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Sacred Love

In mid-May, we hosted a wedding at the monastery. We only host weddings for community members and their immediate families. The parents of the groom, Carl, had been practicing with Shinge Roshi since the early 90s. Carl and Shinge Roshi’s son grew up as buddies with Buddhist parents. Kasa is Japanese, and her family are lay Zen practitioners. From their childhoods, the couple was influenced by a philosophy that points to the wisdom of the heart, and practices that bring the wisdom forth in  deeds and interactions imbued with compassion.

C&K dock

I did not know the couple prior to the wedding. Few of us residents did. We did our usual guest preparations and services as family members and friends gradually arrived over a three-day period. We had no particular anticipation about the weekend other than to be of service and enjoy the ceremony and celebration with everyone.

With any group that arrives, there is a shift in the ambiance in the monastery. Each group has its own energetic, or resonant, quality. The qualities cannot necessarily be named, but general descriptors such as “relaxed” or “dynamic” come up. However, with this wedding and its participants, a very distinct vibe gradually filled, or even surrounded in embrace, the monastery and its environs. It grew as people arrived, and became palpable as the ceremony approached. It was a literal atmosphere one could feel as we moved about in preparation through the morning and early afternoon leading up to the ceremony.

When the couple first arrived, I did not get a chance to meet them. Everyone was bustling about. Yet the movement of greeting guests and ceremony preparation had a smoothness, a dancer’s grace, to it. Movement, sometimes quick and concise, was without any frenetic energy to it, as I am sure is often felt at weddings. There was a roundedness to the energy of people as they moved through spaces, among and past each other. It felt quietly yet vibrantly awake, even aware. It coaxed my attention into focusing on this feeling throughout the weekend.

 

As I was approaching the food storage area in the basement, heading upstairs for some task or other, Kasa and Carl were there, and Kasa called me over. “How should I address you?” is the first thing she said. I was pleasantly taken aback, feeling the surprise in being spoken to with a tone of respect one would use with clergy. At once I could sense the quality of consciousness about respect in Japanese culture, and have more deeply rooted in my mind the notion that I am clergy. It is not a moniker I identify with; I am just living the life I must. It is for the spirit of the path, not the ornamentation (more on this in another post). I was also instantly at peace, recognizing her seeing me, an American, taking on an element of her culture, her reality, and appreciating my entering her world in that way. There was a quality of rapport that I had not experienced before.

I told her my dharma name, “Tozan,” smiling with an energy thankful for the respect, and conveying that I walk the path of being a “true person of no rank.” She then said she already knew me. “How?” From this blog. She was searching for some photos of Dai Bosatsu, which brought up A Modern Monk. Kasa was so appreciative that the blog made the pictures available to her, and I felt grateful to have the joy I put in to this writing reflected back to me. Our meeting was the gateless gateway in to what I would experience as an extraordinary sense of community-centered love, even though not many of us knew each other. We all became a temporary tribe gathered to affirm and celebrate a genuine heart connection between two people, across nations, cultures and languages, and it connected us all quite naturally. It is important not to be naive as well. Not all of us would necessarily have had common interests in another setting. But there was an irrefutable energy in the monastery the whole weekend, one of harmony like I had never experienced anywhere.

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The celebration dinner

 

The room was packed for the ceremony that was officiated by Shinge Roshi. It began with Buddhist rituals including lighting of incense and candles, bows and chanting. Shinge Roshi then spoke about knowing Carl and his parents, of Kasa and he meeting and becoming a couple, and how love brought them and their families together in such an inimitable way. Carl and Kasa each spoke of each other and their relationship with a touching simplicity and depth. A similar grace infused their exchange of vows and rings. The energy of the ceremony had a quiet strength to it, also unlike any wedding I had been to.

C&K candles

 

The next morning, after breakfast, Kasa’s father got up to speak. I did not know anything about him, but somehow got the perception he was a successful business man. Seeing him throughout the weekend, one could tell immediately he was a respectable gentleman. He spoke slowly and softly and Kasa translated for him. Not just by his words, but by the presence he emitted as he spoke, the whole room was moved by the depth of his gratitude, which really transmitted a heart full of love.

