Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Lighter Side of Practicing with Pain

My disease, my very own disease, is rheumatoid arthritis.  I imagine a little cartoon time bomb in my genome.  Daffy Duck is in the foreground, putting his fingers in his ears (does Daffy Duck have fingers?) and waiting for the bomb to explode.  It exploded about four weeks ago.

The wonderful thing about Kaiser is that I had all the tests and x-rays and consultations on the same day.   I was sitting in the Injection Room to have a TB test. There was a cartoon showing a large heron with a semi-squished frog in its bill.  The caption was, “Hang in there.”  Although I have seen this slogan many times, I looked at it with fresh eyes – probably because I was not so sure that I wanted to hang in there.  What I hadn’t noticed was that the frog was strangling the heron with its front leg.  “Oh, it’s not so hopeless as it seems,” I said to the technician.  She replied, “It works both ways.”  Pause.  I then saw that it was at least an even match.

To my credit, I have limped to our little zendo, off the courtyard of St. Edmunds every morning.  This morning I realized it was Rosh Hashanah.  The Coastside Jewish Community uses the sanctuary and grounds for Jewish holidays. [Down with the Christian props and up with the Jewish.  Isn’t much of religious practice theatre?]  I was sitting in the zendo alone and uncomfortable.  Then I heard laughter and songs and voices rising and falling.  I thought of the sparkling water flying from the bow of a boat, rivulets of light.  I heard a man say merrily, “Make a wish, and then pass through the gate.”  There were cries of delight, over and over.  So I got up from my serious zazen and peeked out the door.  Two jugglers were making a portal with flying bowling pins through which children would run.  What a joyous occasion.

So yesterday zazen was a torture session.  Today I am delighted to hear the joy of celebration.

Coming, going, coming, going.  Ever-changing.  Suffering, delight.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Practicing with Pain ~ part one

In the last four weeks, I have had an onset of pain so debilitating that writing this is one of the few things that I can do.  Onset of rheumatoid arthritis.  An ongoing car wreck.

The only way to practice with pain is to endure it.  No frills, no expectations, nothing nice about it.  When you are in pain, sometimes that is all there is, blotting out all other thoughts.  Your world becomes contracted to the location of your pain - in my case, my entire body.

Maybe practice is my pain, but what does that mean anyway?  How can practice be anything  but our lives?  It is not some metaphysical icing added on to make our lives “spiritual” or pretty.

I have learned that the best thing you can do for your pain is practice zazen.  The worst thing you can do for your pain is practice zazen.  It is the best thing because there is the possibility of consciously entering into your pain so vividly that exploration is possible.  Maybe there is a way out, or at least some relief. But since zazen is being with your body and its sensations, pre-existing pain is torture.  There you are, right there, with no place to go.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Offering and Allowing

“You can practice these words on your cushion this week.  When you breathe in and breathe out, you can practice offering.  You can say that word to yourself, and make your sitting an offering.  Sometimes if it seems like your sitting is difficult, you can breathe in and breathe out, and just say “allow.”  Practice the word “allow” and feel what that is like in your whole body.  To allow.  To offer and allow.”  
~ From Norman’s talk Offering and Allowing.

These words of my teacher Zoketsu Roshi are deeply significant to me.  Often I will sit on my cushion, and when alone, open my arms and hands upward to offer myself – just an open-ended offering to great presence and expansiveness.

But, although I have offered myself on my cushion, I have never considered the “allow” part.
My offering is always in terms of “What can I do?”  Allowing love has had an unconscious price tag.  “If you love me, I will have to be worthy of it.”  There has not been an experience of freely allowing myself to be loved.  Freely given love – how radical!

When Norman spoke about allowing, he gave a new perspective.  He said that when we meditate, we can allow “freshness.”  To me this means dropping all expectations of what meditation should be.  Dropping all the ways in which I contextualize and frame experience.  Experience is not new or fresh if we constantly filter it through our limited minds.

Because it is easy to view sitting or meditation as something apart from our daily lives, we frame our meditation in terms of our religious tradition.  In my case, I see myself as a Buddhist and therefore do not have to deal with that uncomfortable word “God.”  So I believe that I don’t believe in God, but if I bypassed the thinking censor, I could allow a presence larger than myself to enter.

Dogen speaks of “dropping off body and mind.”  This might mean allowing a new moment of being beyond analysis.  To experience love directly as freely given.  To escape – at least for a moment – the small box of our conditioned brains.

We can offer our love to the world, and we can allow light to come in.  For one moment we might experience our simple, fundamental, and beautiful self.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Letting Go II

I am in the Everyday Zen 60 day practice period, a time in which I will intensify my practice.  For this practice period I am contemplating letting go, faith, and gratitude.

What does it mean “to let go” anyway?  I use the phrase; everybody uses the phrase as if we actually know what it means.  It cannot mean to let go, as if you were clinging to a tree branch and you just let go and dropped to the ground.  In life it is not so clear or simple, or, perhaps, even do-able.  How do you let go of life-long habits or ways of viewing yourself? How do you let go of adult children?  Not possible – and may not even be desirable – in the case of your children.

Somehow we feel if we let go, we won’t suffer.  The Buddha’s enlightenment came about when he realized that desire is the source of suffering.  So what do I desire, fundamentally, at the heart of things?  I desire for things to be not as they are.  I desire to have perfect health.  I desire to have my child do as I want him to do.  I desire that Fox News stop broadcasting lies and perverting whatever national intelligence that we have left.

I desire to hold on to what I love and avoid that which causes me pain. 

What if I could see life as a giant popcorn-maker?  “What a beautiful sunset!” Pop – it’s gone.  “What a hurtful comment.”  Pop – it’s gone.  “Wow! I just got a big tax return.” Pop – it’s gone.  Maybe it comes down to accepting each beautiful moment of your life as a gift, and then letting go.  Accepting the grief or loss in this moment, and then letting go.

Maybe the intention to live freely, spontaneously and joyfully is like the impossibility of the Bodhisattva vows that we chant:

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

We know this is not only impossible but absurd.  But we vow to do it anyway.

Maybe the prescription to let go of every moment is impossible, but we are determined to do it anyway.    Or, at least, we can practice it over and over again.