Empty Hallways

If you want to get Buddhist about it, nothing has a beginning, but this story does. It begins at 5:25 a.m. on last September 10th, and that’s the problem. You see, all this takes place at a five day Western Zen Retreat at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York. My job as a retreatant (along with cleaning the meditation hall men’s bathroom and maintaining the water station) was to wake up each morning at 4:55 a.m. so as to wake the other men living in the men’s dormitory at 5 a.m. so that we could all show up for morning exercises which began at 5:20 a.m.O.K., so this story begins at 5:25 when a monk/retreatant stands in the dorm hallway and claps his hands loudly and repeatedly until he is satisfied that no sleeper–including me– remains among us. Simply put, I’d screwed up. Either I’d mis-set the alarm clock or was relying on a defective alarm clock (later extensive investigation an testing revealed that it had worked both before and after this incident, although it–or I–would fail again two days later.)

Immediately my brain was beset by The Voices: “Fuck up! Idiot! You did it, didn’t ya? All the guys are late and you did it. Chan tradition, Zen tradition, thousands of years of people showing up when they’re supposed to and now you’ve blown it. Look at you, nobody that you are, lying there in your sweaty sleeping bag having destroyed the entire legacy of Shakyamuni Gautama Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, Bodhidharma, the Sixth Patriarch, Venerable Master Sheng Yen, Pima Chodron and your favorite poet, whose name I’ll not allow you to remember, you miserable portion of turkey ballast. You and your pitiful $7 alarmclock. Pack that clock, boy. Pack it and slink your slimy ass out of here before all those who truly love the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, pull out their vegetable cleavers and turn you into celery pate.”And this was just the beginning, the warm-up. The voices were just finding stride, and I, lost in guilt, remorse and masochism, could do no more than whimper “yeah” and “How could I…?” and “What’s wrong with me?” and “I really did it this time” and, of course, “Shit.”

This duet, the anger of The Voices and the simpering self-denigration of my responses, continued for hours. Through morning meditation, through the opening ceremony, through walk back to the dining room, breakfast, my walk back to the meditation hall to clean the bathroom and check the water station and then through the walk back to the dorm for rest period, ringing my little bell along the way to alert others to the end of morning work period. My rest, of course, was no rest at all. With not only The Voices to keep me anxious but also my fear that I’d fail to alert my fellow retreatants to the end of rest period, I non-rested bolt upright in a plastic chair in the silence of my room of shame. No peace. No hiding place.

My morning, this as it was, continued as just that. Although I got everyone alerted to the end of rest and the beginning of the morning dharma talk, I remained trapped inside my head. Of course I heard nothing, the instructor’s normal speaking voice being no match for the yelling of The Voices. Next came the first communications exercise of the day. Each of us had been assigned a question by one of the instructors, the kind of question, like “Who am I?” or “What is life?” that can lead to a universe of self-discovery. We would pair off, and each would speak in answer to his/her question for five minutes. The listener could do no more than listen. No feedback of any kind: words, facial expressions, body language all prohibited. Then roles would be reversed, then again and again and again and again. Each would speak three times. Each would listen three times.

My partner, Elizabeth, and I were midway through the second go round when she was called out by an instructor for daisan, a private instruction. I was left with The Voices, so the self-castigation continued. With no distractions and no shelter, the attack escalated well beyond merciless. By the time she returned The Voices had gone all out and were finally exhausted. I was an empty emotional corpse. Now here’s where all this finally gets interesting. As she approached me, I noticed new activity within my body. My posture straightened. My back and calves stopped aching. My head straightened. Internally I felt the self-pitying fog lift from my brain. Energy returned. Clarity appeared. All evidence and residue of the morning’s misery was utterly gone, replaced by a great positive influx of the most joyful and dynamic energy. But from where?Partner Elizabeth’s interview had been wonderful. She had reached a successful understanding of her question and had been given another. She felt overwhelmingly positive, and I was the one being overwhelmed. Her energy was simply flowing into the vacuum left by my tormentor’s success and evacuation. For that wonderful moment my emptiness became the receptacle for her delight.

Was this the emptiness Buddhism speaks of? Had I spent a moment in being truly free of my self? I mean, it really was great. Kind of like being not a perpetrator or a victim. Just being an observer. Yeah…just an observer…nice.

But surely there must be a more pleasant way to attain this. Five hours of self-flagellation can’t be the only way in. Then I remembered…meditation.

O, yeah.

Published in: on September 24, 2007 at 10:03 am  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It sounds like your forgetfulness really bothers you. A lot.

    Let it go. Yes, meditate. It is an action that soothes your soul.

    How wonderful that you have found it.


  2. A few thoughts about ‘Empty Hallways’, as I felt a
    twinge (maybe more than a twinge) of self-recognition
    reading it.

    I recall reading that Freud thought guilt was an
    evolutionary necessary feeling, the civilizing force
    of our psyches. Without it, the only control of our
    egos would be self-interest.

    Maybe so, but are the self-annihilating spirals, like
    the one you described, useful? With the relief of
    great distress comes…well, great relief. “Why are
    you banging your head on the door?”

    “‘Cause it feels so good when I stop.”

    During my flirtations with meditation I tried to empty
    my mind, to just be, to observe without comment or
    judgement. The aim being to achieve an on-going state
    of ’emptyness’. (Oddly, I haven’t gotten very far
    because I find the process anxiety producing! I
    pressure myself to clear my mind, and if I relax, in
    flow the thoughts.) You point out that this emptiness
    is also a kind of receptivity.

    But I’ve always wondered if this means not to think?
    Is life not to be examined or questioned? Or is it to
    do so by another process? Can you do both?


  3. On the lighter side, did these words occur to you:

    Frere Richard, Frere Richard, dormez-vous, dormez-vous?

    Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!

    Ding, dong, ding

    Ding, dong, ding.


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