Monthly Archives: November 2009

10Nov

One Stitch at a Time

I met on Sunday again with my jukai group to work on my rakusu. Amazingly, it is actually beginning to look like a rakusu, since I am far enough along to have sewn together several of the strips for the face, into that wonderful rice paddy configuration of alternating long and short pieces.

There are nine of us in total, although so far the gatherings have consisted of at most six people, as we all struggle with scheduling conflicts. Two are from a group in Sebastopol; the other seven of us are from the Healdsburg sangha. We meet at the home of Connie Ayers, our sewing instructor, in Sebastopol.

The big open room that we sit in has a large work table, a small altar, and an ironing board. Scattered about the work space are half a dozen desk lamps, an iron, a box of pairs of scissors, another box filled with metric rulers, and our own individual sets of cloth, pins, needles, and thread. We spend the four hours on Sunday afternoons bent in concentration over our project, pinning, stitching, and measuring.

At times, I look around the room in wonder at it all. Who would have thought, even five years ago, that I would find myself here? Part of a Zen community, pursuing lay ordination – I had no idea this was in store for me. And sewing? Never would I have guessed that I would be sitting, needle in hand, making something myself.

The stitches in the rakusu on the surface of the cloth are small, likened to “poppy seeds.” Underneath, the longer threads show, in parallel diagonal stripes. My stitches are not perfect; even with concentration, every few inches I veer off slightly, have a stitch out of balance with the others. But when I look at the overall piece, and the lines of nearly perfect poppy seeds, I am stunned. I think, “I did this!”

I love the satisfaction of creating this rakusu with my own hands. It is a meditation practice, a building of sangha, and a creative act, all rolled into one.

I am evidencing my Buddhist vows, one stitch at a time.

9Nov

Managing Busyness

On Wednesday at the newspaper, I was having a severe case of losing my place every few moments. I would be working away on the computer, building a page. Then I would think, “Oh, I have to get that information from the internet.” I would switch to my browser, only to stare at in confusion, unable to remember why I had opened it. I would sit for a few minutes, remember that I was double-checking a date the school’s website, and select the link. As the page was loading, I would think, “Oh, right, I can’t forget to add the Garden Club announcement to the calendar page.” I would open that screen, and then the phone would ring. I’d take a garage sale ad from one of our subscribers, then turn my attention back to the opened calendar page – and once again, I’d be completely unable to remember why I was there.

When I get in that frenetic pace, it is the exact opposite of sitting zazen. Meditating, I am calm, aware and focused, even when the focus is “not focus.” At work, though, all of that seems to go out the window, and I am flying like a maniac from one task to the next. I get less and less efficient the faster I go, yet am seemingly unable to halt the mania.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about this “busyness” factor in my “Slow Down? Or Speed Up?” entry, wondering how exactly I am to deal with my overloaded life. Darlene Cohen, one of my teachers, wrote in a comment suggesting that I take a look at her book, The One Who Is Not Busy: Connecting with Work in a Deeply Satisfying Way. I own a copy – but I’ve been too busy to read it!

I pulled it down off the shelf today, and already there is helpful information. Darlene talks about the importance of mental flexibility and shifting the mind’s focus at will from one thing to another. In other words, you bring your full attention to one task (like talking to a client on the phone), then you shift attention and bring your attention fully to that next task (like creating a new document on the computer), and so on, throughout the work day, and into your family life, where you narrow your focus to the objects of preparing food, eating dinner, taking care of children, etc.

Darlene talks about this “narrowing of focus” as a practice in “simultaneous inclusion,” where life is both this moment, right here, this task, and at the same time it is eternity, everywhere, everything. She refers to this kind of attention as being that of feeling “what is before us is the whole world,” saying, “When we sink deeply into our activity, whatever that activity is, everything is simultaneously included at the same time. The grief we once felt over a life incompletely lived, squandered on the demands of others and trivial chores, is transformed into a deep feeling of fulfillment and a flexibility up to meeting any stimulus.”

