Going Into the Body

The danger, as is so often the case, lies in our heads.

In a dharma talk earlier this week, priest Beata Chapman spoke to us about experiencing grief as a body experience. Far too often, we disconnect, go into our heads, spin off into emotions that float unattached, when what we really need is to center ourselves in our physicality. A very Zen directive, exactly what our sitting practice guides us towards each day.

Beata said when we learn to witness our own suffering, by being present with it, it develops our capacity to witness the suffering of others. She said staying with the body sensations gives us the empathy for all the implications of existing in the form world – aging, pain, hurt, death. She admitted that what she was asking us to do was a paradox – expansively reach out right when our inclination is to close up and shut down. She refers to it as “opening the heart in hell.”

But paradox is exactly what Zen is all about. It is a practice of things which cannot be done, and yet, each day we vow to do them.

Beata said we speak of “taking refuge,” but for her, that does not mean “taking shelter.” Instead, it means going into the body, into the present moment. The “namu kie butsu” phrase we recite when doing our sewing practice of the rakusu, said with each stitch, translates as “I take refuge in Buddha.” But another translation is “I release myself into the now.”

Darlene is facing her death with grace and equanimity because she is staying in her body and in the now. I could see it in her face when I looked upon her yesterday morning, as it shone in her eyes. That is the latest teaching from her. I, too, must remember I have a body. I, too, must settle into the now, into this moment. As the grief comes, when it comes, I must allow it to sink down into this body of mine so I can experience it fully, and then release it, going on to the next moment, until it arises again.


Creatively Facing Death

I would like to write over the next few days about the topic I have been pushing away – the reality that has been consuming our extended sangha for the last several months.

Our teacher Darlene Cohen is dying. There is no way any longer to sugar-coat it, or hold onto false hopes. We will be losing her very soon. Grief is such a tricky emotion. It comes at each of us differently. And with each one of us, differently on each day. Because I have not been one of the people who has been able to see Darlene over the past two months, I have responded by absenting myself, both physically and emotionally. I have found excuses to miss my regular sangha, some real, some created – extra burdens have arisen at my job; more demands have come up in my personal life. I have avoided writing in this blog, because here it seemed I might have to address the impending loss.

Over all, I have felt mostly a numbness, a lack of emotion. This has been aided by my distance, and perhaps that was my real impetus. On Tuesday, I went to my regular sangha, and sat. Beata Chapman was the visiting doshi for the night. Just before her dharma talk, she asked if there were any announcements. Susan Spencer, our wonderful resident ceramicist/jizo teacher animatedly said, “Darlene is going to have a cardboard coffin, and on Thursday, I will be holding a workshop at my studio for people to get together and decorate it.”

I felt as if I had been socked in the stomach. All my careful avoidance tactics were stripped away in that one sentence. Decorate her coffin?

Intellectually, I understood this could be a healing act, a time of community gathering and mourning. But I was emotionally unprepared for the finality of visualizing a coffin, and everything that comes with that: death, funeral, cremation. I realized I was holding much more inside than I had thought.

Today, we held regular services at Russian River Zendo. We were told that Tony might be present, but Darlene would not see anyone. Cynthia Kear served as doshi, and I was the doan. Shortly after we arrived, Cynthia told me Darlene had said she would like to see all of us after the second sitting for about 10 minutes. By the time the second sitting ended, there were more than 30 people in the zendo. We all quietly went upstairs, unsure what we would find.

I had last seen Darlene at Frederika and Pete’s wedding on Nov. 28. I almost cried when I walked into the living room – she looked so tiny and frail. But her face lit up and she said, “Michelle!” And then greeted each of us by name. She was propped up on the sofa, and had us all gather around her, sitting on the floor. Although it was clear it took some effort, she spoke to us for a few minutes, as a teacher speaking to her sangha. And she sparkled with wit and love, even in her weakened state.

Later, in Cynthia’s dharma talk, she said that Darlene had shared with her about looking into Tibetan death practices, working on ways to face her own end. Darlene had said to her, “It’s amazing how creative I’m having to be around all this!”

It is time for me, as well, to creatively face this death. So I will write over the coming days about grief, loss, sangha, support, and other imponderables.


Comfort Zones

It is so easy to take things for granted, I find, when I move through the world. Without even realizing it, I establish comfort zones all around me, places where it is easy to be who I am.

A simple example. I have been a vegetarian for the last 20 years. My immediate family, and my closest circles of friends, all know this about me. So whenever I am in a social setting with them, they go out of their way to be accommodating. Even the book group that I have been a member of for the past eight years prepares vegetarian options for each dinner when we meet.

On Christmas, Sabrina and I were invited to have dinner with a dear aunt and uncle who had never before hosted us for that meal. My grandmother, another aunt and uncle, three cousins, two of their wives – all told, there were 13 of us, every one of who I had been with on many an occasion, but never exclusively, on their turf.