Most of the guests left the day after the wedding. The newlyweds and their families lingered another day. The feelings of equanimity, clarity, and love were still palpable as we gradually tended to cleaning up. To be sure my perception of the communal vibe was not just in my mind, I asked around, “Did you feel that?” “Yes!” was the answer every time. Each person I spoke to had their own way of describing the same thing: there was a sweet vibe of love enveloping us all weekend, truly sacred love. A week later this experience was  further confirmed by an email the groom’s mother shared with the residents.

“That was the best wedding we’ve ever attended. Better than ours, better than Erica’s, better than my sister’s, other relatives, etc and friends. Seriously.  It wasn’t just because it was the novelty of the monastery…but the addition of the very earnest, thoughtful words imbued with love that were part of the festivities.”

C&K rings

So what made this experience possible, and real, for so many people? How is it a group of people, many who have never met before, could find themselves in a shared ambiance of love so naturally? And have it last for days? And that people from diverse backgrounds all felt it? My best assessment is that it started with the depth of love the bride and groom and their families have within and between them. For these few days, we were all drawn in to it and contributed our own. This was likely further enhanced by so many of those present having sustained meditation practices, which is all about heart-mind. And naturally, the energy and ambiance of the monastery, cultivated over forty years, certainly contributed to the experience.

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The couple’s families. Carl’s mother and father to his right. Kasa’s mother and father are on the far right, behind the children.

 

The experience has me realizing that the power of love and meditation are very real. This power is not naive idealism or new age woo-woo. When hearts are open, and minds are able to rest in them, a way of living together as humans manifest, one that most of us only dream of. It visible in our actions and interactions, it is palpable in the air, it supports and informs and guides us. What if more and more of us gave the time to develop or deepen a meditation practice? What if more and more us gave the time to open our hearts to one another? We cannot wait on the peaceful world we so yearn for, and it certainly will not be provided by governments or corporations. It is up to us to open and unite our hearts and minds. Today.

As Torei Enji’s “Awakened One’s Vow” says, “All of our minds will now reveal a true Awakened One: a Christ, a Buddha, a Tara, 
compassionately aware and ready, 
fearless and wise, acting skillfully and appropriately. Then, all of our combined actions will create a new world,
 a world of love and caring, defended and ordered. May we awaken and recognize this Mind throughout the whole universe,
 so that we and all beings together 
may experience maturity in Awakened Mind wisdom!”  (From the Hollow Bones Sutra Book)

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Everywhere we go, there are reminders to be open, fully open, in heart and mind. They can show up anywhere. In fact they do all the time. They may command our attention like the wedding did, or be quiet and subtle, asking to be revealed by our recognition of them. How we pay attention to our surroundings, and how we respond to them, makes the difference. Maintaining a meditation practice, and keeping our hearts open and aware, and sharing them freely, makes the difference real. It makes love sacred.

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A lovingly crafted cortado at the Birch Coffee location in the Upper East Side of Manhattan

And of course, it is essential to keep a sense of play in our daily lives….

C&K kilt

Evening Sit

The soul of all existence

carried on the sound

of thick spring rain

kissing

the forest leaves

comes through

the small opening

of my window

The candle

silently echoing

the luminescence that becomes

what

I am

each moment

For a brief eternity

there is nothing

but wonder and gratitude

tasting the delicacies

of unknowingness

taking the shape of a body

where

I used to be

Eventually

the incense stick

is silently snuffed out

by the packed ash

that held it so gently

for a time

 

Ticking away…

[Author’s note: It is now four weeks after the first draft of this blog post, and it still is not posted. Another sesshin has passed (May 6-11), and as of late I’m just too tired in the evenings to write. “Time passes like an arrow…”]

Time has a way of flying. I wanted to post about Holy Days Sesshin (April 1-8) right after it ended to give you stories fresh out of the experience. I got a chest and head cold the night before sesshin started, and it lasted 16 days. On regular days, I’m usually up at 4:45AM and our evening sit ends at 8PM. Then I clean the incense bowls from five altars and have dinner after that. So it is 9PM when my personal evening time starts. During sesshin, I’m up at 3:30AM and we sit until 10PM. You get the picture. Generally, my (mental) energy level by the end of the day is not up for blogging. I also have been doing some more outdoors work lately, adding a nice but uncompromising fatigue at the end of the day. Every day I would think, “OK, tonight I’ll blog for sure.”