Later in the book, Darlene has exercises on how to cultivate that skill of “simultaneous inclusion.” The practice is very Zen, but also very mundanely practical, very much of this world, this place, this time.

So for myself, I am going to keep reading the book, and begin tomorrow practicing some of these tips. I am very much looking forward to a relief from the busyness, and a move towards integrated wholeness. We’ll see if it works!

8Nov

Commitments

One of the commitments I made when I started blogging was to write daily, as a practice in self discipline. I’ve been doing pretty well, until this week, when my schedule overwhelmed me and I ended up missing a couple of days.

For those of you out there who noticed, and wrote notes – thank you! All is well. Just routine craziness on this end. My sister Ali was visiting from New York, and we met with her to take my 99-year-old grandmother (Gladys) out for dinner last night. The Indian food and belly dancer were a big hit. Today entailed a trip to San Francisco to hook up with more family members, to attend the wedding of my cousin Don and his fiance Makesha. I just got home from the festivities a few moments ago. My partner, Sabrina, stayed in the city, to head out on a cruise with her good buddy tomorrow morning, so I’ll be flying solo for the next 15 days, trying to keep the meneragie fed and under control, and all the other balls up in the air, which can be a challenge. So, in summary, I’ve been on the “high” setting for the last week.

Up to this point, I have made sure I sit down to the blog even on nights when I’m not home until after midnight, trying to keep up that discipline. That’s the big “D” word for me, something I’ve always struggled with, setting and maintaining regular practices. So just as an exercise, I have been attempting to blog as if it were a vow, a daily intention, hoping that this commitment will build confidence in my capacity for steadfastness, and eventually spill over into other areas of my life.

It’s one of the things I wrestle with about my zazen, as well. I usually sit four or five times a week, but it’s kind of random. I don’t have a set time or set days. I know that most people sit first thing in the morning, early. That’s a stumbling block for me, because I’m simply not a morning person; I never have been. Since I first began following the Zen path, I have jokingly said that the main thing between me and enlightenment is 6 a.m.

It seems like I should “follow the rules” and meditate in the morning. But the reality is, that just hasn’t worked out very well for me. I love sitting at the end of the day, when it is dark outside, with a lit candle illuminating my wooden Buddha. It’s a wonderful way to finish up, and head to bed. But unfortunately, waiting until the end of the day sometimes means I get caught up in other things and forget, or simply become too tired, and go to sleep instead.

When do you sit zazen? At a specific time every day? Or is it flexible, varied? Is anybody out there a night person who has learned to practice in the morning? How did you manage it?

In June, I went to Tassajara for the first time, for a workshop with Darlene Cohen on dana paramita, “the perfection of giving.” I got up at 5 a.m. five mornings in a row – the first time in my life that I have ever seen that many sunrises. It was actually pretty magical – but I drank an awful lot of coffee that week, even more than usual. And I haven’t quite figured out how to bring that same “Tassajara incentive” into my home sitting practice. Maybe I’ll just experiement with a few morning sits, see how it goes. Who knows? I may become a convert yet.

6Nov

Slow Down? Or Speed Up?

Sometimes I feel like a hamster on a wheel, spinning each day rapidly under my feet: there goes Monday, Tuesday, on to Wednesday, whoa, Thursday already, how did that happen?

My job lends itself to the sensation of rushing time. As a weekly newspaper employee, I am constantly focused on forward propulsion. I work from home on Mondays, making phone calls and conducting interviews. On Tuesdays, I hit the ground hard at the office, cleaning up last week’s mess, and beginning the physical layout of the paper. By Wednesday, I am juggling interviews, story writing, layout, and a thousand other tasks, trying to get everything done by the end of the night so we can “put the paper to bed.” Thursday I wake up late and bleary-eyed, spent from the 15+ hour deadline day.