We sat down at the beautifully decorated table, and the food was brought out – and I realized suddenly that almost every dish had meat in it. The first course was soup and Caesar salad. Couldn’t do the salad – anchovies. Thank goodness, Sabrina and I had made the potato leek soup. But then, it was ham, pasta with shrimp, a bean casserole with bacon, deviled eggs . . .

The worst part is feeling that I will embarrass my hostess by having an empty plate. Luckily, there was a fruit salad, and mashed potatoes. I put the fruit salad in a bowl, and centered that on my plate to take up space, then ladled up a big dollop of potatoes. Then I picked up a dinner roll and some black olives, and ate as slowly as possible.

What I realized, at the end of the meal, was how much I have come to take for granted the fact that so many people in my life make my vegetarianism a non-issue. I wanted to go right home and write thank you notes to everybody.

Similarly, I move within the comfort zones of established social networks, a job that I have held for eight years, a marriage that is secure and nourishing, a sangha I can call my home. Who knows what else I’ve grown blind to?

Staying in familiar places has not always been my modus operandi. During my first 35 years of life, I averaged almost one address change a year. Before this job, I had never worked anywhere longer than two years. My longest relationship was five years, but the average was closer to 18 months. Permanency wasn’t even part of my vocabulary.

Back then, you may have been able to chide me for not having staying power, but you certainly couldn’t have said I was afraid of new things. So it is interesting, now, to be in this place in my life where I find that perhaps I have settled in so comfortably that it is time to readjust.

Maybe it is time to step out of the comfort zone a little more regularly.


RItual in Daily Life

In a dharma talk recently, Susan Spencer spoke about ritual in daily life.

She said the ritual we use in the zendo, from the roles of doan and kokyo, chanting and incense burning, stepping on our left foot as we enter the zendo, or bowing in front of the altar, are not mere rules. They create a container, a space within the community, so something else can happen. She emphasized it is not about being perfect, but about intention.

Outside of the zendo, ritual can be just as important. It is created, once again, by intention and consciousness. It can be formed by something as simple as pouring a cup of tea. If you pour the cup of tea with your full awareness, picking up each object with both hands in its turn, giving each step your complete attention, being absolutely in the moment – you will create a ritual. The person you pour tea for will feel the difference. It will become a spiritual act, a transformative moment.

Susan asked us to reflect on the rituals in our own lives in an exercise after the talk.

Frederika Haskell recalled watching a ritual her parents performed every day which informed her deepest beliefs about love and marriage. Each night, when her father returned home from work, he sought out her mother, wherever she was in the home. He went to her, took her in an embrace, said she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and kissed her. The routine of it, the trust and stability, gave a foundation to the marriage, and gave Frederika expectations about what a true relationship should look like.

Phil McDonel spoke about his morning ritual with his wife Barbara around coffee, an elaborate, two-pot, caffeineted and decaffeinated preparation, exacting in its execution, but more importantly, a time each day they spent together, before heading off in separate directions.

Each of us had our own ideas of how to respond to the query. I love ritual, myself. I adore the aspects of Zen that build familiarity with their routine. Chanting is my favorite, so any services are high on my list. I like memorizing the chants, so I can intone them without a chantbook in hand. My week at Tassajara summer before last was truly wonderful because of the extensive ritual at the large zendo – there were more bells, clappers, incense, chants, services, and a greater number of people participating, so it all felt marvelously other-worldly.

But even in my daily life, I adore creating ritual. I have rituals with my dog – rituals are great with dogs, because they love them, too. They crave routines, and look forward to repeated behaviors. I do many things a certain way – I turn my Coke tab a quarter turn. I line up the seam of my to-go coffee cup with the lid. I fold laundry precisely. My desk and work space are always neat and tidy, with everything just so. This may sound silly – my friends sometimes joke about my OCD tendencies (obsessive/compulsive disorder, for those of you not in the psych-term world) – but it is more than that. Each time I do one of these things, I am being present and aware. I am coming out of the ether into the moment, to touch the object at hand.

What I would like is to make into ritual some of my other activities. Someone asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote regularly or only when inspired. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he said. “Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Something to keep in mind for 2011.


Winning Millions, Needing Little

On Dec. 28 at Twin Pine Casino & Hotel, Dale Valentine hit the jackpot. He was on the slot machine for the state-wide California Megabucks – and he won $8.4 million.

Dale is a retired firefighter from San Leandro who owns a vacation home in Lake County, where he and his wife spend much of their time, and he’s been a regular customer at Twin Pine Casino over the past 15 years.

In the press release issued on Wednesday by the casino, Dale said he plans to put some money in the bank, make a large donation to Hospice, and to learn how to ride a Harley.