Suddenly it is three… now four weeks later (???!!!) and [the last day of April] May 22. Our free time starts on Sundays around 2PM, and I made firm resolve to at least start a new post today. To give you an idea of how tired I was earlier, I made a two-shot cappuccino at 2:15. At 2:45 I laid down to take a 30-minute nap which turned in to two hours. I did yoga, ate, socialized a bit, meditated with Nature on the deck, and suddenly it’s 10PM as I start to blog. The song “Who Knows Where The Time Goes,” composed by Sandy Denny while she was with Fairport Convention, is a lovely expression of the beauty and sadness of the fleeting of time… and of life. And Pink Floyd’s “Time” makes a more pointed statement on how easy it is to waste one’s life.

By the way, don’t tell other monasteries about our cappuccino machine. An member from Brooklyn asked if we had one, and upon hearing “no” decided to send us one. The residents who have been here the longest weren’t thrilled, but per tradition, gifts cannot be refused. So, our use of it was limited to personal days. That’s fine; it’s a huge luxury in a monastery. Although I do have mixed feelings about such indulgences while here, it is the first thing I do after lunch clean up is done on Sunday. Monks love caffeine. Not all of them love coffee, but those that do, LOVE coffee. How much? Here’s about 2/3 of the bag we buy about once a month from King David Coffee (who buys directly from small farmers and roasts in small batches per order. It is the best bean I’ve ever had. Try out his coffee and consider supporting such a high quality and ethical roaster).

One thing the contemplative path has me face is (the concept of) time. On the surface, I get a much closer look at how fast it does indeed pass. It’s already day 231 of the 1000 days…I turn 50 in September…today is already over. Going a little deeper, and what this post is about, I see how much time I waste in unnecessary thought. It is more accurate to say I see how much quality of life I waste in fantasizing. Thinking is a tool, and we need it to do things like design, build and use the computer I’m typing on, or plan and execute a project or activity, or make decisions. However, when I slow down and examine more closely what is actually going on in my head, it amounts to bad television, with way too many channels, and way too many reruns.

Now that deep contemplation and meditation are my primary activity each day, I can see and get feedback loops on my internal reality with much greater frequency and clarity. Did that make you gasp or cringe? If so, yes, indeed, it can be very uncomfortable, often, and even for days on end. This is the stuff that the bustle of “civilization” prevents from seeing. Be it education, jobs, family raising, entertainment; we often do not have the time or energy (in general) to slow down, be still, look, listen. However, isn’t the very source of our dissatisfaction and troubles in life caused by not-seeing of the aspects of ourselves that limit us? “An unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. We all experience fears, confusion, misunderstanding, varying degrees of depression, frustration and more. We wish we had more time and energy for what matters to us. But, really, what matters more than having an accurate understanding of who we are inside?… and the clarity to clean up what is contrary to the well-being of our lives and those around us (which, in the big view, is everyone… there is no separation)? In “It’s Alright, Ma,” Bob Dylan sang “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

One thing I have come to terms with is that the quality of my meditation practice, and of my presence, fluctuates day to day, even moment to moment. I see the perfectionist illusion, the lie of getting to some awakened, trouble-free stasis, or even of “forward” or “upward” progress. Mental chatter, either fixated on a topic or relationship issue, or bouncing around from things I have to do, want to do, don’t want to do, imagining my future as a Buddhist and land steward,… Ding! goes the meditation leader’s bell. The 45-minute sit is over… also revealing that life ends. What quality of mind, of being, will I have cultivated, will I be in, when it is my time to go?