Thursday through Sunday is my own time, four days that I feel lucky to have. But why, then, do those days rush by almost as quickly as the three action-packed “work” days? I try to fit it all in, but it seems I am always running out of hours of the day.

I remind myself that it is a luxury problem to have so many things that I love to do, that I don’t have enough time for them all. But somehow, that doesn’t make the situation any more liveable; it just makes me feel whiney.

I tend to go full speed ahead for several weeks, cramming as much as I can in, and then I crash, cancelling appointments, sleeping for 12 hours straight, holing up in my house for two or three days without emerging.

Pacing is not something that has ever come easy for me. I jump in, swim until exhausted, and then barely make it back safely to the shore. I guess what I struggle with most is feeling like if I just managed my time better, I could keep doing everything, not have to give up anything, and wouldn’t feel completely wasted every night as I sink into bed.

When I watch other people in my life manage much more demanding schedules with seeming ease, it doesn’t help. Then I just feel, once again, like somehow I didn’t get the same rulebook, or the proper coaching, something. Somehow, it always turns into a big ball of confusion, leaving me wondering if the problem is learning how to slow down, or figuring out how to speed up.

Any great wisdom out there?

5Nov

Maitri: Unconditional Love for Oneself

I am still learning, each time I sit, about the incomprehensibly varied ways that zazen instructs me. This simple act, just sitting and breathing, somehow encompasses everything: my perceptions of myself, my relationship to my body, my connection to the other beings in the room, my weaknesses which can become strengths, my strengths which can become weaknesses.

A period of extended sitting, like last weekend’s sesshin, is somewhat like the intensive summer courses of Japanese that I took in graduate school, where I would learn two semester’s worth of material in just a couple of months. There is a rush, an excitement to it all. But there is an accompanying panic, an anxiety. I was so immersed in the language, that I grasped new concepts quickly and easily, absorbing a great deal. But I was so over stimulated that I collapsed into my bed at night with exhaustion, physically spent. In the same way that the unrelenting pace pushed me to rapid language breakthroughs, a sesshin can destroy the barriers that I manage to skirt in a normal daily zazen period. But it can also feel, at times, impossible to survive another minute.

Reading through some of my earlier blog entries the other day, I was amused to find that my most frequently recurring theme was “imperfection.” Being flawed, it appears, is the thing I struggle with most. I constantly strive towards some ideal of behavior, performance, and even thought, as if these paragons of my imagination were actually attainable. Even though I intellectually understand that I am human, and so by very definition fallible, I continue to act each day as if this is something I can correct, if I only try hard enough.

In The Places That Scare You, Pema Chodron discusses the concept of maitri, which she defines as unconditional love for oneself. In her introduction to this topic, she says:

…meditation is not just about feeling good. To think that is why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure. We’ll assume we are doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is called maitri, a simple direct relationship with the way we are.

She then goes on to examine the first quality of maitri that is cultivated by meditation: steadfastness. She says that no matter what comes up, although “plenty of meditators consider it, we don’t go screaming out of the room.”

And this was the passage that reminded me so much of my sesshin experience:

So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to ‘stay’ and settle down. Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay! Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay! Aching knees and throbbing back? Stay! What’s for lunch? Stay! What am I doing here? Stay! I can’t stand this another minute! Stay! That is how to cultivate steadfastness.

So, somehow, sitting in the zendo for those long periods of zazen, aching knees and all, wandering thoughts and all, self doubt and all – that was precisely what I was supposed to be doing. It’s all part of the plan. I can rest easy now. Every little imperfection is just a pebble along the path to the development of steadfastness, and that, ultimately, will lead to maitri, an unconditional love for myself. Let’s see how long I can hold onto that thought.

(Note to self: Stay!)

4Nov

Hungry Ghosts and Moonlight Magic

One of the highlights of the sesshin this past weekend was segaki, the “feeding the hungry ghosts” ritual on Halloween night.

