Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A small piece of training

I felt like I finally understood one thing on Saturday morning. It may be a comprehensible example of what I’m learning (or maybe not, but it’s worth a shot).

We’ve been working on making our buildings more energy-efficient. As part of this, we had an on-demand water heater put in to the kitchen at the Zendo building (the main temple building). I didn’t anticipate how long it would take to get hot water, nor how much the water pressure would be decreased in the process. I went to mop the kitchen floor during temple cleanup time before Saturday breakfast, and found that it took quite a while to get water for the mop bucket, and it never did get hot, nor did I have time to fill the bucket. I mopped the floor with cold water, and less of that than I would have wanted ideally. It worked all right, I suppose, but wasn’t what I would consider optimal.

We’re going to have a week-long retreat in March, and I have been told that I will be assistant cook for that retreat. I began to think of filling tubs for dishwashing at every meal, general cleanup, filling kettles for cooking, and thought I’d better say something.

So I brought it up at breakfast, expecting a response like, yes we’re working on that, or I didn’t realize, let’s try to fix that. Instead the response I got was that this is all part of increasing water use efficiency, and is evidently an intended outcome. I was aghast. I found myself feeling pretty frustrated, and heard myself say with some agitation, “we’re going to be heating water on the stove!”

As I said it, I could hear the anger in my voice, and could tell that I was getting carried away. “Too much,” I thought, and started to try to end the conversation. At that moment, Gyokuko (co-abbot and one of the teachers) said, “That’s enough. That’s a little over the top,” which verified what I had just realized. I was able to say “sorry,” and drop it right there.

A trivial matter, maybe, and a lot of people wouldn’t see that I had done anything so terrible, nor my apology as anything so wonderful. A few may think I should have stuck to my guns. In any case, there are some significant things about this incident.

One is that last year such an exchange would have been devastating to me – in fact, a few similar exchanges did devastate me – sent me into a tailspin of depression that lasted a few days or more. This one occupied my mind for a day or so, and many feelings came up, but none of them overwhelmed me. I was able to stay with the incident in a way that was actually useful – paying attention to what happened, the source of my anger, honoring my emotions without being ruled by them.

Second, I was gratified that my perception was congruent with that of the teachers. Gyokuko confirmed my reading of the situation rather than pointing out something I hadn’t seen yet. That tells me that I’m beginning to get a glimpse of what we’re doing here.

Third, we’re taught to bow in these situations. That embodies contrition. This time, it involved saying “sorry” and letting go of my own position. What I’ve done in the past was either to defend myself by going on the offensive (which I had started to do here), or flip over into self-blame, feeling humiliated, not only that I made a mistake, but that someone saw me make a mistake and furthermore commented on it in a public way (our breakfast table generally has anywhere from 6-14 people, mostly residents but also other members of the lay community who join us). This used to send me into a downward spiral that made me feel bad and ultimately made it impossible to do anything with it, leaving me defeated and unable to take any kind of responsibility for it at all (feeling like it’s all hopeless).

I was able to realize that what happened there was that I had an expectation that didn’t get met, and then I took a position and was trying to defend it. That put me into a rigid space and didn’t allow me to move with changing conditions. We say about anger that it involves contriving reality for the self. What I was able to do over the next day was to see that this is what I was doing, and that I need to be able to work things as they really are. It took a while, and with practice, maybe I’ll get quicker at it. The response I was able to come up with is the culmination of a lot of work over the last two years. I may fall into this same trap again, though Kyogen (my teacher) assures me that once you’ve found this kind of space, experienced this kind of freedom, it’s easier to return to it.

The work continues, of course. And there are certainly plenty of other lessons to learn. One of the joys of this training is that it’s never really finished. Training involves several aspects. Explicit teaching – dharma talks, reading of sutras and commentaries, face-to-face meetings with the teachers. Daily life exchanges like the one I’ve just described. Long conversations with fellow practitioners exploring the roots of these kinds of responses to situations that come up. Plus hours of sitting meditation.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Roller Skating, Gay Tea presentation, and more

Well, I intended to write an update last Monday, but was just wiped out. I'm marginally better today than I was last week, so we'll see what comes out.

Two weeks ago (January 21) I went roller skating at Oaks Park, where you may remember I broke my wrist last August. I was going to go with a friend, but she got sick and so I went by myself. It was fine. In some ways it's easier by myself, because I could just focus on making sure I was doing this skating thing, not on what anyone else might see. There were a lot of people there, mostly adult. It was part of a monthly Gay Skate, where people bring a can of food for a local food bank and get a slight discount. I did see a couple of friends from our Gay Tea group, and we got to talk about the presentation we were then planning for Equality Day, January 27. I finally got tired and went home after about 1-1/2 hours of skating. I will go back some time, probably not this evening.

Sunday, January 27, was Equality Day (the sponsoring organization, the Community of Welcoming Congregations, called it Equality Sabbath, which didn't quite work for us, so I changed it). 60 congregations around Oregon and southwest Washington participated in some way. When I first heard about it last summer, I thought it might be an excellent excuse for our Gay Tea group to do the panel presentation we'd been talking and thinking about for several months.

It came off very well. The trick was to make sure we had some dharma teaching in there, not just to have it be all about gay people, but to have it be applicable to anyone. And in fact, we've been working in the group to have our discussions relevant to dharma teaching as well as relevant to our lives as gay folks. We had a pretty good mix of people speaking, both in terms of who we are and what we talked about, and also in terms of how we presented things. One of the things we talked about was the coming out process, which is includes elements of transformation and the deconstruction of the self, a way of re-envisioning our lives so we can live more authentically in the world. This is something we talk about in Buddhism. There was a nice balance between personal sharing and sharing of information (history, psychology, etc.). There is much more that could be addressed, of course, but we made a good start, and were well received. Our abbot would like us to pull our notes together for an article in the newsletter, which I'm working on.

That Sunday was very busy, so not everyone could get to the presentation. There was Dharma School, so we had a fair number of our staff working with the kids. Many of the parents were downstairs at a Parent Group (which also went well, I understand). The presentation was recorded, and if you want to hear it, let me know and I can send you the link to download the MP3.

This last week has been busy as well. I've been a little depressed (getting tired of winter, I expect), but still keep moving forward, and it's all fine. I do know how to sit with things. We had the first Dharma Council meeting, which is a new entity in our revised organizational plan, and that went well (I'm on that one). I do think the new Mandala organizational structure is beginning to work, though it still has various bugs in it that need to be worked out. It's interesting to watch, in any case.

Yesterday was the end of our fall term, with a special ceremony. Next week we more or less begin spring term, so there's not really a break there. We stay on our regular schedule (except for a month when we ramp it up slightly starting April 12) from now until mid-May, after Denkoe retreat. Then we begin to gear down until we go on summer break in June.

I'm still sitting meditation at 6am every day, even on my day off, and I enjoy that (most of the time -- once in a while I wonder why on earth I'm doing this, but usually I realize that it does make a difference to how my day goes). This morning I took a longish walk to go buy a ticket to a concert this Saturday evening, and then went to the library. After brunch, I went across the street to do some sewing, and have a bunch of hand sewing that I will take up the street to my room. This evening I will probably alternate between sewing and reading, or possibly focus on one or the other. The choices!