There is an aspect of our culture (in the U.S. that does not deal well with death at all. From the obsession with youthful appearance, activity and behavior, to shipping our elders off to “senior communities” reveal how poorly we have integrated the reality of death in to our living. In Zen there is an exhortation, which Charlotte Joko Beck eloquently rephrased:

“Let us be respectfully reminded:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by, and with it our only chance;
each of us must strive to awaken.
Be aware! Do not squander your life.”

So when a meditation session, or a beautiful moment in nature, or precious times with friends, go by even somewhat unnoticed because I was elsewhere in thought, I notice it more and more. I used to react with frustration, yet lately it is shifting to a sadness, and thankfully with a positive spark to give extra effort to be present, aware, open and receptive, engaged. Sometimes, if the spin off in to thought leans towards negativity, it literally feels like poison, like I drank something toxic that is coursing through my body and effective every cell. And in reality there is no separate self, no “other,”  The Buddha said, “With our thoughts we create our world (or reality),” and the medical and psychological sciences are increasingly able to reveal the effects of our mind on our bodies and in our lives. I increasingly see the value in the practice of being acutely present. There is only now, and “what is” becomes “what was” in an instant…unceasingly. Meditation, why bother? To sit for periods of time in our day to recognize the timelessness of being…

…and reengage in our lives, our relationships, with that fleeting sense coupled with the infinite nature of existence…

My deep love for Nature is an ever-present reminder to slow down, and deeply appreciate the subtleties of life… be it a baby salamander…

…or a fungus fading from life, in a shape that reminds me what really matters…

 

and the playful miracle I experience of seeing smiles everywhere I go…also reminding me…

…to sit, be still, listen, be aware…

…and keep improving my ability to bring the stillness and awareness in to everything I do, within me and in my interactions with people and planet. I only have this one moment, this one breath, and if there will be next ones is never guaranteed.

I once heard monastic life mockingly described as “naval gazing,” a waste of time while the world desperately needs actions of healing and justice. However, monastic life is not an escape from life, but the deepest engagement with it, nor an escape from responsibility, but owning the greatest responsibility of all: to live each moment with as much awareness and gratitude as I can, and share that presence with others. At the monastery we keep a sacred campfire burning, so that those in society have a refuge to come to, to recharge and then bring to the world the stillness and clarity and compassion that is so greatly needed. Whatever your tradition or practice, I hope you will give the time to dwell in the timeless, and bring its wisdom and light forth in to your life and to those around you.

After All

The purpose of this post is to share a poem I wrote this week, but the context in which it arose is important, so here goes.

At 6PM this evening, the seven-day silent retreat called “Holy Days Sesshin” officially started. We monastics have been in gradual then hurried preparation from guest rooms, to monastery-wide floor cleaning, to altar ornamentation and more. It is the first sesshin of this kessei (100-day training period). The energy here is a wonderful blend of strong eagerness and bright nervousness. The week of sesshin is demanding, with long days and a lot of sitting meditation. There are also three “holy days,” commemorative events to celebrate the monastery and its community at large (Dai Bosatsu Day), the namesake of our lineage (Rinzai Day) and the birth of Siddartha Gautama (Buddha’s Birthday). Each of those days has distinct additions to the Dharma Hall altar, as well as its own chanting. These and other special events in the week has the resident monks on high attention to make sure all the details are covered. Overall, we are feeling a sense of vigor as we approach this seven-day journey in to human and universal consciousness, for the benefit and liberation of all beings.