The hungry ghosts are spirits in one of the hell realms who have huge bellies and tiny, tiny mouths, so they are never able to satisfy their hunger. They are symbolic of those parts of ourselves that we struggle with: self criticism, doubt, anger, jealousy, procrastination, dissatisfaction.

The segaki ceremony is traditionally celebrated during O-bon in Japan, a time of remembrance for the dead which takes place in August. In the West, it has merged with our own time of spirits, the night of Halloween and Dia de los Muertos.

Before the ceremony, all of us changed into costumes. There was a full and imaginative range of masks and camouflage, from our doan Roland in his puppy costume to kokyo Debi in her angry devil outfit, Darlene’s Medusa headpiece to Tony’s exposed brain, and all kinds of things in between. I wore a long blue wig, black cape, and goth make-up. We were all pretty squirrely in the moments before the ceremony, reveling in the transformations and the silliness after two days of silence.

The altar was covered with mounds of Halloween candy, an offering to the hungry ghosts. During the ceremony, those of us who cared to came forward to the altar and invited our own personal “ghosts” into the room, welcoming them for the evening. After more ritual, we then sent them on their way. There was also a time for remembering our honored dead, stepping forward to name the people that we had lost in the previous year, or those very dear to us who we had lost even longer ago. After the concluding periods of zazen, and the ending chants of the day, the candy was up for grabs.

This past weekend was the five-year anniversary of my father’s death. I lost him to lymphoma on Oct. 30 in 2004. It was a Saturday night in San Francisco. I was at his side in the hospital when he took his last breath, and then had to go out into the streets of the city, which were filled with Halloween revelers, people in wild costumes. It was incredibly surreal. That night, there was also an astoundingly beautiful full moon. It felt as if his spirit had leapt out of his body and into the midnight sky. Since that time, whenever there is a breathtaking moon, I feel that he is with me.

Black Mountain Center was bathed in luminous moonlight this past weekend. After the segaki ceremony, I walked into the woods, not needing the flashlight in my hand, because the entire landscape was softly illuminated. I found an opening in the trees, a small meadow, and laid down on my back, the moon washing my face and body with the glow of a father’s love.

3Nov

Black Belt Zen

The sesshin that I just participated in was the final part of a six-week practice period led by Darlene Cohen on virya paramita (or the perfection of energy/effort). The practice period began with an all-day sit at Berkeley Zen Center, which I attended, and then there were weekly study classes in Pacifica, which I unfortunately was not able to attend, since they happened on Wednesday nights, my newspaper deadline day. The conclusion was the three-day sesshin at Black Mountain Center, and then the closing ceremony at Russian River Zendo Sunday afternoon.

Cynthia Kear acted as shuso for the practice period, or apprentice teacher. Shuso is one of the rites of initiation for priests, as they move towards becoming Zen teachers.

The final shuso ceremony is a fabulous “high church” Zen ritual, with all priests in full robes, a processional, lots of bowing and chanting. The apex of the ceremony is the “test,” when each person in attendance gets to ask the shuso a question, which she has to answer in rapid-fire succession. There were about 40 people in attendance. As each person’s turn came, they would call out, “Shuso!” Cynthia would say, “Hai!” (which means “yes” in Japanese). Then the person would ask their question. Cynthia would answer, then pound the wooden staff in her hand on the ground, signalling the end of the exchange.

Questions covered a wide gamut, from explorations of the practice period (“How do you find virya in your practice?”) to age-old philosophical questions (“Is there a God?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?”) to questions of a more personal nature, exploring particular struggles ongoing for those in attendance. The answers were similarly varied, from the pragmatic to the wise, from heart-talk to belly-laugh.