His wife said she would like a larger bathroom and a closet in their house.

When I read that last line, I laughed out loud. Mrs. Valentine didn’t say she wanted a fancy new house. She wasn’t looking for anything spectacular. Just a larger bathroom and a closet.

Oh, if we could all be satisfied by such simple desires!

The cynics out there are probably thinking that the Valentines will be changing their minds soon, finding more expansive ways to spend their millions. But I prefer to believe they are going to hold on to that home-spun goodness, that basic feeling of already having almost enough. If so, they may be among the lucky jackpot winners who actually have money in the bank 10 years down the road, instead of blowing it all on extravagant toys.

It’s New Year’s resolution time again, and I can never resist the urge to examine my life and set out goals, priorities, and aspirations for the coming calendar year. Even though I inevitably fail to live up to most of them, it is a deep-seeded tendency of mine – so much so that I do it throughout the year, not just on Jan. 1.

My main problem is that I make lists that are too long. I never choose just one thing. I want to exercise more, lose weight, stop smoking, practice the piano, brush up on my Japanese, write more regularly, meditate every morning, learn to be a better cook, send my work out to be published, put in more hours volunteering, spend more time with my grandmother, be a better listener, stop negative thinking . . . you can see where I might run into difficulties feeling successful.

But, regardless of past experience, year after year, I make these resolutions, and I draw up charts and diagrams and lists. I set up schedules, and try to follow them. For a few weeks, maybe even a month, I am as disciplined as a Marine. I cannot be swayed from the course. Inevitably, however, something jostles me, bumps me off track, and I gradually veer off into a staccato pattern of start-stop, start-stop, start – and then the final, gut-wrenching, slamming crash.

I am not, at heart, driven much by material goals. So the immediate analogy to the slot machine winner might not be apparent. Having $8.4 million would be nice – but only in that it would allow me 24 hours a day seven days a week to work on all of those other things I just mentioned.

The real connection, I think, is in the simplicity of the wishes given by Mrs. Valentine. She didn’t call out a laundry list of desires. She started with something small and attainable, something she knew would give her pleasure, but at the same time, was not grand in any way.

I have a quote from the Dalai Lama written on a large sheet of construction paper up on my home office wall. It says:

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.

What if, in 2011, instead of making a list of “Fifty Things I Need to Improve About Myself,” I decided to read that quote every morning? Because if I could focus on that one thing, I would feel better about myself, better about other people, and better about the world – which would make for a pretty good year.


Always Tony

A gentle nudge from one of my fellow sangha members sent me back to my last blog post, where I discovered that I had inadvertently misstated something.

In speaking of the dharma transmission process, I said that Sarita Tamayo-Moraga and Cynthia Kear will be carrying on Darlene Cohen’s lineage, and leading Russian River Zendo. What I neglected to say is that Tony Patchell will continue to be the main priest at RRZ.

I can explain this egregious oversight quite simply: Tony is in my mind so continually, so constantly, that I sometimes forget I have to mention him. He is my dharma teacher, my “heart” teacher, the one I have connected to most strongly on this path. From the beginning, I knew he was the one who would guide me on this journey.

Over the past months, as we have all struggled with Darlene’s progressive cancer, I have found myself grappling with how to provide support to Tony. He has given so much to me – now, it seems, it is time for me to give back to him. My basic urge is simply to be close to him. When our sangha meets, during dharma talks, I place my zafu next to his. It may sound silly – but that physical proximity seems one way of showing that I care. And since we are both e-mail junkies, we send messages back and forth regularly, just small notes of connection. Sometimes the notes are about what is going on. Sometimes they are about completely unrelated topics. Either way, they are a way to stay in touch.

Tony remains at the center of Russian River Zendo, with Darlene. And in Darlene’s absence, it will be Tony who guides Sarita and Cynthia in their new roles.

And always, always, he remains my heart teacher. Even when I am not speaking his name.


Passing the Torch

Tomorrow our teacher Darlene Cohen begins a week-long dharma transmission ceremony with priests Sarita Tamayo-Moraga and Cynthia Kear. For those of you unfamiliar with this, dharma transmission is the step which transforms a priest into a teacher, giving her the right to pass on the lineage, and to have her own students.

Darlene has been in the hospital for the past week with pneumonia, brought on by her weakened condition from chemo and blood transfusions. She has returned home knowing that her time is short, yet determined to go ahead with this last step in her own role as head teacher.

There is a large support team gathered at the house, to cook, give massages, provide comfort, and help with the ceremony. Tony, Darlene’s husband and our teacher, is of course the main source of strength and stability. But there are many people from Darlene’s past, old friends from her years of Zen practice, who have come now to be with her. The house is also filled with flowers and cards from all of us in sangha who are with her in spirit, even though we cannot be there in person.