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My lead up to this retreat was not at all what I had imagined it to be, reminding me of the line in John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy,” “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” During interim, I was doing four to six hours of Ashtanga yoga per week, in part, because yoga! and in part to be limber and tone for all the zazen, or sitting meditation, we will be doing during this retreat. It will be about six hours per day, which includes the time we will spend in morning service, special chanting sessions, the ceremonies, and dokusan (a private practice check-in with the Roshi). But leading up to kessei, duties increased, cutting yoga down to about an hour a week. Just as kessei started (March 24), I developed a chest and sinus cold. Fortunately it has been minor, but was just enough to fatigue me even more than our full schedule and six-hour nights for sleep. So no yoga since then. However, I have kept up vigor during zazen (well, except for a few sleepy and distracted sessions), and it created its own momentum to carry me in to sesshin.

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What really lifted me up were the three dokusan sessions with Shinge Sherry Chayat, Roshi, the abbess of Dai Bosatsu/Zen Studies Society. We established a genuine and amicable teacher-student relationship last fall, and meeting with her this week was a seamless continuation of that. My illness was the topic on the middle night, and with it came the reminder of the purpose of meditation: to cultivate the ability to remain present and aware in the face of anything, non-reactive, aware and ready to respond from and as compassion and integrity. When Shinge asked how my practice was, I responded, “Who is sick? Who is aching? Who is tired?” We engaged in a delightful exchange about the impermanence of this human experience, and the importance, even urgency of recognizing the original and pure nature of our consciousness… that which is not phased by anything.

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Shinge Sherry Chayat, Roshi
The following day I was feeling significantly better, and thankfully was called on to help with some outdoor work. It was sunny and gorgeous, and the light, fresh air and physical effort helped me feel even better. Fellow monk Keirin and I had to drive the length of the 2.3 mile driveway and fill potholes with gravel. The camaraderie and vigor of the work were good medicine, particularly our deeper chats when we would pause for a break. It should be no surprise that most of a Zen monk’s conversations are about the dharma, practice, what we learn along the way. In fact, some of those conversations are quite essential to the evolution of our understanding and manifesting the awakened life.

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In a moment while working alone, I reflected on what Doshin Michael Nelson, Roshi said to me last year. We were discussing my pattern of having deeper and deeper insights, yet relatively quickly losing touch with meditative mind, and going back to conditioned, egoic behavior. He said, “You keep looking over the edge then running away.” When I thought of that statement, I looked up from my work through the trees, to the sky, and felt and saw the unity of all things, that no thing is separate from another… there are no things, just appearances. In that moment, the bones of this poem came up, which I later fleshed out. I welcome your comments below, and will post about the sesshin next week.

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After All

I have walked
and crawled
and been dragged
and danced
thousands
of scribbled miles
to try to find
and then
try to stay
at the edge of infinity ~
Every time
I looked over
I gasped with delight
froze in electric fear
and ran away
again
and again ~
Here
Now
at last
with One
True Breath
being breathed
there never was
an edge
after all
and nothing to do ~
In any direction
I step
I Am
Home ~
Now…Here
each step
is a drop
of water
merging with the ocean
until
there are no drops
and then
after all
no ocean

 

© Paco Tozan Vérin
30 March 2017

“Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile!”

I have always been able to see shapes of things in the surfaces and textures of just about anything. All the painting and drawing I did growing up and into early adulthood further developed the ability. The suggestion of a dancer in tree limbs, a mountain range in the moss on a decaying stump, a tree in the frozen water at a creek’s edge…

Many years ago,  I don’t even know how many, during a difficult time, I saw the shape of a smiley face in something. It gave me encouragement, a spark of inspiration, like a friend showing up to remind you that everything is going to be OK. Over time, the shape of smiley faces would show up now and then, not just when life was challenging, but in the easy and joyful times, too. Just now and then, once every few months, like the surprise of the first Crocus of spring popping up to say hi and share the good vibe of being.

From an old school Zen perspective, this could be dismissed as a pointless distraction, an egoic creation to reinforce the illusion of self. But as Zen and modern psychology both evolve and merge, it is well know that cultivating a healthy ego is essential on the spiritual path. As Ken Wilber’s “Integral Theory” states about stages of development, we must “Transcend and include;” meaning, as we move through and out of stages of development, we transcend them, but it is also essential to include them as part of our understanding of being, and to understand and relate to those people who are in stages that one has moved through. Or as a contemporary Zen saying goes, “You have to be someone before you can be no one.” And now neuroscience can pinpoint what happens inside us when we see smiles. And to bring it all down to Earth, seeing smiley faces just feels good, and I welcome them all. And I’d like to give you a closer view in to the experience I’m having.

