This all starts a hundred or so miles north and west of here: The annual Western Zen Retreat at Dharma Drum Retreat Center up in Pine Bush, NY . I’ve been attending this event for 6 or so years, despite knowing early into my first time there that it would put me through emotional changes which–in saner and more compassionate moments–I’d not wish on an enemy let alone on myself. Still, it’s so beautiful…
Some background: the retreat is structured around continually investigating a question given to you by one of the leaders. This means wrestling or dancing with it or simply staring at it while sitting, walking alone in the woods, working, eating, showering, exercising, dancing and shaking or even sleeping. Most powerfully this means talking to a silent and non-responding partner about it during communication exercises. Finally this means relating your findings to a teacher periodically so as to receive further guidance or, perhaps, to receive a new question. Questions like:
Who am I? What is love? What is relaxation? What is this?
My first question was “What is fear?” My second, coming midway through the third day, was “What is death?” and while this second did not arise from the first question, it might well have.
Back to the changes: In the past this had always meant that at around the second afternoon–always in broad daylight–I’d panic. Convinced that I was in way over my head, I’d make plans to run back to the dorm, pack, hitchhike into Middletown, NY and grab the next train back to NYC and the world I thought I could handle. I’d look like this:
Then, as I’d begin clumping through the woods, the sound of the dry leaves or snapping twigs under my feet or some bird or maybe the wind would stop me cold. “Great Doubt,” the phase I had been going through, would end! All the muscles would relax; I’d sigh, smile and murmur “Thank You” just loud enough for God and me to hear.
That was then. This time the changes weren’t sparked by lack of faith in my intellectual abilities or even by my inability to meditate for any appreciable length of time before my mind decided it had other–but never better–things to do. This time it came from the body. There proved to be no activity waking or sleeping that was without significant pain for me. Sitting, it was the knees or the back. Standing it was the balls of the feet. Walking it was the hips. Eating it was this thing called a diverticulum and a new denture introducing itself to my gums, and sleeping it was the bladder. I began making bets with myself as to how long I’d last in beautiful Pine Bush, NY. Recent flooding had cut off train service home, so the means of escape were not immediately apparent. I wasn’t about to let that stop me. Even more devastating at this point, my body had found an ally in it’s attack. That supremely sadistic traitor, my mind, added copious amounts of suffering to my pain, broadcasting its conclusion that I must cut short my retreat, never pass this way again, never attempt any other–even shorter–give up my half-assed attempts at meditation altogether, lose what little influence I had left on my overbearing thought processes and spend the rest of my few remaining days on the planet eagerly awaiting the horrors of death.
Here a pause to thank God for mind’s susceptibility to distraction and what the Buddhists call impermanence. Again–and not at all anticipated–Great Doubt revealed itself, and reality replaced my thoughts about it. Later my sister, Barbara, would write to me:
“Choose the reality that benefits you most.”
Clearly she was referring to the one which exists outside my head and not inside it. Sister Barbara–not unlike wife Barbara–is no dummy!
* * *
From this point on the retreat was filled with bliss. Each communication exercise with ever-changing partners brought new depths of clarity, of humility, empathy and actual love. Knowingly or not we became each others’ partner in healing. My transition from thinking about and interpreting and filtering reality into being in reality solidified when a partner of the moment, Licette, mentioned how in walking up the stone path to the Chan Meditation Hall, she could feel each stone beneath her feet.
There it was! Follow the body rather than the mind. Be here! Be now! Ideas we’ve all seen; ideas many of us have liked and attempted at various times to adopt with varying degrees of success. Now is my time to try it again and again and again. And each time I find myself lost up there between my ears to remember the answer is to simply step out of my mind and back into the world. In the same email quoted above the same Sister Barbara also wrote:
Keep those good feelings you’ve come back (from retreat) with.
The understanding here is that the feelings ultimately come from my participation in reality. And so I’m back in the continual circus of my neighborhood:
and the intensity of The Bronx…
…and the vision of artists like Emilio Sanchez…
…and the utterly deceptive appearance of solidity and tranquility at my workplace.
My real work, of course, is to always feel the stones beneath my feet.