Housekeeping of the Heart (written 2010)
My first retreat under the guidance of a Theravadan nun. You would think, maybe, that this would not be so unusual when I'm accustomed to the instruction of monastics, but the flavor of this retreat is unique.
When Ayya instructs she has a gentle humor and a soft voice. The microphone provided for her has a dead battery so in this room of some 20 people it takes full attention to hear her. She tells us to be courageous, determined, adamant! She speaks of holding the breath and touching it like a blind person. Getting to know it with that kind of intimacy.
At meal time Ayya sits on the floor with her alms bowl for lunch in a corner of the room. We kneel around her for the blessing in sing-song English and then leave to get our own food in the cafeteria.
The days fill with long hours of sitting practice. With weariness increasing I watch my own doubts in my capacity arise and resolve not to hug them to me, but to watch them and let them dissolve in the passing of this moment and the next. I know how my capacity to come to terms with suffering, how my ability to love well and to move outside of ego have all been strengthened by practice. Serenity and wisdom? These too in time perhaps. I am moved by Ayya's sincerity and humility. Watching her...the fine, long-fingered hands, the quick and fleeting smile, the certainty and kindness in her manner, I am struck by yearning. Not envy. Her teaching and example are gifts and I am grateful to be here. The yearning pulls me like gravity more surely to this path.
Ayya uses a helpful metaphor: Just as a carpenter cannot see how the print of his hand is wearing away the wooden handle of his hammer, day by day, still he will notice when it has worn through. Keep up the practice and do not be despondent at seeing no fruits day by day. The hindrances are worn out through continuous effort, the growth of mindfulness and inward awareness.
Be aware of the workings of the mind. Seeing the wanting. The self-pity. The obstacles that arise. Ayya talks of turning a spotlight inward...watching... “what am I thinking?” And sweeping ego out of the picture. I imagine a poster I could make for the refrigerator door, a visual to keep this front and center, the sweep of a broom in a circle of light.
My share of the world's suffering is little enough. I smile thinking of what's become a joke my husband and I share when we're faced with disappointment. How he told me once decades ago to “Buck up!” Not the words I wanted to hear having confided some complaint about the world. He's a Zen master in the making, I think now, whether or not he knows it. Ayya's way is gentler. Sweeping the self away, the issue itself is gone. We create the problems in claiming them, in taking every disappointment as a personal assault.
I carry these thoughts to the labyrinth, reciting metta verses in this simple walking meditation. Beginning the second stanza of a familiar verse I find a word just gone. “From this protected place I send loving kindness to all those for whom I feel...” There is a mental blank. The word untraceable. The beginning of the next line waits: “To my family, friends, teachers...” and I know the missing word is one that indicates fondness and bonding but my mind keeps tossing up “aversion” or “animosity”. No. I see suddenly how I have been angry. Life's ordinary disappointments, accepted and signed for as mine, have been piling up, a barricade holding closed the door of my heart. I ask simply for an open heart and hold that thought through the walk.
Back sitting I begin the chant again and there it is:“affinity”. The word is there as if it were never gone. I feel an involuntary smile. Affinity with all beings. All of us who are imperfect, who suffer. Who try our best, take a step forward, and a step back, and keep on trying. The smile and the thought open a space. This space is the opening of the heart. A little light, a little lightness. This path requires balance after all, balance between the gravity of yearning and the lightness of an open heart.