The initial months of living and training at Dai Bosatsu was both positive and rough. It was quite an adjustment, letting go of so many activities and places and things and proximity to friends… all at once. And starting on a journey of directly facing every aspect of oneself and the immediacy of impermanence… of things, of circumstances, of people, of me. And wouldn’t you know, the smiley faces started showing up, at first once every week or two, then a couple of times a week. It was truly encouraging. Then, when I returned from winter travels in January, and I found myself having to do some deep digging to resolve communication issues within me and with a fellow monk, they started showing up, a lot… several a week, then more by the day, and from many per day to many in a single moment and space.

You could be thinking that I’m just a tripped-out dude, but the remarkable thing is that these appearances are playing an important role in my evolution and awakening. Junpo’s dharma reveals that we can use the counter-productive aspects of our personality to liberate ourselves from them, both psychologically and spiritually. And, most importantly, we can, and even must, do so with a sense of humor. We must be seriously focused on both realizing the infinite nature of our being and our inter/personal behavior. And yet we also must be able to laugh at ourselves to lighten the load, as well as laugh in celebration as we awaken.

This two-fold approach is wonderfully presented in the book, “The Heart of Zen,” a transcribed dialog with Junpo. It is an easy read, as if you were hanging out with him and chatting. Yet, it cuts directly to the essential matter of simultaneously cultivating emotional maturity while realizing spiritual liberation. Junpo brings it home that the two are not mutually exclusive, and in fact are interdependent; each expands the other, and we must develop both simultaneously if we are to be whole and free. To help with this, the practice of “Sacred Laughter” he teaches can be found in the free Hollow Bones Sutra Book. Part of practicing Sacred Laughter is to cut through self-centered seriousness, and part is to tap deeply in to the inherent joy of being. Try it out and let me know about your experience in the comment section below.

So how is this working for me? What is actually happening when I see these smiley faces in things?

On a simple level, I think too much. I can easily get lost in the distraction of mental activity, both the practical sort (planning and organizing; contemplating solutions to situations; deciding what to make for lunch, et cetera), and the fantastic sort (playing out scenes of what I’ll say to someone and their possible responses; imagining all the what-ifs of a situation, both light and dark; fantasizing the life I want, or could have had, or am heading towards, et cetera). Or it can be random mental babble, like channel surfing. Increasingly, the smiles show up to remind me to come back to the present, to reenter my body-mind, and if reflecting on a situation or relationship is necessary, to include its intelligence and wisdom… in fact to engage it first. And to have a good chuckle about it all.

On a deeper level, I can be too serious, can shut down in moments of conflict, get rigid when I feel overwhelmed with responsibility or when in situations that I don’t know what to do. In my confrontation with a fellow monk, I was called “uptight.” It was a hard pill to swallow, but on honest examination, I could see that sometimes I really am, and for no other reason than being unconsciously caught in habits of being over-concerned or afraid about something. The smiley faces show up and remind me that I got hooked, and to laugh and let it go, returning to heart-centered joy and a clear mind.

Part of the ego’s game is to create concern where there need not be any, or where there is need, to dial it up too loud. I’ve been amazed, as I look closer and more consistently at my mind patterns, how quickly and easily I get hooked by that habit. And as I see it in me more, I also see it in others as well. This is doubly liberating because in seeing theirs, I can relate to them from Presence, rather than their fear story, or mine. I do not have to get pulled in to their tension or drama, nor do I need to generate any of my own. Wow! Can you imagine how much freer and how much more energy I have in the day by not burning it up in these ways? And can you imagine what the world would be like if more and more of us were doing this? We could celebrate by eating happy face risotto with mushroom cakes together!