Watching the shuso ceremony reminded me again of my aikido experience. The Japanese martial art of aikido is entirely self defensive. There are no competitions, and attacks are learned only so you can assist your fellow practitioners in learning how to deflect them. When a person decides to go for a black belt, there is a formal testing ceremony. The black belt candidate stands in the center of the room, surrounded on all sides by fellow students. The students take turns attacking, one by one, and the black belt candidate must meet each attack with the appropriate defensive move.

Watching Cynthia yesterday, it was exactly like that: She was a Zen teacher earning her black belt, staying present and alert, meeting each one of us head on, heart open, sharing her wisdom, and helping us find our own answers.

My question was simple: “How can I forgive the unforgiveable?” The beauty of this practice is that not only did I get the perfect answer from Cynthia, but two other Zen practitioners in attendance came up to me at the reception with their own solutions. Now all I have to do is let it all settle and distill in my own quiet space, to find my own truth.

2Nov

Ah, Peppermint! Reflections on Sesshin

I survived my first sesshin. It’s amazing how many things can happen over the course of three days when, on the surface, all you’re doing is sitting and not speaking.

First, there was the physical challenge. One remarkable change for me was that I was free of back pain for the first time in an extended sit. Darlene recently did a posture adjustment for me that transformed the way that I sit. She has told me before, but this time, a couple of weeks ago, the lesson sunk in. I tend to sit with my shoulders curved in, my chest collapsed towards my spine. For the past week, I have been aware of this, constantly going backwards and forwards, in and out of usual alignment and erect posture. I managed to incorporate that “shoulders back and down” state into my sitting this weekend – and lo and behold! No mid- or lower-back pain! Hooray!

My knees are another story. I noticed late in the day on Saturday that my knees were giving me trouble. I finally added some support cushions, and had instant relief. They seemed fine today, until this afternoon, when my left knee began having excruciating shooting pain. Apparently, I waited too long before responding to the discomfort, and I am now paying the price with throbbing, aching, over-spent knees. Another lesson, one that will have to be incorporated before the Rohatsu Sesshin in December – otherwise it will be a very long five-day sit.

Then there was the silence. I spend a great deal of my life home alone, since my partner and I have differing schedules. Silence is something that I am comfortable with; in fact, I get overstimulated and exhausted very easily with too much people contact. I anticipated that this part of the sesshin would be easy for me. Interestingly, though, being silent around twenty other people is even more tiring that socializing. Language serves as a distractor. Without it, I was intensely aware of every movement and mannerism of those around me. We sat in the zendo, side by side, hearing each other’s breath. We ate our meals in silence, eyes averted, acutely in tune with each clack of the fork on the plate, each trip for seconds. Most of us slept in dormitories, so even changing clothes, getting ready for bed, and sleeping were communal activites. I found myself longing for time alone.

But at the same time, the silence creates space to notice and appreciate those things that are usually camouflaged. The bow of the person across from you after a sit period becomes an intimate and nurturing acknowledgement. The bell signaling the next activity rings out into the stillness with a rich beauty. The changing light in the zendo throughout the day, the intermittent breezes that cause the trees to rustle outside, even the fly that wanders into the room and buzzes stupidly, full force, into the closed window, become bodily awarenesses, sensations that fill you up.

There are so many other aspects of this sesshin to write about, that I will revisit it over the next few days. For now, I leave you with this:

On Friday afternoon, we sat for three periods in a row separated by kinhin (walking meditation). Then we had tea, the formalized ceremony with servers bringing cups, a cookie on a small napkin, and hot tea to each person, with lots of bowing and ritual all around. We begin drinking the tea and nibbling on the cookie all at the same time, at the sound of the clappers of the kokyo (chant leader).

My initial zazen periods were refreshing and full. When the tea service started, I was alert, present. Picking up my cup, and taking that first sip – ah, the peppermint! The taste flooded my mouth, the heat warmed my throat and then my whole body. I smiled and closed my eyes, savoring it all – the moment, the cookie, the quiet, the exquisite freshness of hot peppermint tea on my tongue. This, then, is zazen.

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