Friday, March 17, 2006
Back to Living-and-Dying
That's the boneyard at Penuel Ridge. Bones of dead animals. New Age Christianity meets Corpse Bride. Go figure.
I just had the strangest thing happen to me during zazen. This past weekend at our retreat (see previous post) I discovered that I could sit zazen for 45 minutes just as easily as for 30, so I've been trying to do that in the mornings when I have the opportunity. This morning for the first time in my limited practice I achieved for the first time an absolutely effortless state of sitting. I sit in kind of a loose half-lotus; I can get into full lotus but my top foot keeps slipping off. I can also do a good half-lotus with the top foot up on top of my hip bone, but same problem. Anyway, I try to keep my spine straight, etc., and by the way the best way to learn the lotus or half-lotus for zazen is from a good yoga class. Normally sitting zazen for me is a continuous process of self-correction, as I understand it is supposed to be.
But this morning suddenly I found myself upright in as close as I can get to a perfect zazen posture, without the exertion of any effort at all. I mean to say, I was sitting there with a straight spine without any muscle effort at all. I could not have been any more relaxed in bed or in a recliner; I was more relaxed in fact. Once I hit the position I did not move out of it, or even want to move out of it, until my alarm went off to signal the end of zazen. At that point I did not want to come out of the position, and in fact it took an effort to do so. I'm not sure if my mental state was any different from usual. I know that I was amazed at my physical state. I don't know if I'll be able to find that position again, but it took an effort (not a big one, but an intentional act) to come out of it. Normally if you totally relax during zazen, I imagine you would fall over. This was the opposite. If anyone else has had this experience, please let me know. Or maybe everyone has this experience eventually and just never told me about it.
I don't know if the foregoing has anything to do with the real topic of this post or not, that topic being the differences I notice in my perception and feelings since last weekend's Zen retreat. When I wrote The Empty Well I was exhausted, frustrated and venting. Even at that time I realized that my Buddhist practice had probably been changed for all time, in one way or another. Now, four days later, some of the effects of the retreat have had a chance to settle out, and I am able to state with some certainty that the change was for the better. Now I am totally and completely and permanently enlightened. Hehe. Just kidding folks; I forget some of you don't know me, and sudden enlightenment is not something I believe in. I just think that maybe I learned something that is helping me be more comfortable with my life at the moment. I don't know how long it will last, nor do I think that such a thing is knowable.
It's not just the retreat. In part it's just getting older and going through more experiences and getting perspective. Lately I've been surrounded by death and sickness. My father has been diagnosed with prostrate cancer which the doctors and he have decided not to treat but just to watch since he is 83 and the cancer is small and slow-growing (he'll probably be killed by a jealous husband at 90). One of my aunts is dying and her immediate family have decided to turn off her pacemaker to allow her to die with her remaining dignity rather than languish in a sad state. An uncle just took my dad with him shopping to buy the uncle a new suit, which my dad assumes is for the uncle's own funeral. These older people have acceptance for the most part. But what of my generation? At the job I left in January, I have seen a man not much older than I brought down by his bad habits and failure to face reality, failing to do what he needs to do to live meaningfully, gulping down prescription drugs by the handful and ranting about pot-smokers and queers. Another "sober" drug addict is willing to go on prescription psychotropic drugs (always a good idea) to avoid facing the consequence of her mother's death. So we aren't doing so well. And what about me? I'm 48. Is the cyst on my shoulder a cancer that will metastatize and eat me alive? Stay tuned for the next episode of living-and-dying.
I do know that in the last couple of months, especially in the last week, my perspective on life has changed in a way that makes it much easier for me to deal with. First, I take the whole thing less seriously, and more seriously at the same time. We are here for our limited time. We don't go on after we die. What you see is what you get. So you'd better make the most of it. It is what it is. Go on, live the best life you can, but it's not what you do, it's how you do it. You know what's right; you know what's wrong. Doing what's wrong won't take you to hell but it can sure as hell make life more complicated. You won't be able to avoid suffering for it, right here and right now. Nothing can be avoided. Better to face it head on. A fastball has just been pitched at your face; you can try to catch it, or you can run and get hit in the back of the head. Your choice.
I don't worry about what other people's beliefs are, as much. If people need illusions to get through life, let 'em have 'em. If they are happy that way, if they die with their illusions intact, good for them. They won't be thrown into hell at death for picking the wrong religion; they won't get 10,000 virgins for picking the right one. I do zazen because I feel a need to confront reality, and because it makes my life better and works for me. Zazen is not in some instruction manual from God. It is something that someone figured out that worked for him, and it works for me and for a lot of other people who are similarly inclined. Just because it works for me, and because I felt good about helping some other people this last week, I am willing to share if anyone asks. But if you don't ask, I won't suggest it. You have to find your own path.
As for the Christians, don't try to convert me and I won't try to convert you. That's the polite way of saying it, isn't it?
So thanks to Brad and Yuka Warner, to the Nashville Zen Center, to my dad and his extended family (and by further extension, mine), and to all my friends who have, by positive and negative examples and inputs, brought me to where I am at this moment. And to Ms. Johnson who insists that she has achieved satori. Here's blogging at you.