Or some Irish soda bread with currents!…

Of course, we can create smiles, and all kinds of beauty, in our day, simply by where we keep our attention, centered in imperturbable, receptive and curious heart-mind. It can show in how we move, or speak, work we do or play we make, like this joyful Buddha snow person made by Junje, a recent visitor to DBZ. It faces in to the building through a double sliding glass door, so is a delightful and playful reminder for us as we bustle about with chores or head back to the zendo for another session of sitting meditation. Thanks, Junje!

Whatever you think of this experience I’m having, I wish you more smiles in your life, from outside and inside, coming from and reflecting back to you the pure and clear awareness which we all have, which we all are… from, and before, birth. I invite you to share your musings and experiences in the comment section, and before you do, here is a smile from me to you. Remember the Grateful Dead lyric, “Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile,” and have a wonder-full day!

Stillness and Action

We must take steps
in to activity
in to this world
in to relating with others…

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The footprints that we leave
on a task
on something made
in a person
on Earth
reveal
reflect
what the weather is like
inside
the doer…

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Meditation
is not an action, a doing
rather it is a state of being
to recognize
to remember
the endless silence
from which all wisdom is spoken…
the impeccable stillness
from which all activity arises…

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The bringing together of palms
at the heart
is a gesture of unity
of heart and mind
of self and other
of being and doing…
two as one
one as two
and yet not one and not two

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This is the practice
for those who want to dwell in peace
and clarity and harmony
to rediscover
the stillness
and unite it with our actions…
so that stillness and action
are experienced
at once

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Communication Breakdown and The Tunnel to Heaven

 

When I started this blog, I intended to do at least a bimonthly post, if not every week. I also knew there was a chance I would not blog so often, that the rigor of the schedule and the depth of the practice would not leave much time or energy. No matter what we are doing here, every activity is meant to be meditative practice, an opportunity to deepen one’s awareness, have insight, even step through in to the unfiltered consciousness that is our original nature. Doing sitting meditation is but one of these opportunities, albeit the most still and silent. Every day, therefore offers experiences and insights worth sharing here. I get excited about the gems of awareness I gain and want to recount for you what led to them, or the struggle I encountered and how I made it through. But if a week goes by, there is more to tell than I have time for… and if two, then three go by, I do not know which tale to choose, nor am I in the freshness of the experience any longer.

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The first two weeks back at the monastery were quite peaceful (late January).  It is interim now, the time in between the formal and rigorous training periods called “kessei.” There were only five of us here, we enjoyed a relaxed approach to practice and work. The newest resident at the time happens to be an amazing cook. Creating a more balanced and nutritious daily menu had been in discussion for a while, and she helped establish that further, and in delicious ways. We stopped eating “okayu,” rice porridge, and now are enjoying a custom multi-grain blend that includes millet and quinoa for protein. We also started doing embodiment practice first thing in the morning (it was previously scheduled for 4PM). One is free to do whatever their practice is, though most of us do Ashtanga yoga. To support a good sitting meditation, it is best to do an embodiment practice first thing, then sit. Everyone’s energy levels are higher and our sitting is better throughout the day, our bodies warmed up, limber and relaxed. I was feeling so peaceful, so grateful to be here, so optimistic for the unfolding of my journey.

Then came the storm…

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I found myself in a communication struggle with a fellow monk. He was repeatedly interrupting me, and I got quite tense about it. I mentioned it to him once, and was met with push back. By the time I talked with him about it again, I was even more knotted up about it, so my tension evoked reactivity in him. He countered with some observations about my behavior. I felt caught in a trap of my own tension and the truth in what he said about me. At the same time, he cleverly avoided addressing my experience and concern about his interrupting me. I let the conversation end, knowing it would not progress well unless I took time to get clear and grounded.

A prickly discomfort arose as I examined my tendency to get tense when communication does not flow, and then speak from that tension. Simultaneously, I began spinning fear story that our relationship would always be problematic, that he would not acknowledge or work on his habit of interrupting me. I was so disappointed that that joyful, easy time had turned in to this. Although I was creating a state of pain for myself, I knew I had to just stay with it, look, and look again, trusting clarity would come. So I began looking for the clarity in my turmoil, and the way out.

