03 August 2009

To Do or Not to Do


Grief. Sadness. Pain. Impotence. Confusion. Lethargy. Numbness. The energy of rage and anger ebbs and this is what's left and I hate it. I want to DO something, anything, because, all the time I'm planning and then doing, I don't feel what I don't want to feel or think I "shouldn't" feel.

So, the activity: within moments after finding out about Lily, I started with obsessive "fact" collection, at first imagining her terror, over and over again. Then, I went grabbing after reasons, answers, future prevention, meaning. When that failed to help, I turned to fierce and unfair scrutiny on the response of the school: were these gifted but beleaguered human beings, who were in shock and mourning themselves, doing the "right" things in response? I called other mothers. Other mothers called me. I sent emails. I left voice mail messages. I am so sorry I did that. It didn't help one bit and I made the pressure on them even worse.

In between all of this flailing around, I kept checking back in with Luke and Matt, each dealing with this in their own way. They both, at eighteen and sixteen, have made it very clear that there's only so much time and direct attention they want from Kevin and me about this. So, finally, at the end of the week, I'd run out of places to hide from these facts: it happened, I can't change that; I have only minimal influence over how it affects other people, even those I love most; and I've got a whole lot of miserable feelings about all of these facts.

I will run pretty far and wide to avoid feeling like this. My usual tricks are no match. My usual tricks are just that - tricks.

I wasn't sure if I was going to take any of this down to the Zen Center itself. From the first moment I walked in there, circumstances threw me together with Shingetsu over and over again. There was an easy, informal, personal rapport made much easier for me by her enthusiasm about what I'm trying to do with The Heathen. I felt like she got it and me. Add that I was already seeing her every week to work on the precepts because ZCLA only offers its official precept course (something you need to complete before you can "take the precepts") during the time of our annual family trip, and it just seemed natural I'd talk to her about it. But, Roshi?

I'd actually backed off from going to face-to-face meetings with Roshi because I had no idea what to say, what to ask, when I went in there. Oh, it wasn't for lack of questions but there are always so many people in line it all seemed too intense and too short. No one question seemed quite worth placing before cross-legged cleric in the quiet room in half-light. So, when I occasionally got up the guts to go in, I usually ended up asking something tiny or "manageable," which Roshi would inevitably call me on. Then I'd think she was looking at me like I'm an idiot which, of course, she wasn't, but that's what I convinced myself I saw in her eyes which, even while I was thinking it, I knew wasn't true but it didn't matter because I had no idea how to stop doing it and besides it was all a little off because I'm writing about this so was I really "there?" Should I really be there? etc etc etc... You get the scrambled up picture. So I decided to stop going for a while until I got untangled some.

But I woke up this Sunday morning and I couldn't think what else to do. I got in the car and drove down to ZCLA. I got there in time for the short service that starts Sunday morning's schedule - The Gate of Sweet Nectar - which is the service that commemorates the end of the week. At ZCLA, people bring a donation of food or a toy that's put on the altar and there's a lot of singing and chanting that speaks directly to the suffering of all, much of it is along these lines:
Calling all you hungry spirits,
all you lost and left behind,
gather round and share this meal.
Your joys and sorrows,
I make them mine.
After, everyone walks in a line to the zendo and sits in silence for two half-hour sessions during which you can go have a face-to-face with Roshi. Roshi then gives an hour-long talk followed by lunch.

I planned to stay only for one of the half hour sessions. I stayed for both and, when it came time for anyone who wanted to talk to Roshi to line up, I got in the line.

There is no question people-- forget "people" -- there is no question I want some kind of answers to the mysteries of life and death, evil and pain and suffering...and that many people find answers (or maybe just solace) in their faith. My mom and dad think it's like turning to fairytales to make yourself feel better. They think it's kind of pathetic and, even, weak.

What's becoming clear to me is each faith has different ways of dealing with pain and suffering. Buddhism puts that issue front and center. The historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, was a prince who gave up everything in his drive to understand why people suffer. After putting himself through every religious practice of his day, he finally resolved to sit until he understood suffering. The result? The Four Noble Truths:

1) Dukka - which some translate as suffering. Huston Smith says Buddha meant even more than what we conventionally see as suffering. Smith says it "names the pain that to some degree colors all finite existence." "Life is dislocated."

2) Tanha/Samudaya - The cause of this suffering is desire which Huston Smith says is, more precisely, the desire "for private fulfillment."

3) The Third Noble Truth says that the cure for suffering is to overcome selfish desires. Huston Smith phrases it this way: "If we could be released from the narrow limits of self-interest... we would be relieved of our torment."

4) The Fourth Noble Truth describes how to do that, how to work towards alleviating suffering. The "how" is the Eightfold Path, the practice we know as Buddhism.

All that's great to read about but what does it really mean when you're in it, inside the beast itself?

I sat in line on my cushion just like you sit in the zendo, meditating, eyes almost closed, counting my breath, one to ten and then back to one again, back to one again every time I caught my mind wandering off. It wanders off a lot. It sometimes takes me quite a long time to notice that.

Roshi signaled for the next person to come in by ringing a small bell in her room. When it's your turn, you have to answer her bell by tapping an iron bell hanging on a low stand twice with a thick wooden mallet made of a smooth gnarl of wood. Those gongs let her know you're coming down the short hall. I didn't know what I was going to say but, as the person before me bowed out of the room, a cartoon-like image popped into my head of a squirreled-up ball of energy, reaction, anger and activity, floating high in the air over a barely undulating golden brown, well, hum almost. So I walked in, bowed, and told her about it.

She was quiet.

When you go in to a face-to-face meeting in the zen tradition, the teacher doesn't look at you most of the time. They sit in pretty close to the same posture as in meditation, with their eyes down.

I continued. "I feel like that ball is me, what I normally do, most of the time. But it's not working. Not with this. " I told her I had been able to sit some but I kept thinking there was something I was supposed to be doing, at least to help my children but I was at a loss as to what that was.

She nodded and looked up. Her face was as warm and open as I'd ever seen it in any face-to-face I'd had with her. "Hearts are breaking everywhere because of Lily's death. And there is no way of knowing what this will become, what will come from this. So we sit, really sit, fully present for what is. "

"But I hate what is. And there's literally nothing, nothing I can do about it. Nothing."

"We can only start where we are. Here. Now. By being fully present, by feeling what we feel."

"I'm not sure what that means. And I'm afraid that, even if I did, even if I could just 'feel what I feel,' I would end up not being able to do anything, to help anyone, to be of service to my children or anyone else."

"You know how much damage is done by people avoiding what they feel? Mmmm?" She looked right at me for a painful moment. "It's only from that place of just being fully present for what is, that the right actions arise."

For the first time something about this made some sense. Perhaps it takes something this horrific to show us just how futile it is to try to work around what is and what you're feeling about what is. I have no idea anymore what the right actions are because, much as I'm desperate for something, anything to DO, there is simply nothing to be done.

So what is true? What is?

I don't know.

And I feel what I feel about that.

And hating those facts does nothing more than make the pain worse.

In the talk about practice that followed, someone asked how they could tell the difference between feeling feelings and wallowing in them. My question, my fear, precisely.

The answer from one of the other priests? "You feel feelings in your body. 'Wallowing' is when you start making stories up about them in your head." Stories like obsessing on the faults and errors of anyone involved before, during and after, for example.

Just knowing, really knowing, that there is nothing to be done right now, except to sit with these devastating feelings, helped. Some.