Thursday, October 20, 2011

On Practice

I am listening to the opening Kyrie in Bach’s Mass in B Minor.  I recommend cranking up the volume, because that first ecstatic Kyrie lifts you right out of your body, right out of your chair. 

Maybe it is the elevating nature of this music, but I feel really strong and grateful for my practice.  But what is my practice exactly? One usually thinks of specific practices like meditation, chanting, or reading the sutras.

But it is clear to me that my practice is much more than that. It is my whole self, not some separate thing that I do.  Suzuki Roshi gives the analogy of walking in the fog.  You don’t notice the fine water drops, but when you get inside, your coat is drenched.  All those years of my practice, and I feel as if my coat is drenched. 

This is really difficult to explain.  To use another analogy, I have been looking for and seeking the light for so long that the light has filled my body without my knowing.  By light I do not mean some spiritual or “holy” light from outside myself.  I don’t really think in those terms.  I mean that it is my own light, my own love, and that it has taken permanent residence.

My teacher Norman often says that practice is not a self-improvement course.  Recently he said,

"We do practice not to improve ourselves or fix ourselves.  Nothing needs to be added; nothing needs to be improved.  We practice exactly because of the appreciation for our lives, and we know that being what we ae, we want to do that.  That's our true expresseion and makes us whole."

It is almost impossible to believe that we don’t have to fix ourselves, but the spirit of his words, for me, is that practice is my expression of who I most fundamentally am.  The person I am both includes, and does not include, disease.  I feel strong and grateful for the “not disease” part.

So I am grateful for my life of practice.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Friendly Beings

Monday I took my second dose of Methotrexate, my weekly dose of poison to retard rheumatoid arthritis.  I have a new friend in the Everyday Zen sangha, Nancy Welch, who has had RA most of her life.  It is a great testament to her character that she is a very funny person.  In reference to the whole buffet of semi-toxic meds, she said, “As Dorothy Parker once said (and I recall this every time I have to try something else) ‘What fresh hell is this?’  But hey, without Zen, I'd probably be quoting Sylvia Plath--so I consider myself on the up side of pessimism, ya know?”

The day after taking this dose, I am in bed most of the day with deep fatigue.  Lying in bed doing nothing, not sleeping, is new for me.  After all, when you are in bed, aren’t you supposed to be sleeping or at least messing around?  So boredom sets in.  Finally, as a last resort, I actually decide to do some practice.  There is a line in the Metta Sutta that says, “Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all one's waking hours,practice the Way with gratitude.”  So I lie there following my breath and sometimes thinking of the millions who will not ever get out of bed.

I also do a visualization from a tape that has a guided meditation for those with RA.  There is imagery of friendly beings above you, sending you love.  They drape you with a soft blanket of healing.  Now, I listened to this tape pre-RA, and I was kind of cynical, not being a person to imagine friendly beings draping things.  But now, I will take all the help I can get.  I imagine the smiles of my friends, most especially that of Chris Fortin, who smiles with her whole face.  It really is quite wonderful, and it does feel healing.

I feel the intentional sending of thoughts of well being from my teacher and sangha.  So, here, now, I wish to express my love for all the friendly beings who are practicing with me, side by side, wishing me well.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Gift of Momentary Seeing

In the last few days, there have been moments when I am seeing things differently.  I looked across the street, and the arms of the evergreens were crisscrossing and swaying to the rhythm of the song I was listening to, Chambermaid Swing.  Not just uniformly swaying in the wind, but actually dancing to the rhythm.

This morning the leaves on the trees outside the zendo were vibrating with white lights.   Near the zendo door, on the tallest stalk, was one pink rock rose facing the sun.  It was a ray of enthusiastic light leaping out to me.  It was saying, “Good morning!  Here I am!” 

This kind of seeing is almost hallucinatory.   These lights and visions are like a flash and then gone.  I don’t know why this is happening – maybe an unknown side effect of Methotrexate.  But whatever the cause, it really is grace.  It is the grace of a moment of beauty that pierces through the truly gloomy and dark experiences of being sick with active rheumatoid.

I think that these flashes of dancing in the trees, the brief piercing beauty of the rock rose, are possibly glimpses of things as they actually are – of thusness.  For me they feel as a gift, somehow, given hand-in – hand with the suffering.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Gratitude to be Alive

Last night I held four, small, purple pills in my hand – my first dose of Methotrexate to treat my rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  I knew I had to take them, but I was frightened, because it is a very potent drug, used only in very serious conditions like RA and cancer.  I went online – not always the best thing to do – and I saw that it can cause death, lymphoma, kidney or liver failure, and so on.  There should be a label on the drug with skulls and crossbones, which says, “For God’s sake!  Don’t take this medicine!”

Why would I do this?  It always comes down to no other choice.  One morning I woke up, and I was like a stone woman.  I could not get up or down from a chair or walk without involuntary cries of pain.  I was shocked that my right hand did not work, and I could not hold a piece of toilet paper.  My body was no longer my own.

The week before, when I could feel the RA coming on, I told my Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, “I am not suicidal, but sometimes I think death wouldn’t be that bad.”  For the first time I thought that death was not a tragedy.  Such is the wonderful relationship between teacher and student, that Norman inserted a little message about gratitude for being alive in the middle of his talk on forgiveness that he gave yesterday. 

When you think about life in a dispassionate way, what a fantastic thing it is to be alive in the world!  It’s a beautiful world.  The sun shines.  All these little details that are so bright and pure and beautiful…Of course there are problems and things happen that we don’t like, but at least we are alive to feel all that.  That itself is a fantastic thing, that we could feel joy and sorrow, happiness and sadness.   This is a fantastic thing, that if any one of us thought about it, we would be celebrating every minute.

This morning in zazen I felt sick and discouraged.  As I followed my breath, I deliberately focused on how great it was to take the in-breath after the long exhalation.  When you are dead, well, there is no in-breath again.  How deeply, deeply precious it is to take the next breath.  A fantastic thing, really.