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I saw how I unconsciously let my reactivity escalate, creating a miasma of fear, spinning in my mind, trying to find the right language to resolve the situation with the monk, and making movies about all the possible negative outcomes. I was spinning out everywhere: in the zendo, the hallways, during meals. My meditation practice was shot. I felt as though I were in a whirlpool I couldn’t get out of. I was poisoning myself. I knew had to look over the edge in to the depths of my mind, and face what I would see.

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Gradually, I saw how my perception and reaction patterns around being interrupted had formed, revisiting experiences with my parents, teachers, kids at school, and on in to my teenage and formative adult years. In some communication situations I am fine with asserting myself, and in others I shut down, and seeing the difference, I am gaining clarity on what was triggering the shut down. Also, since at least high school, I have noticed that some amount of interrupting is a social norm; people do it all the time, speaking over each other, or speaking as soon as someone is finished with no acknowledgement of what was said. I never liked or understood this, but I have rarely heard anyone express any discomfort or issue with it. So, I would just let it be, but then found myself not speaking much, as I kept looking for the appropriate pause to have my turn.

Over time I became aware of the more aggressive kind of interruption, where it is no longer a casual occurrence in a flurry of social exchange, but a conscious or unconscious effort to deliberately override, discount or silence someone. With enough introspection, and checking in with a couple other monks about my experience, it was clear that this dismissive type of interruption was the kind that had been occurring. The tone of voice used helped expose it. Confirming my experience within and from feedback was a great relief, as was recognizing that I can only work on myself, and that for now, focusing on my process was enough. The opportunity to revisit the interruption issue with the monk would present itself in time. No rush. No worry.

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Sometimes we know things, yet find ourselves learning them again, but on a deeper level through an uncomfortable or even painful experience. In fact, this is the only way we cultivate wisdom: clearly and intelligently recognizing truths through our lived experience, especially the difficult ones. In any painful experience, there is always the light at the end of the tunnel. As we awaken to purity of our unconditioned minds, and the miraculous reality of our existence, we also awaken to the truth that the tunnel itself is light, even though it seems dark. The essential skill to develop is this recognition, and to focus on the light while being aware of the content in and experience of the tunnel, and remembering it is just a tunnel, and that we invariably come out at the end, in to greater and greater light. No birth or rebirth is painless, but every one of them is miraculous.

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Through this experience I re-recognized that I must free me, and cannot change others. I owned that I had approached the fellow monk from my contraction, not clarity, despite my best intention to improve our communication. I saw that he may not be willing or ready to look at his behavior and its impact, and despite that, when he is, I will be available to support him. If the interrupting persists or gets worse, I may call for a communal or facilitated conversation. In seeing all of this, suddenly I felt liberated of all the heavy, draining knots I had built up in me. I had new energy during yoga and zazen practice. I rediscovered the openness of seeing & feeling in to the vast, imperturbable conscious we all come from (that may sound too deep, or esoteric or weird to you, but if you sincerely look, you will see it, too). And humor and light heartedness returned, releasing all the tension in my body and mind.

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And wouldn’t you know, the quality of my connection with the fellow monk shifted. I choose simply to be myself, buoyant and energetic, present and free. We could enjoy each others company, collaborate on daily tasks, laugh… Curiously, the interrupting decreased, so maybe he understood and is making changing without saying so. Maybe not. But I do know I have new clarity and centeredness to address it if it happens again.

When we look within and honestly face whatever is inside us, we can embrace and work with our reality, and more easily change and evolve ourselves. Through this we naturally become open and clear inside, and have a better chance of positively influencing outer reality and relationships. “The kingdom of heaven is within” is a deep truth statement. It is up to each of us to enter our  inner kingdom or queendom. Come, let us all live in the dignity and grace of the wisdom, compassion and skillful means that reside in us all.

Burning Heart