? I use my excuses too often.

Last month, though, I found my seat again.

I attended a summer conference for writers at Goucher College, and lived for six days in a sterile hotel room. The Baltimore Sheraton North, just off the beltway, is an unlikely place for spiritual renewal, but Buddhism also teaches us to remain open to surprise.

A fellow Buddhist practitioner, Diana, was also at the conference, and she invited me to sit with her.

"What time works for you?" she asked.

"Seven-thirty," I answered, surprising myself with my willingness, my lack of hesitation. My better nature was speaking up.

Each morning of the conference, we folded sofa pillows onto the floor, used the digital clock as a timer, and sat for thirty minutes. There were plenty of distractions--our duties at the conference, the housekeeping staff banging up and down the halls, sirens and truck horns on the street--but we managed well enough.

And I discovered, almost the moment my bottom hit the pillow, that sitting wasn't what was difficult; sitting seemed natural and comfortable, like an old friend. What was difficult was finding the opportunity to sit. My problem was forcing myself down onto the cushion. Once there, it was easy.

I knew these six days were a gift, a chance to reconnect, to sit with a friendly companion and rediscover the simple power of daily meditation. I gave myself a koan to ponder, a rather simple koan but one I knew would be important: "Why do I do this? What does it mean?"

The answer came to me on the final day:

The moments I spend sitting in meditation are the moments where I am most content with who I am. They are the moments where I am pleased to be myself, no matter the flaws and shortcomings. Like most people, I am on an endless quest to be somehow better, but during the time I am just sitting, the quest is over--I am already good enough.

I learned this up on Mt. Tremper, and then forgot.

Some lessons, it seems, you must learn again and again.

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