When Darlene is gone, Sarita and Cynthia have the task of carrying on her work, of leading Russian River Zendo and the Healdsburg sangha and the other groups Darlene has formed, of continuing the ties of the family of practitioners she has created. Both are wonderful women, who will make wonderful teachers. I know that both wish that their dharma transmission was taking place under different circumstances…but life is what it is. And there is no more powerful example for all of us to follow than that of Darlene herself.

I wish I could be there, to watch the process. Instead, I must wait in the background, like many of my fellow sangha members, sending good thoughts, and continuing my own practice. Living upright – that is my task, the best way that I can help. I trust that my opportunity to do more will arise, and that I will recognize it when it comes.


Hurtful Words

When we lost our parrot, Barney, I wrote about our grief here in this blog. And I also wrote about it in my column in the weekly newspaper where I work, the Calistoga Tribune.

I have a loyal readership with my column, and am used to positive feedback. My picture runs with the column, and people in town know who I am, and often, as I walk through the grocery store aisles, or wait in the post office, locals approach me and open dialogues about things I have written, sharing their own stories. People also write letters to the editor, on occasion, or send in e-mails through our website.

After Barney’s death, I received many heart-felt condolences, including several beautiful sympathy cards. But one morning, I opened the general in-box on my computer and found this note: “Tell Michelle that the column about her dead bird was pathetic. Nobody in town wants to hear about her personal misery.”

I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. My grief was still new and raw at that point, and the insensitivity of the statement was a shock. Even worse was the generalizing “nobody in town” line – as if the writer was speaking not just for herself, but for many.

All at once, the numerous positive words disappeared. I could only see and feel this one woman’s rancor and animosity. I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear.

Luckily, as the days passed, I continued to receive wonderful support from animal lovers, people who wanted to hear stories of Barney, people who wanted to tell me about their own sweet animals, people who understood that I was going through a loss as real as if this were a child – Barney had been, after all, in the family for over 20 years.

But it made me wonder – why was I so easily unsettled by this woman’s unkindness? Why was I so quickly thrown off-center by that one hostile voice, in the midst of so much support? Is there a human tendency to gravitate towards that which is most painful, instead of that which is most comforting? To expect the worst, instead of the best?

And I also wonder – what inspired her to lash out at me, a stranger, in that way? She had to have known that her words would be wounding. Is she just so angry and uncaring that she doesn’t mind the damage she causes along the way?

The e-mail was signed. I did write back to her, when I had calmed myself, and simply said, “Tell me, was it just this column that bothered you, or have there been others?” My hope was to open a dialogue, to introduce myself to her as a human being, to give her a chance to say what was really going on.

She never replied.


Lives of Grace

In Tuesday night’s dharma talk, we discussed the koan of Haykujo and the Fox, Case No. 2 from “The Gateless Gate.”

The story is that whenever Master Hyakujo delivered a sermon, an old man was always there listening. Finally, he approached him, and asked who he was. The old man said he used to be a priest on that same mountain, also known as Master Hyakujo. But when a monk asked him, “Does a perfectly enlightened person fall under the law of cause and effect?” this man answered, “No.” And then he was condemned to live as a fox for 500 lives.

The man asked Hyakujo to “say a turning word” on his behalf and release him from the body of the fox. The man again asked the question, and Hyakujo said, “The law of cause and effect cannot be obscured.” And the man was deeply enlightened. He asked Hyakujo to perform priest’s burial rituals for him – and Hyakujo took his monks behind the mountain, where they found the body of a fox, and performed priest’s rituals for it.

The sense here is that those lives as a fox were a curse, a punishment, something which the old man was very ready to be rid of. And yet, when you read on in the accompanying text, you find these words. (All of the “Gateless Gate” koans have a “Mumon’s Commentary” section following the actual “case.”)

Mumon’s commentary:
Not falling under the law of cause and effect – for what reason had he fallen into the state of a fox? The law of cause and effect cannot be obscured – for what reason has he been released from a fox’s body? If in regard to this you have the one eye, then you will understand that the former Hyakujo enjoyed 500 lives of grace as a fox.

So what I came away with, hearing and reading this koan and these words, was that we, all of us, at whatever degree of enlightenment we may find ourselves, are subject to the laws of karma, of cause and effect. There is no place of rest. I cannot hope to attain a level of equanimity in this realm that will put me beyond pain, fear, desire, hope, suffering. Some might throw up their hands in despair, and say that we are all condemned to live the lives of foxes.

But then I read that final line: If in regard to this you have the one eye, then you will understand that the former Hyakujo enjoyed 500 lives of grace as a fox.

Five hundred lives of grace. Despite the hardship, the worry, the challenges. If I choose, this day, each day, I can live in grace. Even as a fox.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved