25 November 2009

Thanksgiving and Zen

No, I haven't gone tofurkey - there's just so far I can go - but I can tell you that the time I've spent on the mat has definitely affected the way I cook, especially for Thanksgiving.

In the very first face-to-face I had with Roshi (Wendy Egyoku Nakao,) she said the heart of the practice was sitting. (Roshi doesn't say that verb like anyone else; her "sit" is muscular, it has force and weight.) But her second and final instruction in that very first chat about Zen practice was that I might try, several times a day, to bring my awareness fully back into the present moment. For instance, while brushing my teeth, something I rarely remember doing because my plan-making brain wanders ahead into what I have to do the rest of the day, I might just brush my teeth. With all of my attention. Just drink a cup of coffee. Just drive my car.

This sure isn't easy to do. I don't know about you but, when I try and fail to do something, when I try to "just" brush my teeth and I catch my brain racing off several minutes after it's gone and find my toothbrush rinsed and back where it belongs (or not ;-) but have no recollection of doing it, the first place I go is self-flagellation: "Why can't you...?" Or "You'll never be able to..." Or "This is too hard..." Which is, of course, just more of the same wandering mind.

But cobble together a few moments of "just" cooking and it's amazing what disappears; the scurrying, distracted person I tend to be because I am so rarely "just" doing what I am doing, for one. Suddenly, the potential disastrous outcome is remote and irrelevant. Overwhelming piles of dishes become just the thing I am doing at that moment. The days of collecting the ingredients, preparing, and then cooking the food, calling my Mom with last minute questions, actually become joyous actions when I do them one at a time. This isn't just because of the time I've spent sitting; part of this is what comes from the ritual of cooking essentially the same meal for long enough that I've begun to relax into it, but this idea of fully living my life, of peeling one potato at a time in a kitchen filled with perfect smells with my boys working next to me...who wouldn't want to do "just" that?




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17 November 2009

Here and Now...and There


Was sitting this morning and thinking.... Whoops.

Well, I've learned this much: I'm not going to use any of the following verbs "supposed to" or "ought" or "should" when it comes to what goes on when I'm sitting. What I keep hearing and reading in Zen Buddhism is: "Just sit."

That means let it all pass by: the ideas, the stories, the plans, the regrets, the fantasies, the to-do lists, etc etc etc. It doesn't mean that this stuff isn't going to come up but this moment, as it is, is all there is so sitting in this way is a pretty rigorous exercise in retraining my mind and body to stay in the here and now. Given a lifetime atrophy of the mental focus to do that, it is no wonder sitting can be so uncomfortable.

All this is a flimsy acknowledgement of the fact I got stuck this morning on one notion in particular and it was caused by a letter from my ten-year-old niece, Marley.

It was the best letter ever. My niece wrote to thank me for some silly birthday presents I'd sent (let's just say, soap in the shape of dentures was among them) but it was my first real letter from her and it was really fun to get. I can't share the contents because the final sentence said: "Don't show this letter to ANYONE els!!!" (sic)

So, as I was struggling this morning, to "stay in the moment" which included letting go of an unpleasant dream and the free-floating, low-level anxiety of every-day living, I used the thought of Marley's letter to reframe my perspective of my life. I have a ridiculous number of things in my life that call for gratitude and, this morning, that letter and all that it signified, topped the list.

There is no way to keep counting my breaths from one to ten, over and over again, when you're thinking all of these things. That is what beginner sitters are supposed to be doing until their mind is still enough to no longer need the prop of counting. After more than twelve years of off-and-on meditation, eighteen months of zazen, this is my progress: I can watch my mind working. If a really delicious topic comes up, it may take me a bit to notice I've gone off somewhere, but I do eventually notice.

But here's my question, the question that came up for me this morning: If it weren't for my curiosity, my ability to think several steps out, to concern myself with the problems I see in the world, to imagine something better, I'd never have started this project or come to Buddhism in the first place. It is precisely that curiosity and plan-making brain that gets me to the mat and enables me to keep coming back to it, to see what might happen down the road if I put up with the discomfort of the present effort. So I'm supposed to sit and toss what supplies both the determination to sit and the steady stream of mind chatter that makes sitting so difficult? No wonder Zen Buddhism is rife with riddles.

Second, that letter from Marley isn't "in the present moment," right? It was only in the present moment when I read it. I guess it will be in the present moment when I answer it. But what's so bad about indulging in the glow of it for as long as possible? Yes, it can take me out of where I am and what I'm doing right now, for instance, as I type this on a bright sunny Southern California day at a desk covered with books, papers and a cooling cup of tea because my thoughts are also in Texas with that ten-year-old who has given up pink for lime green.
I mean, isn't one of the very first skills we learn as an infant "object permanence?" You know, that just because an object is behind my father's back doesn't mean that it ceases to exist. The Buddhist focus on impermanence makes a lot of sense to me most of the time. How can you argue with the fact that absolutely everything you can think of is, finally, impermanent? But, within the confines of my daily life, it feels very difficult - and perhaps even counter-productive - to apply this notion of impermanence to joy, true though it may be. I am attached to my niece and that attachment will eventually cause me suffering but I am okay with that. I plan to wring as much joy out of that note as I can for as long as I can, even if it causes me to miss a few of my own breaths.

02 November 2009

What I didn't know - part 1

What I didn't know before I began this project:

-- Practicing a faith is as much about choosing a community as it is figuring out what you believe.

-- People raised in a faith rarely know why they do what they do. They just do it.

-- People who religiously practice a faith seem to find a comfortable way to navigate the schism between the way their faith tells them to interact with others and the way life actually unfolds, the way people should behave and the way they actually do.

-- It is very easy to use one's faith, the rites and rituals you are "supposed" to do, to feel bad a lot of the time for not "measuring up" to some ideal. My gut is that this is the source of a lot of the judgement of others' insufficiencies.

-- I have a lot of experience creating strife in my own life simply by thinking I know what the "right" answer is, or the "right" course of action. Get a group together, especially one trying to solve a problem, and my favorite defect appears in almost everyone.

I know that this sounds silly but, not having been raised in a faith, I just assumed that it would be different "there," in communities of the devout. It isn't....at least so far, partway along in this project's arc, whether it's people of a single faith who are trying to work together or interfaith organizations who want nothing more than to help and to understand each other. Is it any wonder people of faith are at odds with each other on a global level when in meetings everywhere, every day, we all suffer through all the ways in which we fail to work together in an open-hearted manner?

Or perhaps I'm completely misunderstanding what "getting along" looks like, what it feels like. I want no one to argue anywhere, ever. How idiotic is that? Perhaps the flip side -- of not expressing an opinion if it differs with someone to avoid an unpleasant conversation -- is just as destructive as imposing my "right" answer on everyone. I'm still very confused about all of this, but I cannot stifle my urge to run when discussions turn to community minutiae. I've gotten enough of that in the jobs I've had. My interest in what faith is and how it works in different religions was, I thought, completely unrelated to that. I'm beginning to think this is yet another misunderstanding I had before I began.