Zen Retreat (written 2005)
I want to catch some impressions and reflections...not quite halfway into this amazing pause in my life. I think of a physics book on time I'm working through at home with no little difficulty. The world not existing in linear time as we're accustomed to seeing it, but as single “nows”. I feel that I've stepped into a “now” so different from those I live in...I've moved for a short while into a parallel life.
Six women living together in a silent community in this house-temple. A rhythm of sitting, studying, writing, eating, working. Personal bundles of bowl and mug and knife, fork, spoon, wrapped in a cloth napkin, used for each meal and washed and re-bundled by the user. Perhaps things go so well because of the silence. No chatter, no music in the background. My hips and knees and ankles are already stiff and sore but I walk out what I can in kinhin (walking meditation) and stretch in the short intervals of free time.
The open-eyes of Zazen are new to me. The teacher explains this as training. Not retreating behind closed eyes but maintaining mindfulness as we gaze at the world...though the world is just the empty carpet in front of us. Once my body is settled, it is happy. It is moving again after a long time that brings sharp awareness of pressure points and strain. Sometimes touching the breath is easy. Watching thoughts. Letting them go. Sometimes it is very difficult. A spiritual itch begging for escape. Sometimes I am drowsy and that is hardest of all.
“What am I doing here?” I've thought this surprisingly little. I miss home. I have trouble at night, just before sleep, thinking especially of my youngest child, his still little-boy scent and voice calling for his bedtime song. Yet, I sleep well. Odd. I never do sleep well away from home, from my place and my bed. Ah...maybe that's it. This, too, is my place. I'm here because this is where I want to be. No. This is where I felt I had to be.
“What am I doing?” I am sitting on the floor. Legs stretched after so much cushion sitting. Trying to keep the pen moving. But not hurrying. Not hurrying. How much of life is lost in hurry? How many stubbed toes, fingers closed in gates, snarled hair brushes and lost keys? Yet, the flow of the brain seems to push for hurry. Thoughts in a steady stream, doubled up and riding tandem. Like preserve jars on basement shelves. What's behind those dust-free new ones up front? What's in the moldy, leaky jars at the back, the ones forgotten, where the writing has faded on the labels and the year is smudged and the contents questionable. Yes, that's what I'm doing. Trying to peer that deep, nudge the front jars aside, the bright and shiny new preserves, the ones I serve the company. And find what's back there where the spiders live.
“Fear,” this teacher says. That could be my koan. What I need to seek and face. “Lean into the spears,” says Pema Chodron, in a book I dipped into last night. Lean in. Peer through the dark. Risk reaching to the back of the self. Lip curled. A bit disgusted. And, yes, afraid. I want to touch it only with my finger tip. I need more grip than that to bring it to the light. OK. What's there? Fear of losing? Fear of loneliness. Fear of harming or being harmed. Fear of mistakes. Some bell rings in the back of my mind. I like to leave doors open. Room for escape. Just touching the jar means I can withdraw if I like. But once it's in my grasp then I'd have to drop it. That's messy.
Fear. What does it look like? Like biological specimens more than preserves. Something faceless and formless floating in the jar. Yet I must look closely. Do I also need to eat my fear? To take it in. Digest it. Understand it.
Fears? Here's one: How, outside of this cocoon of retreat, can I maintain this? Be who I am. This beings that feels more me than any I've been. But that's my task. Not to change others. But to maintain this. Knowing that alone will bring change around me. And it is frightening not to know what this will mean. How will it alter the familiar? I am afraid of losing this. I am afraid of losing that. I create the fear as an image in my head to haunt me. A tiger I paint on the wall, one proverb says, then crouch afraid of what I've made.
I wish I knew where this was all taking me. I wish for peace. For peace more than love or anything. For peace and contentment. Kindness, more dear than love, for too often we are unkind even to those we love the most. I wish I could carry this space with me inside. This centered feeling of being balanced and whole amidst the chaos of life.